When you study the long, infuriating, and infuriatingly long careers of the Third Reich’s major creative figures, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the public doesn’t give a shit about art. The propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl were invaluable weapons for the Nazi Party of the 1930s, but after the war she was charged with no crime and by the 1970s she was photographing Bianca Jagger and winning plaudits from the Times. Albert Speer, Hitler’s close friend and favorite architect, spent twenty years in prison for his role in the war effort, but within a few years of his release he was a BBC guest and a bestselling author. All of which seems to reflect the conventional wisdom that artists are enjoyable but basically ineffectual — easy to excuse for their involvement in war and genocide because said involvement is, by definition, minimal.
This conventional wisdom is especially ludicrous in the case of the Nazis, given that film, architecture, fashion, sculpture and the elaborate choreography of the rally weren’t incidental parts of the Reich but its very essence. The actor Gustaf Gründgens was, at various times in the fifteen years leading up to the fall of Berlin, the artistic director of the Prussian State Theater; a friend and confidant of Hermann Göring; a scene-stealing bit player in Fritz Lang’s “M”; the Führer’s favorite leading man; and quite possibly the most sensational Mephistopheles to grace Berlin stages since Goethe finished “Faust.” In spite of his innumerable close ties to the most ruthless Nazis, he spent the postwar years in West Berlin, playing famous parts and basking in international acclaim, seemingly without an ounce of guilt. His last words, scrawled on an envelope before he died in 1963, were, “I think I have taken too many sleeping pills, I feel a little odd, let me sleep.”
István Szabó’s 1981 film “Mephisto” is, after a fashion, a life of Gründgens. It is also, despite being an Academy Award-winning movie about the Holocaust, very good. Much of its goodness lies in the skill which Szabó prods and jerks his Gründgens-esque protagonist — Hendrik Höfgen, played by the wonderful Klaus Maria Brandauer — into revealing what the real Gründgens never did: anguished self-awareness. In the film’s final, dreamlike moments, Hendrik staggers into a Speerian arena, and a pale, pitiless spotlight nudges him down the stairs. It’s unclear if he’s about to be cheered or executed by firing squad. His talents have deserted him; his pretty face projects nothing but babyish helplessness. After years of strutting and soliloquizing for his Nazi patrons, he’s reduced to a one-sentence defense: “I am only an actor!”
Yes, and Speer was only an architect, and Riehenstahl was only a filmmaker. The truth, as anyone who’s made it this far can’t help but see, is that Hendrik provides a crucial part of the totalitarian con job, the velvet glove that beautifies Hitler’s bloody fist. In keeping with its main character’s point of view, “Mephisto” is one of the rare films about the Reich that show more velvet than blood, its runtime a slow, often nauseating slather of dinners, balls, luncheons, and cast parties. Szábo shows just enough violence to explain why he doesn’t show more — early on, when a pack of Nazis beats up a Jew, Hendrik mutters, “drunken idiots!” and walks on. It’s a strange and strangely effective staging, and as scenes of this kind slowly accumulate we realize that Hendrik isn’t missing the Nazis’ acts of barbarism but choosing to ignore them.
There’s another reason for the film’s restraint. Szábo adapted “Mephisto” from a 1936 novel by Klaus Mann (Thomas’s son); when Mann was finishing his book, Germany hadn’t yet invaded Poland. Kristallnacht was still three years away. The Reich’s evil was already apparent to many, but its worst deeds lay ahead. Accordingly, Mann’s subject wasn’t evil itself so much as the slow, cheerful descent thereto. His frog-in-boiling-water protagonist, modeled on Gründgens in all but name, initially collaborates with the Nazis because they seem harmless, then because he deludes himself into thinking he can save his friends, then because it’s the right career move, and finally because he’s gotten this far and might as well go all the way.
Nobody could deny that Mann knew his subject. As young men, he and Gründgens had been close friends, and in the late 1920s Gründgens had briefly been married to Mann’s older sister Erika. Both Mann and Gründgens were attracted to men; it’s even possible that they slept with each other. Both had passionately denounced Nazis in the days when it was still legal to do so. When Hitler took power in 1933, however, Mann fled Germany while Gründgens stayed behind and reinvented himself as the embodiment of Fascist rigor, patriotism and sexuality. Reading “Mephisto,” one senses not merely moral disapproval but a stronger, more painful sense of betrayal — Mann raking his old friend over the coals because he thinks he knows how easy it would have been to say, “No.” (The motif of hidden homosexuality is remarkably well-represented in fictions about Fascism, from Visconti’s “The Damned” to Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” but Mann doesn’t dwell on this aspect of Gründgens’s private life—in novel and film, Hendrik is strictly heterosexual.)
When Szábo introduces us to Hendrik, he’s midway through a tantrum. A popular actor tied to a regional theater, he’s skilled but unfulfilled, and in a profession where youth is everything his opportunities for fulfillment are rapidly running out. He tells anyone who’ll listen about his plans for a Bolshevik theater — “I’ll bring the stage to the people!” — but even early on we suspect that radical politics are a means to an end, a way of guaranteeing success at all costs. Hendrik’s fortunes improve shortly after the Nazis win control of the government; he is summoned to Berlin, where he rises quickly through the acting ranks, partly by being the best man for the job and partly by charming the right wives. The more eagerly Hendrik seduces his way to the top, the more he allows Germany’s new elite to seduce him.
