Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Mephisto (1981)

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.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama, History
Director: István Szabó
Actors: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Ildikó Bánsági, Rolf Hoppe
Year: October 1993
Original Review: October 1993


Sophie & Cloe

A tiny gem of a film, by Ethan Belcourt-Lowe. A five-minute love story, set on Vancouver’s Sky Train. What the world needs now.

Before they Were Movies: The Longform guide to magazine articles that became (mostly) great films

I don’t know about great, but certainly good conversation pieces. This site offers you the original articles that gave birth to the following films: The Bling Ring, Argo, The Insider, Adaptation, Coyote Ugly, The Perfect Storm, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dog Day Afternoon, Blue Crush, and The Fast and the Furious. Here’s a quote from the latter: “Oddly, the makeshift dash cluttered with gauges — telling him everything from water pressure to fuel mixture — is missing one key thing: a speedometer. There’s a good reason. ‘When you know how fast you’re going,’ says Estevez, punching the throttle again, ‘you’ll slow down.’”

Eterna: The Epic Movie Mashup to End All Epic Movie Mashups

Every epic adventure film you’ve ever seen or wanted to see in one handy six-minute package. Strap yourself into your seat, crank up the volume, and try out your favourite battle cries. ‘Nuff said.

Films Worth Talking About:

La femme de l’aviateur, The Decline of Western Civilization, Pour la peau d’un flic, Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Ragtime, Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Elephant Man, One From the Heart, Diva, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Man of Iron, Das Boot, Pixote, Gallipoli, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Mephisto, My Dinner With André, On Golden Pond, Quest for Fire, Excalibur, Stalker, Atlantic City, An American Werewolf in London, Scanners, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits, Pennies from Heaven

The Bigger Picture

Films: Cabaret (1972), The 3 Penny Opera (1931), The Blue Angel (1930), Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Music: Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill; Charles Gounod, Faust

Books: Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Threepenny Opera; Barker Fairley, translator, Goethe’s Faust; Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night; Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning; Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler; Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin

The Word on the Street

“This film faithfully recreates the novel written in 1936 by Klaus Mann. It is a reflection of the age old temptation of Man, the story of Goethe’s Faust…. Everything in this movie revolves around Höfgen’s downward spiral into the abyss; the initial ascent to stardom was but an illusion. Mann instinctively knew that tragedy would befall his country when a pact was made between Hitler and the financial, industrial and military élites of Germany – remember the book was written nine years before that country’s downfall.”

Alain DeBonville

Another disturbing film about the complicity of ordinary people in fascism, which explores similar territory to “Cabaret”, “The Conformist”, “The Leopard” and “The Remains of the Day”. It argues that fascism demonstrates how difficult it is to separate one’s public and private roles and beliefs from politics.

neil peter huthnance

“The character of Hoefgen is a thinly disguised version of the famous German actor and Director of the Prussian State Theatre in Berlin, Gustav Grundgens. Grundgens compromised with the National Socialist authorities under Hitler to retain his role in the theatre. Others left as they did not want to be associated with the Third Reich and all its horrors. Marlene Dietrich was one such person. Grundgens remained. This film is a classic for any drama student as it shows the state of theatre in Germany before the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. It very clearly depicts theatre pre-1918 and also the early and important work of Bertolt Brecht.”


“Mephisto” has to be seen in the light of Szabo’s life. It was recently revealed he was an informant for the Hungarian government in the 50’s. In an interview he claimed to have saved himself and a friend of his from “being gibbeted”. Resemblance to Hoefgen…?…. Especially powerful is the last scene where Hoefgen is running and trying to hide from the giant searchlights of Olympiastadion in Berlin, his curved, almost crying face, and saying, “Was wollt ihr von mir? Ich bin nur ein Schauspieler.”, “What do you want from me? I’m just an actor……..”

Boris European

“The movie invites the viewer to see World War II from a seldom-explored perspective, that of the arts. We see the blacklisting of communist and jews, the decline in production of foreign playwrights like Moliére, and using culture to spread Nazi values.”


“The movie is based on Klaus Mann’s novel of the same title. Mann was part of a literary dynasty. His father was Thomas Mann, the famous Nobel-prizewinning writer of “Buddenbrooks,” “The Magic Mountain,” and “Death in Venice.” His uncle was Heinrich Mann, a no less famous writer in his day, known to film-goers as the writer of “Professor Unrat,” which became the great Marlene Dietrich film “Der Blaue Engel.”
The movie, in a way, plays out the debate that the two elder Mann brothers had about art and politics. Thomas always felt aloof from politics, ensconced in the purer regions of art and culture. During WWI, he published a book called “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man,” whose title says it all. Heinrich was a satirist, who believed that art must contribute to the betterment of society, and that it could not avoid being political. Their debate continued into the Nazi era, though to say how their minds changed would spoil this film.”


“István Szabó’s movie is based on the novel with the same title by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. There is, however, an essential difference between the treatment in the book and in the movie of the same material: the character and behavior of the actor Gustaf Gründgens, the (ex-) husband of Klaus’ sister Erika. Gustaf Gründgens had only one obsession: acting, to become the best actor and that at all costs. For the literary critic M. Reich- Ranicki, Gustaf Gründgens was indeed the best German actor of the 20th century. He excelled in the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust (see the movie ‘Faust’ shot by his adopted son Peter Gorski – one caveat: no subtitles).”