Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto (1981) is one of the definitive accounts of the links between art and politics. The movie is set in Nazi-era Germany and traces the rise of an actor and director who is celebrated for performing Mephistopheles on the stage. Hendrik faces a tussle similar to the one between the doctor Faustus and the devilish Mephistopheles when he is offered promotion and lucre by the Nazis. Hendrik knows he has sold out, but justifies his increasing subservience by shrugging, “I am only an actor.”
This study of the manipulation of soft power for authoritarian ends works in any society facing the question of the role of the artists in tough times. Should the artist stay silent? Speak up – and if so, for whom? Mephisto warns that speaking lies for power can be far more dangerous than speaking the truth to power.
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