The moral drama of the film’s second half rests on the broad shoulders of a remarkable German actor named Rolf Hoppe, whose character, a Nazi official referred to only as “Prime Minister,” is clearly modeled on Gründgens’s real-life friend Hermann Göring. Hoppe makes the Prime Minister a quiet, soft-eyed herbivore, attractive to Hendrik because he’s an ideal audience. He nods along with Hendrik’s pompous speeches, showers him in praise and money, calls him “Mephisto” with a gentle smile that barely hides contempt. In return, Hendrik gladly bends his performances to suit the needs of the state. By the film’s end he’s holding long, nonsensical press conferences about how his new production of “Hamlet” will “bring the stage to the people” by presenting the hero as the ideal Fascist man of action.
That Hendrik, more Faust than Mephistopheles, has sold his soul for worldly glory is a reversal that will be lost on no one who’s paid attention for the last two hours, and even someone who stumbles into the theater with fifteen minutes to go should be able to recall that Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane was supposed to be a man of inaction. “Mephisto” is at its least compelling in moments like these, when it slathers itself in irony to reward viewers for knowing simple things about history and literature. At least some of this can be blamed on Mann’s novel. Mann wrote:
I visualize my ex-brother-in-law as the traitor par excellence, the macabre embodiment of corruption and cynicism. So intense was the fascination of his shameful glory that I decided to portray Mephisto-Gründgens in a satirical novel. I thought it pertinent, indeed, necessary to expose and analyze the abject type of the treacherous intellectual who prostitutes his talent for the sake of some tawdry fame and transitory wealth.
Shameful, treacherous, tawdry, transitory — isn’t there something a little self-serving about this passage, even if it’s right on the main points? Klaus Mann wrote prolifically and without much success; the little acclaim he got reminded him how much more he felt he deserved. He seems to have despised the Nazis and — at the same time and with equal force — envied his ex-brother-in-law for winning their hearts. The ferocity with which he prosecutes Gründgens recalls, strangely enough, the way the Safecracker, the gangster Gründgens played in “M,” prosecutes Peter Lorre’s child killing villain — the obvious guilt of the accused obscures the dubious mixture of rage and revenge and bad faith in the accuser.
This isn’t to suggest anything like a moral equivalence between Mann and Gründgens, only that there’s a moral difference between recognizing that Gründgens committed an act of evil and punishing him with heavy-handed satire. As Mann begins his novel, Hendrik is already secure in his status as the Third Reich’s favorite actor, cheered on by patrons who secretly despise him. It’s a long, clumsy scene, so overdetermined in its view of the characters (even the Nazis hate this guy!) that we wonder why we need to keep reading. By opening on the final stage of Hendrik’s seduction, Mann inoculates us against empathy or identification of any kind — you get the sense that he is flattering his readers’ moral intelligence as a way of celebrating his own. A quote from the film critic Luc Moullet comes to mind: “on fascism, only the point of view of someone who has been tempted is of any interest.”
“Mephisto” the film gets a great many things right that its source gets wrong. Not least of all, it pushes us to feel some of the temptation Moullet hints at — i.e., to identify with a character we can’t help but regard as a sniveling toady. As Hendrik, Klaus Maria Brandauer wavers between likeable and grotesque, sadistic and clueless, jaw-droppingly brilliant and merely perfect. His face is a cipher of smirks, twitches, and raised eyebrows, and he’s possessed of a rich physical vocabulary, pirouetting around the stage in one scene and rolling around on the floor with his mistress in the next. By design, Brandauer’s charisma does not quite dominate the screen. He’s playing something close to but not quite the same as a leading man, and the gap between his character’s reach and grasp is a finely calibrated miracle.
Brandauer’s reward for all this, as is often the case with talented, thick-accented heavies, was to become a character actor in high-grossing English-language mediocrities like “Never Say Never Again” and “Out of Africa.” (He, too, surrendered to temptation.) But in “Mephisto,” he forces two painful realizations: first, that the horrors of the Third Reich were only possible because of oblivious, narcissistic cowards like Hendrik Höfgen; second, that, under similar conditions, the vast majority of us would be standing cheek to cheek with those cowards. Any number of popular films from the past ten years have sparked debate about the degree to which we’re supposed to see ourselves in the characters. One unspoken premise of these debates, as they usually play out online, is that empathy and condemnation are mutually exclusive and opposite responses — that if you walk out of “The Wolf of Wall Street” despising Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, you must, by definition, be incapable of feeling any affinity with him. “Mephisto” suggests that it’s never that simple, not in art and certainly not in life. Hendrik’s temptation is repulsive and alluring both—it’s hard to imagine an apter lead in a film about fascism.
“Mephisto” is currently playing in revival at Film Forum.
Jackson Arn is a contributing critic for the Forward.