Mephisto (1991)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystyna Janda, Ildiko Bansagi, Karin Boyd
Extras: Interviews, Bios and Filmographies

"Mephisto" won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982 and marked the first of three creative collaborations between the acclaimed Hungarian director István Szabó and the great Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. On the surface, "Mephisto" is the story of the corruption of one vain man’s soul through his vile dealings with the Nazi regime in pre-war Germany. But more than that, the film is an indictment of all those who furthered a movement that they knew in their hearts was evil.

A dramatization of the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann, son of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann, "Mephisto" is loosely based on the real-life experiences of the German actor Gustav Gründgens who was, incidentally, married to the author’s sister. Klaus Mann himself let his own actions speak louder than words by leaving Germany in 1933 and he even served in the U.S. Army during World War II. "Mephisto" is a dark and damning work and the very personal nature of its story only makes it that much more moving.

Klaus Maria Brandauer stars as Hendrik Höfgen, a very self-possessed theater actor who freely admits that he is incapable of commitment to either his lovers or his workplace. As the Nazis slowly come to power in Germany, the left-leaning Hendrik moves from Hamburg to Berlin to seek his fame as an actor for the people — in other words a Communist sympathizer. As he begins to win the hearts of theatergoers through his work so too does he begin to witness the atrocities of the Nazis. But, like so many others, Höfgen dismisses the cruel actions he witnesses as anomalies.

After an acclaimed run as Mephisto in Goethe’s "Faust," Höfgen accepts a temporary assignment in Budapest, Hungary. Upon his return to Germany, he finds that the Nazis have assumed complete control and he himself is under suspicion for having won accolades playing ’disreputable’ characters. Sensing the sea change in direction of his country, Höfgen resumes his run as Mephisto and begins to ingratiate himself with the theater-loving Prime Minister (sometimes referred to as the General) played by Rolf Hoppe.

As he begins to rise in stature, Höfgen tries vainly to use his newfound influence to protect his friends while at the same time pretending to embrace the nationalistic fervor that the Nazis wish to see in their ’art.’ Höfgen is truly a tortured soul and even he begins to question the price he must pay for the fame and fortune he so desires.

The symbolism here certainly isn’t subtle. How ironic is it that the Nazis choose for their foremost actor a man whose most famous role is playing the devil? The character of Mephisto acts as a barometer of the German soul as Höfgen’s earlier portrayals show Mephisto as an evil, tragic character. But, under the corrupting Nazi influence, the devil himself becomes a symbol of righteous power as Mephisto is declared a true German national hero.

"Mephisto" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is framed at an aspect ratio of 1.77:1. For a low-budget, 20-year-old film, this is a surprisingly clean transfer. Colors are very accurate throughout with the garish theater costumes well balanced with the more sedate background colors and fleshtones. Black levels and contrast are quite good as well and hold up under the various forms of lighting used from natural sunlight to the dim lamps of a theater’s backstage area. The image is very sharp with only minimal edge enhancement and the transfer exhibits no compression artifacts. The source materials also appear to have been well tended as there are no glaring blemishes, tears, or scratches. The only minus is the fairly grainy nature of the image but this is a result of the film stock and is in no way a mark against the DVD transfer.

Audio is presented in its original German mono — recreated here as a two-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix. This is a very clean and clear soundtrack and displays a surprising amount of detail for an older mono recording. The track is quite active with every nuance from a soaring aria to the click of a shoe heel on concrete coming across well with no distortion. Also of note is the fact that most of the soundtrack is overdubbed as the accents of the multinational cast made direct recording impossible in many scenes. The lack of lip synch is somewhat distracting at times but this is a fairly minor quibble — especially if you’re too busy reading the subtitles to notice.

The optional English subtitles are presented in very legible white lettering and my rudimentary German tells me that they’re faithful to the spoken dialogue with only an occasional line or two being omitted for the sake of on-screen readability.

Extras include two separate interviews with director István Szabó and Klaus Maria Brandauer edited together into a 22-minute featurette entitled "The Naked Face." This is a very solid program which uses appropriate scenes from the film to illustrate the topics the men are discussing. Also included are very in-depth text biographies and filmographies for the two men.

While the plot summary above lays out the general story of "Mephisto," it would be a mistake to dismiss it as just another art film with a message. This is an engaging story that benefits greatly from the fine performances of the primary actors and the capable direction of István Szabó. "Mephisto" was a joint German-Hungarian-Austrian production created at a time when Hungary was still very much behind the Iron Curtain. What could have easily devolved into a politically ham-fisted and constrained film stands instead as a very engaging human drama that isn’t afraid to let the audience make its own assumptions.

Anchor Bay receives much well-deserved praise for their work in bringing classic cult and horror movies to DVD but it’s often easy to overlook the many smaller films that they also provide. While "Mephisto" isn’t a full-blown special edition, the DVD does showcase the film with excellent video and audio quality and the inclusion of a few in-depth extras is most appreciated. I can’t say that this is a movie for every taste but I found "Mephisto" to be enjoyable for both its sheer entertainment value as well as its thought-provoking nature. The DVD itself comes highly recommended for fans of the film and foreign cinema in general.