Ostensibly Mephisto (1981) is about an actor who sells out to the Nazis in mid 1930's Germany.
Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Hendrik Hoefgen whose ambition to become Germany's most revered actor is realized at the expense of his soul. That he has earned much renown for his portrayal of Mephisto is clearly symbolic.
We first meet Hendrik in Hamburg, Germany where he is part of a vibrant theater scene. He throws himself into a production that clearly embodies the ideals of socialism more than fascism. But it is the very early 1930’s, the Nazis are just one of several competing parties at this point and Hendrik is not a political animal. He is driven to success -- his own.
Fast forward to the second half of the movie and the protagonist is now the most renowned stage actor in Germany. The Nazis are in power and he is their lapdog. Hendrik has some influence in this relationship and uses it to protect friends who have run afoul of the Nazis. The revulsion with which he spoke of the Nazis is gone (as is his black lover). Hendrik and the Nazi elite, one general in particular, are the best of friends.
Mephisto can be viewed as a story about the extent to which a person will subsume their own beliefs in the pursuit of fame and fortune. One can also be intrigued by what the film says about the profession of acting. It can similarly be viewed as yet another indictment of the Nazis. Of course Mephisto may easily be seen as a 20th century re-telling of Goethe’s Faust.
But I see director Istvan Szabo's film as an examination of an empty man. Hendrik Hoefgen is, like so many politicians, a man who will do anything for anyone to achieve his goals. The journey and its means are of little or no import. It is all about the arrival and the maintenance of that position at the top.
Is it especially easy for Hendrik to adopt whatever role is necessary when that is exactly what he does professionally? Superficially, yes. But the magic of acting is that the transformation, as real as it may seem to audiences, is illusory. The point being that on stage or film actors are interpreting or embodying another human being. Off stage or camera they are, presumably, their very own person.
Hendrik, like a lot of people, is no person at all. He charms men, he seduces women, he befriends many. He knows exactly who is to be pleased and who can safely be ignored. There is a Zelig-like ability to adapt to situations but it is coupled with an unquenchable desire to succeed. That he plays whatever role necessary on stage to further his career is a perfect metaphor for what he does off stage -- the very same thing.
The film’s closing line, given by Hendrik is, “What do they want from me now? After all, I am just an actor.” He speaks not just of his profession, but his basic essence.
As I suggested such people are numerous. They have no core values, no strong belief system. They live to continue living in as much comfort as possible. They are abundant in politics and in bureaucracies. (As a teacher I can’t tell you how many I saw positively thriving as administrators.) Such soulless bureaucrats are often, like Hendrik, excellent at their chosen professions.
There is not, with Hendrik, as in the case of Jabez Stone in the Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) a single moment in which a deal is struck to sell his soul. No, with the Hendrik’s of the world this is a process, a life long journey, if not to hell to nowhere in the truest sense.
Very seldom does fiction tell such a compelling story of a nowhere man.