Based on the1936 novel by Klaus Mann, the film charts the rise of an actor – Hendrik Hofgen – who sells his soul to the devil (or his incarnation in 1930s Germany, the Nazis) – to become the most celebrated actor of his day, and ably depicts the price he ultimately pays for fame and fortune under a repressive regime.
Hendrik Hofgen (portrayed in a barnstorming performance by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a thinly veiled take on the German actor Gustaf Gründgens, Mann’s former brother-in-law and an actor whose career flourished under the Nazis. As for the film’s title, Mephisto would have immediate connotations to the average German, as it’s a reference to the devil in Germany’s most famous classical play, Faust. In this play the devil Mephistopheles manages to tempt Faust into selling his soul to him. Gründgens went on to play the role several times and garnered many plaudits for his interpretation of the role. Faust’s pact with the devil means Mephisto will do everything that Faust asks of him while on Earth, and in return Faust will serve the devil in Hell. In the film Hofgen sells his soul for fame and success and in return does everything that the Nazis ask of him, thereby serving the devil in the hell of Nazi Germany.
The film and book deal with a theme that was later to occur again and again in post-war German literature – that of the Mitmacher – the fellow traveller, the person who, though maybe no Nazi himself, went along with what was going on either through moral cowardice or out of self-advancement, fear or greed, and in the process refused to admit what was really happening around him. (To read a novel dealing with the Soviet perspective on this theme, Bulgakov’s Master and Marguerita is a must, and generally regarded as one of the best Russian novels of the 20th century).
Hendrik Hofgen however goes one step further and ends up being a mouthpiece for the Nazi government and a poster boy for “German” culture. The film poses a difficult question. What should an artist do in this situation? Should he carry on and create art as Hendrik feels he should, should he leave his homeland, as many German artists did and were forced to do, Klaus Mann among them, or do, as the writer Erich Kästner did, and “internally emigrate” – that is stay in Germany but not work as an artist.
Hofgen is clearly faced with a dilemma. For an ambitious actor to rise from working in a provincial theatre to becoming Germany’s answer to Laurence Olivier takes not only talent but an immense amount of drive and ambition. Hofgen clearly has both in spades. To then have to throw that away and start again, more importantly in a language, which is not your native tongue, is clearly not appealing. It’s hard to be a classical actor with an accent. I’ve performed in French in France and was handicapped by the fact that French was clearly not my mother tongue. As such, you are mainly stuck to playing comedy. Let’s face it, no one is going to take a King Lear or Hamlet seriously if he sounds like he’s a character from ‘Allo, ‘Allo. And with a German accent, an actor such as Hofgen may well have ended up like fellow German actor, Conrad Veidt, a vehement anti-Nazi, who ironically ended up playing them in Hollywood movies such as Casablanca.
Your first image of Hofgen is of him going mental at the thunderous applause being given to another actor, the star Dora Martin. (After all nothing annoys a performer more than the success of his fellows!) Hofgen is frustrated at being a provincial actor. Presumably as an outlet for his artistic frustrations, he is also having a masochistic relationship with a black German woman, Juliette. In real life Gründgens was gay, something which Mann couldn’t openly allude to in the novel, given the times he was living in; and hence has him susceptible to this particular “social faux-pas” instead.
At the beginning of the film Hofgen has communist leanings and is involved in creating what he considers a new type of theatre for the people, a workers’ theatre. At one point when fervently describing this new theatre or “total theatre”, as he ends up referring to it, and how the conventions of the past should be torn down, his speech and mannerisms are reminiscent of that arch demagogue, Hitler. Whilst enjoying the freedoms of the Weimar Republic, Hofgen has no qualms in talking about the responsibility the artist has towards his fellow man. Towards the end of the film Hofgen gives a similar speech but this time referring to the new Nazi idea of German “volkstümlich” theatre, proving that old adage, if you go too far to the right or too far to the left, you eventually end up in the same place. (Volkstümlich is hard to translate exactly in English, it roughly translates to ‘of the people’, traditional, folksy, popular).
Hofgen soon meets and marries the wealthy and well-connected Barbara Bruckner who he later criticises for her attempt to befriend his Nazi colleague, Hans Miklas. The accusations he makes against Barbara could just as easily be levelled against the Weimar Republic itself whose laissez-faire liberal attitude – or as Hofgen puts it, its bourgeois tolerance – the Nazis were ruthlessly to use to their own advantage.
