The life of mirrors
Mephisio ('AA', Gate Camden)
Mephisto opens appropriately enough with a figure, crouched like a demon, howling in a corner. But in fact we are not watching some Blakean revelation of character: this is simply an actor having a slight case of hysterics. He resents the success of a young soubrette and, as the acclaim for her reaches the dim interior of his dressing-room, he curls up in anguish on the floor. A suitable case for treatment, you might think, and not someone who deserves the grandiloquent title of this film. But evil, or coldness, can reside in the smallest gestures: the actor straightens himself out, peers into the mirror as if it were an enchanted pool, and sails out into the foyer all smiles and greetings. Although Mephisto is ostensibly about the Third Reich, it is actually about theatrical camouflage, the life of mirrors, and the terrible vitality of those who have no feelings. Haven't we seen all this before, though? There was, after all, The Last Metro about a group of actors working in occupied Paris; but this film, a West German and Hungarian coproduction, takes us into the eye of the hurricane. It stays largely in Berlin between the years 1930 and 1935, and traces the career of the young actor crouching in the corner.
His name is Hendrik Hofgen; he is a provincial actor, in Hamburg, who is tired of provincial applause. He looks like a cat forced to live off cream rather than meat. And he is genuinely talented — or, at least, possessed by a demon which drives him forward. But the spirit is that of Marsyas rather than Apollo and he, too, will soon lie scattered across the ground. Hofgen is taken up by the Berlin National Theatre; by mischance or good fortune, his own career coincides with that of the National Socialists and he finds himself to be a theatrical idol at much the same time as Hitler becomes a political one. Hofgen's wife leaves Germany but he stays, protesting that 'art' has nothing to do with 'politics'; his mentors, however, persuade him otherwise and he becomes manager of the State Theatre, one of the masters of the fascist ceremonies.
The case here is apparently based upon that of a German actor-manager, but it is of so universal an application that no literal analogies really need to be traced. This is, after all, a study in the ambition which springs from vanity — a vanity powerful because it is simply instinctive. Hofgen is quite blind to the political or symbolic meaning of events — he is only concerned With such things when they sting him, and then he tries irritably to brush them away. Other people do not touch him deeply because he hardly knows they are there; when he talks to them he listens to the echo of his own voice rather than their replies. His values are infinitely malleable: when a young man in Hamburg, he discusses the Revolutionary Theatre as a way of provoking audience participation. In Berlin he uses the same arguments to create a fascist Hamlet. He smiles into the mirror and straightens his tie.
But this is not a case of sheer obsessiveness or -infantilism; if it were, Mephisto would take on the simple lineaments of allegory rather than the complex shape which it actually assumes. Hofgen will sometimes plead for friends or colleagues who have been arrested by the authorities; although it cannot be said that he persists in unpopular inquiries. And he is also a rather gifted actor — or, rather, the actor playing him is gifted. This is where one gets into difficulties: let's just say that actors playing actors are often as hamfisted as writers describing writers. But Klaus Maria Brandauer, who plays Hofgen, gets it just about right: his performance is a wonderful example of the blind leading the blind, and when he plays Hofgen playing Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust the layers of illusion rise up like a house of cards. And then Mephistopheles is taken to meet the German prime minister in his box — the bald-headed thug meets the grinning white mask who, in greeting, opens out his scarlet cloak for him. Even the sycophantic audience stand in awe at the ghastliness of it.
It is Hofgen's vanity that has led him towards power, and power leads him in turn to self-deception and artistic selfdestruction. On a trip to Paris, after he has turned down his wife's appeal to leave Germany, we see him wandering down La Rue de l'Ancien Comedie. He is perfectly dress
ed, and pretends to be perplexed about his fate. The ancient comedy, of course, lies in his refusal to face the truth about himself. It is not that he is a liar or a hypocrite — he doesn't espouse any values, so he can hardly be accused of distorting them — but rather that he is playing a role which even he sometimes mistakes for the real thing.
It is for this reason that the Nazis, can claim him as one of their own. Actors have always been heavily implicated in the power structure of contemporary society — Reagan and Jane Fonda are, after all, obverse sides of the same phenomenon — and Mephisto displays to full effect the symbiotic relationship between the two professions. Actors and politicians share the same aspiration, which is to embody public sentiment, and they share the same audience. They both represent the expectations of frustrated or powerless people — and so they are forced into each other's arms in order to hide their emptiness from the public gaze. Mephisto also brings out the terrible consequences when politics apes the theatre — how its rituals are borrowed from the stage, and how empty they become in the process. The Triumph of the Will was bad art before it was bad politics — just like, in our own time, Star Wars or the latest socialist-realistic epic from the Soviet Union.
Hofgen, however, remains the central figure of Mephisto, the trimmer, the man whose loyalties lie with those who make life most comfortable for him. We cannot safely feel superior to him, though, because he is so manifestly human and convincing. I remember reading an interview with the Russian exile, Vladimir Bukovsky, in which he describes one of his pastimes as observing people in the West — and I imagine cultural bureaucrats like Hofgen were high on the list — and guessing which jobs they would hold in the Soviet Union. It is only one step further — and not even that, only half a step — to wondering what we would all have been doing in the early days of the Third Reich. Mephisto displays convincingly how quickly men fall into evil ways, how swiftly they can put on the mask of the pig. It is a film which, for once, does not seem too long for its theme.