Hey, it’s an actor’s life. Art may be immortal, but the bills still have to be paid. One minute you’re playing Hamlet, the next you’re doing voice-overs for MacDonald’s. Ask Klaus Maria Brandauer. In 1981 this Austrian-bom actor gave the performance of a lifetime in István Szabó’s film Mephisto: in 1983 he was the “evil Largo” in Sean Connery’s James Bond comeback vehicle, Never Say Never Again. The year 1985 saw Brandauer back in form as an astounding Emperor Nero in the Italian remake of Quo Vadis: and back out of luck in ’86 as a Sylvester Stallone stand-in in a Cold War Rocky remake called Streets of Gold. Is the trajectory of an actor’s career ever an even one? One recalls an already-knighted Sir Laurence Olivier lusting after maids in The Betsy, a trashy version of a Harold Robbins potboiler, and the recently- respectable Clint Eastwood co-starring with an orangutan in not one, but two films (“A beer guzzling, country music- loving truck driver…and his orangutan travel to Colorado in pursuit of the woman he loves” said the entry in Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever).
I’ve forgotten what Klaus Brandauer was like as a James Bond villain, but I won’t forget his performance in Mephisto. Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s film is about an actor’s life and its warped trajectory. Unfortunately for the central character, an ambitious provincial actor who hits the Big Time in prewar 1930s Berlin, his costars are not orangutans. They are National Socialists. And while Clint Eastwood demonstrated that orangutans have a great sense of humour, the same has never been established for the Nazis. Mephisto demonstrates better than any other film I know how easily ordinary people can drift into evil through apathy, ignorance, compromise, fear, confusion or vanity. Actor Hendrik Höfgen (Brandauer) is not a particularly lovable human being—he’s a womanizer, vain, as politically-committed as a Gallup Poll—but he’s not a demon. He is genuinely loyal to his friends, he works hard at his profession and is devoted it, he wants to be liked and respected. Höfgen’s problem is that he fails to realize that a time may come when personal success is guaranteed by blood on others’ hands. Höfgen’s own wife, who flees Germany when she realizes what is happening, asks him: “What does freedom mean to you? Do you need it to live, or do you just have to be successful and beloved?”
He has no answer. He’s tried his best not to think things through that far. If you can avoid asking yourself the right questions, and avoid hearing them from the mouths of others, you can concentrate on your art. Leave politics to the politicians.
Yeah, sure. Because Höfgen is basically a decent human being, he can’t avoid the questions. He knows the world around him is rapidly becoming very, very wrong. What he manages to sidestep are the answers. He runs through a litany of excuses that must have rung out loud and clear through much of Germany, Austria, Italy, and occupied France, Holland, etc. before, during, and after World War II:
Excuse #1—”I’m doing what I want…I’m going to play Hamlet regardless.”
Excuse #2—”I didn’t take the oath—I only moved my lips.”
Excuse #3—”By staying here I can help other people who are in trouble.”
Excuse #4—”If I leave, nothing better will replace me.”
Excuse #5—”An entire country can’t just emigrate. Someone has to portray their country—there are decent people here!”
Excuse #6—”I’ve never been interested in politics—why now?….I’m an actor. I play my roles— pretty good—then I go home.”
Contrast the above with the real-life example of German director Fritz Lang, who said that, when Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, asked him to direct & supervise Nazi cinema, he knew it was time to leave. Reversing the narrative of Mephisto, Lang’s own wife, novelist Thea van Harbou, stayed behind, divorced him and took up Goebbel’s offer.
Höfgen’s finest moments are in the theatre itself. His genuine love of acting earns him the affection of his wife, his mistress, and several colleagues. “Am I not an incredible rascal?” he declares with endearing relish. His most shameful moments are those where his vanity opens him to the manipulations of a ruthless Nazi general, who treats him with the ugly, false solicitude of a pederast for his bewildered victim. Told by the general that he has a limp handshake, Höfgen spends days practicing his grip on a hotel bedpost, pathetically eager to be one of the boys. Told that he’s looking for sympathy from the devil, Hans replies, sincerely, that he’s sure the general’s a really nice guy, and that he knows a thing or two about theatre besides. What more could you want from a fellow, even if he is a Nazi?
I recommend watching Mephisto in conjunction with an early novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Mother Night tells the story of an innocent nobody who innocently makes the wrong decisions and innocently becomes involved with the wrong people and innocently takes the wrong jobs and innocently becomes a Nazi hero & spokesperson—and is ultimately forced to take his own life for crimes against himself. Vonnegut wrote Mother Night in 1966; and it stands with Catch-22 as one of the funniest/saddest novels of our time. Vonnegut’s opening lines apply perfectly to the lessons of Mephisto:
“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply
happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we
pretend to be.”
Hans Höfgen could have used that advice. And I sometimes think that some of the individuals responsible for current rock videos, video games and other popular entertainments might also take those words to heart.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Once again, I’ve struck out on finding a copy of the film for my follow-up review. I could have sworn I had a VHS tape around somewhere, but no dice. While the selection of e-books becomes more and more impressive, it’s amazing how many worthwhile films remain unavailable through services such as YouTube and iTunes. Please check back in later.