That Hofgen himself is ruthless is made clear by the way he insists, at a time of massive unemployment, on the immediate dismal of Miklas after they have argued in public over Lotte Lindenthal, an actress and mistress of a leading Nazi functionary, the General. Hofgen’s future moral cowardice is then signposted in the way he walks away when he chances on a gang of Nazis beating up a Jewish man in the streets. He reassures himself that it’s just a couple of drunks messing about. After all, if he had intervened, he no doubt would have been beaten up too. The scene encapsulates the problem people faced in Nazi Germany and why so many just looked the other way – fear.
Eventually Hofgen is invited to appear in a guest role performing alongside the star, Dora Martin, by the Professor, presumably an allusion to the then phenomenally successful Austrian director, Max Reinhardt. Hofgen becomes a star of the state theatre though still doing his bit for the communists. He then gets to play the role of a life time – Mephisto. We catch him mid-performance in the scene just after the devil (Mephisto) has asked Faust to sell his soul away by signing the contract in blood.
The question for actors in Hofgen’s position however is: if you are performing for a regime, such as the Nazi’s, are you too selling your soul for the price of fame and fortune? Do you inevitably become tainted and corrupted by association? In recent years, this is the question that a lot of sports stars have been faced with; whether to represent a county they love but whose regime they may not approve of. By choosing to continue to perform, are you just doing what you were born to do or do your actions endorse the regime, and are you then complicit in giving credence to that regime?
This scene is quickly followed by the arrival of the Jewish star, Dora Martin. She has seen the writing on the wall, and is learning English so she can go and work in America. She is in no doubt that despite being the darling of thousands, her popularity will soon fade once the Nazis are in power. Hofgen can’t understand this, as he so prosaically puts it, there will always be theatre no matter who is in power.
There’s a brilliant scene which encapsulates many of the themes of the film when Hofgen is informed by his wife that Hitler has come to power or as Hofgen refers to him “the Austrian cabaretist”. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Hofgen does not seem to appreciate what is happening around him. This is in sharp contrast to his wife who realises his tussle with the Nazi Miklas may have repercussions.
Hofgen’s response to the news of Hitler becoming chancellor is to assume that the left will deal with Hitler possibly via armed resistance. Hofgen states that political events have not got anything to do with him, and moreover that they won’t affect him. As far as he is concerned the whole situation is irrelevant. “After all I’m an actor. I go to the theatre at night. I play a role. As best I can. Then I go back home.” His wife counters that others will realise the implications; they’ll understand that an artistic life under such a regime is not possible; and that you can’t use being an artist as an excuse to ignore what’s going on around you. Hofgen ripostes that all that’s happened is that there have been elections and one party has won, and that’s after all what happens in a democracy.
His wife refuses to accept that Hofgen doesn’t realise the significance of the events that are unfolding around them (and it’s ambiguous as to whether he doesn’t or is simply fooling himself). When Hofgen then refuses to answer the phone and pointedly says “I’m not here”, his wife rebukes him for burying his head in the sand. She insists that he should do something whereupon he replies that his response is Hamlet and Shakespeare. His wife accuses him of deluding himself and that he can’t hide on the stage behind Shakespeare, and he either has to make a stand or leave. It’s here that Hofgen makes an impassioned plea for the artist who just wants to carry on creating regardless. He states that as an actor the only freedom he knows is through acting. And as an actor the tool of his trade is the German language, and that the work he creates transcends time. Whereas his father-in-law’s books can be translated and his wife can paint anywhere, as a German actor he needs the German language, and he needs to remain in Germany, his homeland in order to have somewhere where he can perform.
Later when his Communist comrade Otto Ulrichs appears urging immediate resistance and to demonstrate against the dictatorship, Hofgen again uses the excuse that he’s just an actor and he’d prefer to remain as back up. Hofgen’s self-absorption is epitomised when he sums up this fateful day with the words: “Thank God, I don’t have to perform tonight”. A line that could easily have been taken out of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic film To Be or Not to Be in its depiction of the vanity of actors as the Nazis march into Warsaw.
