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Thread: MEPHISTO (István Szabó 1981) virtual cinema release

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    Jul 2002
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    MEPHISTO (István Szabó 1981) virtual cinema release



    An actor ground in the wheels of a grand didactic film

    Kino Lorber is providing a "virtual cinema" re-release, in a glittering new 4K restoration, of Hungarian director István Szabó's Oscar-winning 1981 first "international" (German language) film Mephisto, first in a trilogy about moral cowardice starring the Austrian-born actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. This is the spectacle of an actor, Hendrik Höfgen (Brandauer), originally allied with leftist causes, who becomes the puppet of a major Nazi general and PM (Rolf Hoppe) in order to continue as an actor and leading theater director in Berlin under the Nazis. It's adapted from the 1936 novel by Klaus Mann based on the real actor Gustav Grundgens, who became the toy of Hermann Göring, after becoming famous through his performances as the diabolical devil in Goethe's Faust. There are lots of different scenes and nice recreations of the styles of the Thirties and Forties. Brandauer is an energetic but shallow actor: no moral struggle seems to be going on.

    Pauline Kael's May 17, 1982 New Yorker review offers numerous criticisms. She faults Szabó for beating down a straw man since Höfgen is somebody "we know from the start is an opportunist," and she asks why all the scenes where Höfgen is shown acting are so inexplicably "pedestrian"- including his performances as Mephisto, which are underwhelming, except for the creepy white-face makeup. She points out the film hints the actor is gay, but too weakly to make this aspect effective because the filmmaker wants to make the character universal but seems to wind up making this an attack on all thespians, as if, for him, "the only good actor is a dead actor." Moreover she suggests Szabó has so little theatrical flair he sabotages his whole subject.

    On the other hand she sees Branduaer as attractive (more than I do) with his "gleaming cat eyes" and a "seductive impish smile" that sometimes gives "a flash of a devilish Albert Finney." She describes his character as appearing to be "an enfant terrible," a "baby-faced killer-genius, like the young Orson Welles." As I said, he is an energetic actor. He hasn't Welles' charisma and appeal. I like his dancing in the early section. It's surprisingly nimble since he's rather fleshy. I'd have liked more about his spiky relationship with his half black German mistress Juliette (Karin Boyd), with whom a surprising dancing, brawling, and sex scene occurs. The relationship is already said to be more than is provided in the source novel, but expanding it further would have made Höfgen less a blank.

    This is not to say there aren't good scenes in this long film. I like the one in a sunlit cafe in Paris between Hörgen and his ex-wife Barbara Bruckner (Krystyna Janda), where she damns his helping of associates as a mere gesture, and he argues back. It's a little off the wall. On the other hand it's also the film talking a little too much about itself. As Kael says, it spells everything out, which then, for us, the subtitles spell out even more. Meanwhile as another prominent contemporary reviewer, Janet Maslin, wrote in the Times, this film is "both less and more" than the director's New York Film Festival film (as was this one) in the previous year, which was a two-hander, the "small, delicate" 1980 Confidence, and this one is relatively speaking all over the place, its diffuseness also a factor of international production (with a considerable amount of dubbing, sometimes over-obvious) as well as a more complicated story. In her clear and forthright way, Maslin declares this a "handsome film" that's "often quite stylish" and "very well played" but "lacks an essential clarity." What we're meant to feel about the protagonist is never really clear, so as Kael says we eventually wind up 'feeling for the guy' though that isn't exactly what was intended.

    It's notable for visuals. Not such a superb eye. But that Paris Cafe, the street, a park; exquisite images of a small theater from both directions, stage and audience. Women in gowns and high heels and rhinestones. The notable crowd and party scenes, which may remind you of Visconti.

    When Mephisto finally gets good (a little late) is in the last twenty minutes, when dear Hendrik finally starts to realize where he is and what he is, that despite his seeming importance as head of the national theater and best known actor in Germany, he has no power to set policy or to save his associates deemed "dirty," and can be "crushed like a bug" by his 'friend' the general, who was so chummy at a party a little later. The grand finale is pretty grand, with no shortage of epic Third Reich symbols. The "limelight" finale as Kael says, fizzles a bit - but not entirely. There have been moments. This is a gaudy bauble well worth contemplating.

    Mephisto, 144 mins., premiered Feb. 1981 in Hungary and debuted in May 1981 in Competition at Cannes. Also featured at Figueira da Foz and Sept. 1981 at the NYFF (when Maslin saw and reviewed it), it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the 1982 Academy Awards. 4K restoration watched for this review on a screener from Kino Lorber Screening Room for the Apr. 10, 2020 Laemmle Virtual Cinema debut.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-16-2020 at 11:11 PM.


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