Mephisto (1981)




Director:     Istvn Szab

Starring:     Klaus Maria Brandauer (Hendrik Hoefgen), Krystyna Janda (Barbara Bruckner), Ildik Bnsgi (Nicoletta von Niebuhr), Rolf Hoppe (Tbornagy), Gyrgy Cserhalmi (Hans Miklas), Pter Andorai (Otto Ulrichs), Karin Boyd (Juliette Martens), Christine Harbort (Lotte Lindenthal), Tams Major (Oskar Kroge, sznigazgat), Ildik Kishonti (Dora Martin, primadonna), Mria Bisztrai (Motzn, tragika), Sndor Lukcs (Rolf Bonetti, bonvivn), gnes Bnfalvy (as Bnfalvi gnes), Judit Herndi (Rachel Mohrenwitz, drmai szende), Vilmos Kun (gyelt).

a German actor thinks true art can triumph even if it's the Nazis who are in charge



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

In the theatre actress Dora Martin sings for the audience, while actor Hendrik Hoefgen tries not to hear the applause.  But when Hendrik sees Dora, he praises her talent.  Hendrik is rather sad and describes himself as a provincial actor.  Perhaps to cheer up, he practices his dance moves with African-German Juliette Martens.  Hendrik and Juliette then have sex. 

In the next production of the Hamburg Art Theatre Nicoletta von Niebuhr will be the lead actress.  She introduces her best friend Barbara Bruckner to Hendrik, who presents his philosophy of acting:  "We must prove that theatre has a political function."  He takes a fancy to Barbara.  Later Barbara introduces Hendrik to her family.  And even later she marries Hendrik. 

Hendrik explains to the other actors that he wants a revolutionary theatre.  At dinner he criticizes Barbara for sitting at the table of a Nazi thug named Hans Miklas.  He tells Barbara to stay away from the Nazis.  Hans wants to be an actor, but his political beliefs cause him to take exception to Hendrik's revolutionary approach to the theatre.  When Hendrik insults a certain German actress who is a friend to a Nazi leader, Hans tells Hendrik to watch his tongue.  He adds that the theatre is a "Jew-ridden business".   Hendrik wants Hans sacked saying that he will show those Nazis, but his close theatre friend Otto Ulrichs makes excuses for Hans.  Hendrik responds by saying that either Hans goes or he goes. 

Hendrik heads to Berlin to improve his acting career. but he is only given a small part in a theatre production.  He sends flowers to Dora Martin who also is in Berlin. Hendrik gets a big break when he is praised for his dancing and acting in the London Times.  The rising actor sees the Nazis beating up a fellow.  He stands so transfixed by the sight that one of the Nazis chases him away. 

Hendrik continues his leftist theatre.  The critics say he won the hearts of Berlin's workers overnight.  He suddenly is getting offers for lots of parts and is now on his way to being a big success.  Meanwhile, Hans teaches the Hitler Youth.  Dora Martin is learning English in order to go to the United States because of the rising threat of fascism to legitimate theatre. 

Hans sets Juliette up in an apartment.  He tells her that his wife and her family are worried about the Republic.  News arrives that the Nazis have won the election and Hitler is the new Chancellor of Germany.  Hendrik admits he has not been following German politics very closely and remarks:  "I thought there was nothing to fear from the Nazis."  His wife Barbara tells him that the old run-in with Hans Miklas might come back to hurt them.    Hendrik dismisses Hitler with descriptions such as "Austrian clown" and "Bohemian corporal" and declares that it doesn't really matter if the Nazis are in power.  Barbara believes that a career in the arts is now impossible, but Hendrik is dismissive of her concerns saying that he is just not interested in politics.  But Barbara insists that either they take a stand or go if their freedom is endangered.

Otto comes to see Hendrik and tells him that "Now is the time to resist dictatorship."  But Hendrik is not interested saying he wants to stay "in the reserves". 

The Reichstag has burned down and the Nazis blames the communists and the Jews and use it as an excuse for further political repression.  Barbara is now in Paris and she writes to her husband that she wants him to be with her in France.  Apparently, many German artists are leaving Nazi Germany.  Hendrik now learns that he and his wife are on a Nazi blacklist.  Now a little concerned, Hendrik decides to spend some time outside Germany in Budapest.  There he receives a letter from Angelika Siebert, who has influence in high Nazi circles, telling him to come back to Berlin for he has nothing to fear.

It is now that Hendrik makes the decision to return to Germany and to compromise, if not abandon, his political beliefs to make nice-nice with the Nazis.  Back in Germany he finds that the Nazis did not really want him back, but the very politically important actress Lotte Lindenthal wanted to work with him in the theatre. 

Now that Hendrik is mixing with powerful Nazi leaders, he has some real concerns.  He now has to hide his relationship with Juliette because the relationship is not in line with German racial purity. 