Hofgen is thrown a life line when the Professor offers him a film role in Hungary. During filming the Reichstag is burnt down and Hofgen is told his family have fled abroad and numerous close friends have “disappeared” including Otto Ulrichs. He’s warned that the Nazis have had blacklists for years and that he and his wife and her father are on them, and that on no account should he return to Berlin. The Professor confides that he too has no plans to return to Germany and had specifically chosen Hofgen for filming in Hungary so he too could quietly disappear. Hofgen makes plans to go to Vienna.
Thanks however to the intercession of a former colleague, Angelika Siebert, who speaks on his behalf to Lotte Lindenthal, Hofgen is able to safely return to Berlin. Lotte, ironically the woman he castigated in his argument with the Nazi Miklas, is now a woman of influence being the paramour of such a major Nazi bigwig as the General, clearly modelled on Göring. Lotte feels Hofgen is a major artist. Convinced that Germany cannot afford to lose such a great talent, she assures Angelika that the slate will be wiped clean and Hofgen can return and carry on as before.
This is too tempting an offer for Hofgen and he returns to Germany. His ego and ambition have got the better of him, but it’s not an entirely black and white portrait of him (helped immensely by the charm and charisma of Brandauer himself). Hofgen takes in a colleague fleeing from the authorities, though before doing so, he does suggest, perhaps not too subtly, that if he were in that position, he might opt to kill himself! He also intercedes personally with the General for his communist friend, Otto Ulrichs. Although admittedly he is now on friendly terms with the General, it still takes some gumption on Hofgen’s part to plead on behalf of a known communist.
Hofgen uses his new found influential friend, Lotte, to get himself the role of Mephistopheles in the latest production of Faust. During the rehearsals for Faust, we see Hofgen and the Nazi Miklas rehearse two important scenes from Faust. In one scene “Der Geist der Medizin ist leicht zu fassen“ Mephistopheles is tempting a student to give up learning and live for the moment and to exploit his skills to enjoy the more baser aspects of life. In the other scene they rehearse “Ich bin aus hier aus kürzer Zeit und komme mit Ergebenheit“. Here Mephistopheles appears to Faust but refuses to say directly who he is when asked. Faust realises however that he is the Devil. Faust understands he is dealing with Evil but is still tempted to work in league with him. Comparisons with Hofgen’s own situation are obvious.
During the performance of Faust, Hofgen is congratulated by the General who compliments him on having the perfect evil mask. The General also remarks that the trick of actors is to show spirit and power when they are in fact weak individuals. This moment of hobnobbing with the General during the interval in full view of the mesmerized public is the point when Hofgen stops just performing under a dictatorship, but sets off on the path of becoming one of its foremost artistic mouthpieces. His friendship with the General soon has him representing German art and German theatre at an international press conference and talking at an exhibition of German sculpture. When confronted by Juliette about attending Party events, Hofgen claims that anyone in his position would have gone, had they been asked, and if they say they wouldn’t have, then they are lying. He even defends the General claiming he’s a nice bloke and that he understands something about theatre and is not as petty as the others.
Ironically Miklas now wants Hofgen to sign a petition against the regime, while Hofgen has now become the establishment’s leading actor. Miklas, the former Nazi, has become demoralised with the regime and has resigned from the party. Hofgen refuses to sign the petition or even read it. If not an admirable move, it does prove a wise one, with Miklas soon arrested by the Nazis and summarily executed. It is reported back to the theatre that Miklas has been killed in a car accident. When confronted by a colleague with the absurdity of such a claim, Hofgen gives one of the worst performances of his career, claiming why shouldn’t it be an accident, and that they are after all not in a “bad play” and that the regime has no need to bump off an insignificant actor, clearly knowing, having seen Miklas being taken away by the Nazis, that is in fact exactly what has happened.
We also get an insight into how Hofgen is manipulated by the General to do the regime’s bidding. On the one hand he is told he needs to write his biography and offered the position of artistic director of the Prussian State Theatre. At the same time the General brings up his past with Russian bolshevist theatre and his wife’s activities. Now living abroad, his wife is actively agitating against Germany by printing an émigré newspaper. The General makes it clear that Hofgen has no option but to divorce her. He is also warned in no uncertain terms that he has to end the romance with Juliette as he’s committing Rassenschande (racial defilement), a serious crime under the Nazis. Hofgen acquiesces immediately. His only saving grace is that he negotiates safe passage for Juliette out of Germany. Once agreed, the General has him again doing his bidding by asking him to speak at a press conference about theatre at the French Embassy. Hofgen does have pangs of guilt and questions himself but they don’t last long, and he is soon reassured by his colleague, Nicolette von Niebuhr.
