Director: István Szabó
Starring: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Karin Boyd, Rolf Hoppe
Duration: 144 min.
Hendrik Hofgen is the star of a state-funded theater department who tires of his job. Like his friends, he pays lip service to socialist ideals fashionable for artists of his time, that is, until the Nazis' rise to power. He then sees an opportunity to achieve his objective of fame: he will perform propaganda plays and thereby use the Nazis as a vehicle to spread his name across the country. Only too late does he realize his mistake...
Mephisto is a German film by Hungarian director István Szabó, adapted from a novel by Klaus Mann. It appeared at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival winning the award for Best Screenplay, and the FIPRESCI critics award. It also won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the first and only Hungarian film to do so.The story is set in 1920's Germany and follows a small time stage actor named Hendrik Höfgen (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer in one of the finest individual performances I have seen), and parallels the legend of Faust about a man who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles. As a twist, Höfgen makes a name for himself by playing the role of Mephisto at the State Theatre, but ironically finds himself in Faustus' shoes instead, with the devil in this case being the Nazi party.
The film itself plays out rather conventionally, and Szabó's direction adequately gets the job done, not really offering any unique vision or signature to the final product. Also from a cinematographic standpoint it isn't all that impressive either, shot with a mostly dull pale palette lacking in contrast. This is a bit of a shame because the costumes and design were quite well done, convincingly bringing the era to life, and really could have been used to much greater effect. This leaves everything to Brandauer's incredible performance to lift this film from mediocrity.
He was perfect for this role, in his screen debut after a successful career on stage and television, and displays amazing emotional range and depth in his portrayal of Höfgen. The character is flawed and not the most likeable person around, but Brandauer embodies the role so well. Making him into a man who we can all relate to, as he confronts his moral dilemmas.
While not a perfect film, Mephisto is still a thought provoking character study backed by a tour de force performance from Klaus Maria Brandauer that deserves to be seen.
— Bonjour Tristesse