Cinema Quarantino, Film

CINEMA QUARANTINO: Mephisto (1981) dir. István Szabó

Now streaming on Kino Marquee


Cinema Quarantino is an ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, as selected by the film staff of Boston Hassle. To browse the rest of our picks, click here.

The Film: Mephisto (1981) dir. István Szabó

The Streamer: Kino Marquee

Most people are familiar with the German folktale of Faust and his pact with the demon Mephistopheles. Smart and cynical Faust, dissatisfied with his life, makes a pact exchanging his soul with Mephisto—the Devil—for worldly pleasures and successes. This bargain, of course, eventually ruins the lives of those around him. And, in the end, Faust himself is carried off to Hell … the terms of his bargain unfolding the only way that they could.

Mephisto, the 1981 Academy Award winner for Best International Feature Film, riffs on this well-known story. The movie follows stage actor Hendrik Höfgen before and during the rise of the Nazi party. He is a man with fluid convictions that bend towards the direction that can give him what he desires. Even if he can’t comprehend it, his every action drives him towards attaining power within German theater and love from an audience’s applause. He finds his big break through the role of Mephisto, which soon becomes an inescapable part of his identity and his image within the strengthening Nazi party. His many roles—husband, friend, lover, comrade, Nazi—begin to collide and collapse, as his masks shed one by one in his pursuit. Like Faust, it’s all too late before Hendrik realizes that the compromises he made have far outweighed whatever good he could get for himself or for others within the Nazi regime.

The movie, itself based on a 1936 novel, is depressingly reminiscent of conversations occurring now across the globe. Throughout the movie, there are discussions both in text and subtext about tolerating fascism and hatred, about doing good within an evil system, and how the normal rules of civility should work in the midst of a fascist takeover. I have my own thoughts and emotions toward these ideas, as I’m sure that you do as well, whether they’re viewed as clear cut or philosophically unanswerable. The movie, interestingly, remains firm in its perception of Hendrik and his actions, choosing to capture him as a cynical, single-minded man brought to ruin by his own self-deception. There is no ambiguity that Hendrik has made disastrous deals not with devils, but with men undertaking evil pursuits. 

The camera pretty exclusively follows Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen. It’s not so much that other characters are any less realized, but rather that Mephisto itself is a character study ultimately interested in Hendrik. Brandauer delivers a masterful performance in turn, capturing Hendrik’s internal wants and desires along with the character’s inability for self-awareness. As much as the movie concerns itself with performance and masks, Brandauer too picks up and discards “masks” scene to scene, as if they were a physical costume. It’s a truly revealing and thoughtfully physical performance– a particularly challenging one, too, given Hendrik’s many identities and underlying tension. And, although the performance is certainly emotional, Brandauer seems more concerned with this tension—how the shedding of masks and revelation of self to others simultaneously remains unknowable to Hendrik himself.

In this way, Mephisto resembles Hamlet, another iconic story woven into the movie. Shakespeare’s play is a study in deception and self-destruction, much like the German Faust. And also like Hamlet, much of Mephisto is watching Hendrik endlessly justify his actions as means to a supposedly better end, and it’s his inability to see these actions as wrong or misguided that sets the stage for his tragic downfall.

An old adage states that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but rhymes”. This is certainly true more often than not, just as much we seem to be constantly relearning lessons first taught to others long ago, from stories like Hamlet or Faust. Mephisto seems intent on helping it’s viewers not quite predict this unending poem but more so understand the metre a little better, just as much as it attempts to teach us the importance of firmer convictions in the face of evil and, more specifically, in the face of something so human as fascism.

dir. István Szabó
146 min

Now streaming on Kino Marquee

Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle TheatreCoolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.

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