classic film

Five-star cinema: Istvan Szabo’s ‘Mephisto’

This enduring study of the tricky relationship between power and the performing arts is told through the gradual sellout of a gifted actor.

A period drama from 1981 about Nazi-era Germany speaks to our times, and that is both a testament to its brilliance and a sad statement.

Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s study of the tricky relationship between power and the performing arts begins where it ends: on the stage. Hendrik Hofgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is one of the stars of the Hamburg theatre scene in the 1930s, but he chafes at being a “provincial actor”. Like any respectable self-aware entertainer, Hofgen acknowledges his insatiable craving for recognition and success. When his dance teacher and girlfriend, Juliette, tells him that he only loves himself, and “even that is not enough”, he does not feel insulted.

The trailer of ‘Mephisto’.

The lines between the real and the performed have long been blurred for Hofgen. “So many thoughts are just parts I’ve played,” he tells his future wife. Hofgen’s facility for self-deception will get full expression in Berlin, where, despite his declaration that “all Nazis are thugs”, he accepts a position at the prestigious state-sponsored theatre. His performance as Mephisto in a stage production of the famous story of Doctor Faustus and his soul-destroying deal with the devil brings the theatre to its feet and catches the eye of prime minister Tabornagy (modelled on Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler). Tabornagy summons Hofgen to his box, shakes his hand and comments on his limp wrist, and blesses Hofgen’s talent as the entire theatre watches in awe.

In a regime obsessed with symbols and semantics, there is no clearer indication of Hofgen’s acceptance. He has been anointed as one of the Nazi Party’s cultural ambassadors. From practising a firmer and more manly handshake to managing the Prussian State Theatre as per the prime minister’s orders, Hofgen will deliver the finest performance of his life. The German word for actor, schauspieler, literally translates as “one who plays”.

Szabo’s adaptation of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel of the same name raises troubling questions about state patronage of the arts that resonate beyond its specific political context. Mephisto can be quoted every time a cultural personality lobbies for a Padma Shri or a government position, assumes a nationalist stance instead of speaking to power in troubled times, denounces dissenters as traitors, and abandons skepticism for cheerleading.

Can art ever be divorced from politics? Szabo, one of the leading figures of the Hungarian New Wave and no stranger to state control, delivers an unambiguous yet complex answer to the question. Hofgen is not merely a state apparatchik fulfilling his boss’s orders. His profession is implicated in his choices. Szabo suggests that the vanity, insecurity, ambition, constant need for validation and dependence on financial support and patronage that characterise the acting profession make it especially vulnerable to manipulation and corruption.

The movie doubles up as a psychological study of an actor, and rests on Klaus Maria Brandauer’s indelible performance. Brandauer portrays Hogfen as a restless soul who’s brisk in gait and generous with his hand gestures. Szabo uses close-ups beautifully, and when the camera rests on Brandauer’s mobile face, the price of his sellout becomes glaringly clear.

Brandauer assumes subservient body language when dealing with Tabornagy and struts about semi-drunk on his elevation at all other times. In a montage of scenes after he takes over as the state theatre director, Brandauer wittily conveys Hofgen’s self-imposed predicament. He is oleaginous with his staff, dutifully flirtatious with his secretary, servile with Tabornagy, and tortured only when no one is looking. His wife has divorced him and fled to France, and his girlfriend Juliette, a black German, has paid the price for the colour of her skin, but Hofgen soldiers on. When he finds anti-Nazi pamphlets in his theatre, he personally removes every single piece of incriminating paper and burns them. It’s a miracle that he doesn’t swallow the ashes.

The avuncular-looking Rolf Hoppe is also superb as Tabornagy, as are the several Teutonic blondes who applaud Hofgen’s mercurial rise. Mephisto is a cautionary tale of moral compromise, told from within the core of a cultural class that unblinkingly signs up for a fascist cause. As high art becomes kitsch and inevitably propaganda, Hofgen wonders, “What do they want from me? After all, I am only an actor.” The answer is contained in the self-deceiving question itself.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

When did we start parenting our parents?

As our parents grow older, our ‘adulting’ skills are tested like never before.

From answering every homework question to killing every monster under the bed, from soothing every wound with care to crushing anxiety by just the sound of their voice - parents understandably seemed like invincible, know-it-all superheroes all our childhood. It’s no wonder then that reality hits all of a sudden, the first time a parent falls and suffers a slip disc, or wears a thick pair of spectacles to read a restaurant menu - our parents are growing old, and older. It’s a slow process as our parents turn from superheroes to...human.

And just as slow to evolve are the dynamics of our relationship with them. Once upon a time, a peck on the cheek was a frequent ritual. As were handmade birthday cards every year from the artistically inclined, or declaring parents as ‘My Hero’ in school essays. Every parent-child duo could boast of an affectionate ritual - movie nights, cooking Sundays, reading favourite books together etc. The changed dynamic is indeed the most visible in the way we express our affection.

The affection is now expressed in more mature, more subtle ways - ways that mimics that of our own parents’ a lot. When did we start parenting our parents? Was it the first time we offered to foot the electricity bill, or drove them to the doctor, or dragged them along on a much-needed morning walk? Little did we know those innocent acts were but a start of a gradual role reversal.

In adulthood, children’s affection for their parents takes on a sense of responsibility. It includes everything from teaching them how to use smartphones effectively and contributing to family finances to tracking doctor’s appointments and ensuring medicine compliance. Worry and concern, though evidence of love, tend to largely replace old-fashioned patterns of affection between parents and children as the latter grow up.

It’s something that can be easily rectified, though. Start at the simplest - the old-fashioned peck on the cheek. When was the last time you gave your mom or dad a peck on the cheek like a spontaneous five-year-old - for no reason at all? Young parents can take their own children’s behaviour available as inspiration.

As young parents come to understand the responsibilities associated with caring for their parents, they also come to realise that they wouldn’t want their children to go through the same challenges. Creating a safe and secure environment for your family can help you strike a balance between the loving child in you and the caring, responsible adult that you are. A good life insurance plan can help families deal with unforeseen health crises by providing protection against financial loss. Having assurance of a measure of financial security for family can help ease financial tensions considerably, leaving you to focus on being a caring, affectionate child. Moreover,you can eliminate some of the worry for your children when they grow up – as the video below shows.


To learn more about life insurance plans available for your family, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.