Hendrik gets the o.k. from the Nazis to play Mephisto in a new play.  But he is warned that there is be be no cultural Bolshevism.  Hendrik sends flowers to Lotte Lindenthal.  Later he finds out that Hans Miklas is in the cast.  It seems, however, that Hans has mellowed somewhat.  He now wants Hendrik to be his mentor in the theatre.  During the theatre break, the German Prime Minister invites Hendrik to his theatre box where he praises the talents of the actor.  But the prime minister is not going to be that easy to get along with.  The official wants to stop all foreign elements both in German literature and theatre.  He is also a bit suspicious of Hendrik, asking him:  "Why the limp handshake?"  (Hendrik practices firming up his handshake.)  Taking advantage of his relationship with the big man, Hendrik pleads to the prime minister to intervene on behalf of his friend Otto.  The prime minister is not all that keen on the idea. 

Hendrik speaks publicly with Nazi officials causing Juliette to ask him:  "Why must you appear with them?"  She is very unhappy about all the racial prejudice and discrimination in Germany saying that the Germans can even spit in her face with impunity. 

Surprise of surprises.  Hans has left the Nazi Party and now wants Hendrik to sign a protest letter objecting to certain Nazi practices.  Hendrik will not sign. Hans is arrested.  He is driven into the forest and is shot in the back when the Nazis tell him to run.  The newspapers say that Hans Miklas died in a car accident and Hendrik conveniently believes the lie, or says he believes the lie. 

The prime minister tells Hendrik that he will manage the Prussian State Theatre, but he must not make any mention of revolutionary theatre.  He tells Hendrik that his wife is now in Amsterdam publishing an anti-Nazi newspaper.  The prime minister thinks it would be a good idea for Hendrik to get a divorce.  Oh, and what about this Juliette Martens?  Is the message coming through to Hendrik?  He is a big success but politically he skates on some very thin ice.  He is going to have to be a better Nazi to keep his position at the top.  The Gestapo pays a visit to Juliette and give her five minutes to pack for France. 

Hendrik took the position that true art would triumph even over Nazism.  But he is criticized for employing some of his ex-Bolshevik friends.  And Hendrik is confronted with a shortage of good plays under fascism.  He has to fire two of his actors for reasons of German racial purity.  He foolishly writes a letter to party officials saying that the two actors are absolutely indispensable.   A lot of good that will do.  In his theatre he hurriedly has to pick up and throw away flyers with the slogan:  "Germans, don't tolerate Nazi oppression!"

Hendrik travels to Paris.  While there he sees Juliette.  She tells him that his eyes are dazed and asks him to stay with her in Paris.  But no, Hendrik is going back.  He even tells Juliette not to write him any more.  It is just too dangerous.  He then meets with his wife Barbara.  She tells him that he can't stay in Berlin, but Hendrik is not that concerned with his artistic integrity.  Barbara tells him that he has a great capacity for self-deception.  But he still insists that "Real theatre can rise above anything."  He runs into the theatre critic for the London Times that had given him his big break and the man slaps Hendrik in the face saying "That's for what's happening in Germany."

Back in Berlin Nazi officials praise Hendrik for how he handled himself in Paris.  But that doesn't stop the Gestapo from grabbing Otto.  Hendrik once again goes to the prime minister to plead for Otto.  But this time it is a different story.  The prime minister is obviously disgusted with Hendrik's "weakness" and tells him to stop meddling in matters that are none of his concern.  Or he will be crushed like a bug.  The prime minister adds:  "Do you think you matter?"  His last words are to tell Hendrik:  "Get out, actoooorrrrr!"  Lotte tells Hendrik that Otto is dead  --  a "suicide". 

Hendrik explains his next project, Hamlet, to influential civilians and to the Nazi leadership.  The prime minister likes it.  The prime minister shows Hendrik the new outdoor theatre.  Hendrik climbs down the steps to the big open area for the stage.  Three spotlights are placed on him and he runs back and forth as if trying to escape the glare of the lights.  He finally shouts:  "What do you want from me?  I'm only an actor!"  But now the devil owns him.


Good movie and very politically relevant.  This is the old story about the man who sells his soul for money, status, prestige and fame.  The actor Hendrik at first actively resists the devil of fascism, but gradually over time decides to make a deal with the fascists.  He excuses himself by saying that real theatre can triumph over fascism, but he is engaging in a great deal of self-deception.  His friends, lovers and wife see what's happening to him and try to warn him, but he just will not listen.  In the end Hendrik functions as a high-level Nazi.  In the process, however, he loses the respect of all true artists.  He has sold his soul, has compromised with evil and even assisted in the triumph of the evil.  For all his efforts, with the fall of Nazism, if he was not imprisoned as an influential Nazi, he certainly would never again be accepted in the usually liberal theatre circle. 

The movie has a great deal of relevance to the troubled times under President George Bush II who has certainly flirted with fascism.  In this political atmosphere, however, a teacher using the film might get him or herself into trouble.  Fascism?  or just flirtation?  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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