Mephisto (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film studies the life of an actor during the rise of Nazism in Germany, and asks about the social responsibility of performers. In addition, it attempts to question, once again, how a handful of thugs could have gained control of a modern democracy, and to what extent their power was solidified by a vast quantity of opportunists among the general population who were simply trapped into an offer they couldn't refuse. In this case, refusal to co-operate with the Nazis could have caused the actor to be killed, to work in poverty, or to emigrate to a country where he could not speak the language (virtual death for an actor). Co-operating could assure him the highest level of success, complete control of his productions, and a luxurious lifestyle. Millions of Germans were faced with this same type of choice, on their own personal scales.

The lead character, Hendrik Höfgen, is said to be the leading actor in all of Germany. He was even an enthusiastic participant in Bolshevik theatrical productions when he was a young regional actor. As the Nazis take over first the government, then the arts, Höfgen gradually allows himself to have no opinions and no personality at all when offstage. His liberal wife leaves the country by her own choice. His German-African mistress leaves the country by the choice of the Nazis. His friends and colleagues disappear mysteriously. They all implore him to emigrate, but he stays on. 

His logic is this: I am an actor. This is my life. I only speak German. Without the German language I cannot act.

In effect, he has a choice of being the best actor in the German language, or being someplace where he does not act at all, and/or does not even speak the language. He reasons that every other government has been bad, and the Nazis are no worse. (In reality, economic conditions did start to improve dramatically once the Nazis expelled the Weimar government, and started ignoring the Treaty of Versailles). So Höfgens begins to act in officially approved productions, and then is even nominated by the Nazi cultural minister to be head of the National Theater. His career goes well, but he must have that career at the expense of his friends, his family, and his personal beliefs.

The Hungarian director was said to be using the Nazi situation as an allegorical way to levy a criticism at his own countrymen who stayed on in the arts in Hungary after Russia crushed the 1956 uprising. Those who left felt that those who stayed were in fact collaborators with an unjust and tyrannical regime bent upon destroying Hungary's cultural identity, thereby facing the same ethical dilemma as the actors who stayed on to perform in Nazi Germany. Perhaps Szabo had that in mind, perhaps not, but the film has been interpreted broadly be many people according to their own personal beliefs. I have also heard people say that it was a metaphor for the 60's generation which abandoned their ideals to get their Porsches and tax shelters in Reagan's America. Whatever. The film is open-ended, asking more questions than it answers, and taking the time to show the pro's and con's of the actor's decision to stay, as well as his regrets about doing so. 


Karin Boyd is naked in a sex scene with Brandauer, in which they begin with dance instruction, and he tosses her around stark naked, exposing pretty much every crevice to the camera. 

She is topless again later in the film, when they have a reunion in Paris. 

  • This film was the first of several in a collaboration between the noted German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, and the most famous Hungarian director, Istvan Szabo (director of 2000's "Sunshine").
  • It is based on a novel written by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. 
  • It is loosely based on the life of a real German actor, Gustaf Gründgens, and the General who promotes the actor's career is a thinly disguised version of Hermann Göring, right down to the baby-blue uniform and the interest in the arts.
  • The film was awarded the Oscar as "Best Foreign Language Film" in 1981

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.77:1, enhanced for 16x9 screens.

  • no meaningful features

I have to say that I was very disappointed in this DVD. It is an excellent film in many ways, but I don't recommend owning it. In addition to being virtually devoid of features, it has two major problems.

First of all, the image quality included a lot of interference and pixillation, and was just not very sharp.

Secondly, the DVD played 3/4 of the way through on my DVD-rom drive, then I could not play the last six chapters on either WinDVD or PowerDVD. I was able to finish the film only by popping it into a stand-alone DVD player. I have never encountered this problem before.

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews on line

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.8, high enough to attain classic status if it gets more votes and maintains the same level. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. A good movie. A solid film for the subtitle set, but at 144 minutes in German, it is not likely to have a lot of mainstream crossover appeal.

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