Hungary Magazine

CineClub: Mephisto (1981), by István Szabó


Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Mephisto (1981), by István Szabó.

Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó’s award-winning Mephisto (1981), based on Klaus Mann’s sensational novel of the same title, is a ruthless political drama told through the eyes of a talented German actor who sacrifices his moral scruples to boost his career during the cavalcade of the Nazi dictatorship.

The director’s remorse?

Widely acknowledged as one of István Szabó’s masterpieces, Mephisto is arguably one of the most international well-known and celebrated Hungarian film productions of all time.

With Mephisto, István Szabó directed the first and only Oscar-winning Hungarian film until László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2016), nearly forty years later.

The movie follows the acting career of Hendrik Höfgen (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer), a young, Bolshevik, German theatrical actor, and his self-centered, opportunistic character development to satisfy his appetite for success at the time of the rise of the German National Socialist Party.

One of the main questions surrounding the movie is what motif influenced Szabó to use Klaus Mann’s Mephisto as inspiration, and what led him to adapt a highly-charged political novel in the later years of the communist regime in Hungary.

The path of Höfgen, a puppet in the German political environment, shows some slight similarities with Szabó’s own personal history.

During the early years of the communist regime, Szabó collaborated with the Hungarian secret police as an informant, reporting on the activities of other actors or members of the film industry. In this sense, Mephisto can be understood as the director’s mea culpa and self-criticism about his actions in the shady and controversial communist era which haunted him ceaselessly.

The director’s self-inflicted punishment and remorseful cathartic experience becomes evident in every aspect of the film: Mephisto raises the fundamental philosophical question of what kind of “Faustian bargain” or “deal” is morally acceptable for a talented artist, and to what extent the individual should remain blind to all evil powers and depraved political interests surrounding him.

Mephisto and the Faustian bargain

In the classic German legend, Faust makes a deal with the Devil’s agent, Mephistopheles, and sells his soul in exchange for the much-desired universal knowledge.

In the film, Höfgen plays the role of Mephisto on the theatre stage, while gradually losing his own identity in real life, and slowly morphing into the opportunistic Faust.

Szabó masterfully blurred the lines of the original legend and cunningly crafted Höfgen’s transformation into Faust by presenting the protagonist’s struggle to play the role of Mephisto onstage. While the productions of Mephisto go from bad to worse in the theatre, Höfgen himself becomes increasingly identical to Faust.

His weak, utterly unprincipled, and cowardly attitude is tangible when he refuses to leave Nazi Germany and emigrate to the United States, unlike his colleagues and friends.

Höfgen chooses the easiest path available and becomes the puppet of the political regime. Still able to feel remorse and regret for his actions, he utters one of the most memorable lines of the movie: “What do they want from me now? After all, I am just an actor.”

Mephisto is a critique of both the politicised community of artists and the selfish, career-driven personality brought to the point of mania. The strong political message of this compact masterpiece continues to resonate today, exposing how the artistic world can become prey – or an active participant – to authoritarian regimes and ideological purposes.

Main photo credit:

By Bence Janek

Bence is a Budapest-born political science M.A graduate, who studied in the United States and Spain. He previously worked for a government relations firm in Washington D.C., and later joined Ernst & Young Budapest. Bence is a freelance writer with expertise in the field of Hungarian and international business sectors, media, films and communication.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

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