Hofgen is in his element in the role of artistic director until he realises he now has to employ actors simply on the grounds that they are blond and not because they are talented. He is also handicapped by the plays he can put on. The State only wants German theatre but what the State defines as German theatre is so restrictive, Hofgen has little choice in what to schedule. After all, most of the decent contemporary German authors have emigrated and their plays are banned. Those playwrights of any quality that have remained aren’t allowed to write or refuse to do so. And the lunacy of this state-imposed policy is that works by Schiller, Germany’s national poet, are also banned. This may not be so surprising given that Schiller’s Don Karlos has the Marquis von Posa referring to freedom of thought and Die Räuber (The Robbers) dissects evil and depicts a corrupt society where honourable men may be forced to live outside the law. Ironically while Schiller is banned, the English playwright, Shakespeare, is now regarded as a “volkstümlich” author as far as the Nazi regime is concerned.
While visiting Juliette in Paris, Hofgen concedes he may be really talented but is also cowardly. He craves success. However he is not entirely spineless. He stands up for the stage hands whom he has been asked to sack. At the same time he knows what side his bread is buttered on and picks up flyers scattered around the theatre deriding the Nazi regime, and soon shushes Ulrichs when he makes an anti-Nazi statement.
Another great scene is when Hofgen meets his ex-wife, Barbara in a Parisian café. Barbara doesn’t understand how he can still live in Berlin. He replies he lives in the world of theatre. She points out that this theatre is still in Berlin and moreover he has even sworn an oath to Hitler. Hofgen denies he swore an oath and that all he did was just move his lips. He adds that someone has to preserve the values for a better world. Not surprisingly, his idea on how to preserve these values is for him to direct (and play of course) one of the greatest roles in world literature, Hamlet. He makes a pretence he will do this despite what the regime thinks, although he knows full well that Shakespeare is acceptable to the regime. His wife claims that this is just window dressing. Hofgen insists he’s married to the theatre. He justifies what he is doing by claiming he can help others in need and that there is nobody better who can replace him. Barbara is not fooled. He might be helping people but it’s just gestures to friends. It doesn’t change the fact he’s really acting as window-dressing for the regime, thereby sugar coating what they are doing. She points out that he’ll never be able to walk away from this. On the defensive, Hofgen remarks that you can’t choose the times you live in, and not everyone can emigrate. He claims it’s his duty to stay in Germany, so he can watch the people and portray them, and that art can rise above it all. Do you need freedom or just success and love, she asks. He replies success as that comes with love. Later on looking round Paris he asks himself. “Freedom. What for?”
Hofgen’s ability to justify his actions to himself is very human. He argues that real art will always remain true and pure. He may feel better for justifying out loud why he is doing what he is doing but he clearly has problems convincing himself. This scene is swiftly followed with him interceding yet again with the General on behalf of Otto Ulrichs who had been arrested two days previously. This time the General makes no secret of what he really thinks of him or his place in the grand scheme of things. Who do you think you are, the General asks. You’re just the artistic director of the State Theatre and goes on to tell him he should be more concerned with his own affairs than mingling in those of a traitor. Hofgen is then unceremoniously ordered out of the General’s office. Again to his credit Hofgen still tries to intercede via Lotte Lindenthal, only to find out that Ulrichs is already dead, having apparently “committed suicide”. Hofgen’s argument that he works with the regime so he can help some of its potential victims is shown to be totally spurious.
At the end of the film, Hofgen is caught in the cross lights in the middle of a massive auditorium. Brought there by the General, for the first time in his life Hofgen is trying to run away from the lights but they follow him wherever he goes. The film ends with him, almost blinded by the lights, saying: “What do they want from me? I’m just an actor”.
Mephisto is a great movie not least because it has a great story, great characters, a fascinating back drop and an amazing lead actor. It also doesn’t fall into the trap of depicting Hofgen as some one dimensional character. You understand why Hofgen does what he does even if you don’t approve of it. The film strikes a chord as no doubt many of us, when faced with a similar situation, might well have done the same thing. Many of us are, at times, tempted to go down a path where we either don’t see or refuse to see the possible repercussions. It’s after all very human. And Hofgen is at heart very human if not very admirable.