Mephisto is one of those rare films which feels inseparable from its lead actor. To imagine it without Klaus Maria Brandauer is to imagine another film entirely. His performance drives Mephisto from the very start; he is its energy and momentum. Certainly, when we watch it’s Brandauer we’re watching and not his co-stars. Furthermore, director Istvan Szabo is quite happy to sit back and stare, to absorb this remarkable display. Surely it can be no surprise that the pair would collaborate twice more over the next decade: on Colonel Redl in 1985 and Hanussen in 1988.
It makes sense, then, that Mephisto should so concern itself with performance and the acting process. Brandauer plays a provincial actor who ascends to stardom under Nazi rule, yet he does so without scruples or moral conscience, indeed without self. He drops his politics, his women, and arguably his soul, along the way – all that’s left is a mask, though below this facade exists extreme acts of delusion and self-justification.
This tension between the public face and what remains of the private man is central to Mephisto. Appearing in every scene and almost every shot, it’s Brandauer who must root both, and he does so with grace. From the off he remains both a non-entity and utterly charismatic. Certainly, he doesn’t play the role through easy options; rather, the humanity seems to grow as he gets deeper and deeper into his predicament. We become painfully aware of the self-doubt only once it is too late, it seems, though the fascination in this figure is continual. Looking outside of the film for a moment it strikes the viewer that cinema hasn’t used Brandauer better – aside from the later re-teamings with Szabo his key eighties’ performances came in Out of Africa and the unofficial Bond instalment Never Say Never Again, hardly the most testing of work.
Yet whilst our lead actor may appear as a force unto himself, it’s important not to underestimate Szabo’s contributions. Aside from a few swift montages, visual flourishes are few – indeed Mephisto may very well be a model of simplicity. However, as with Brandauer, our director never takes the easy option. It would hardly be difficult, for example, for the actor to have swallowed up the whole enterprise, unbalancing everything. Yet Szabo always looks towards the bigger picture and is thus able to hold Brandauer in his place. The political is never lost to the personal, rather the two compliment each other perfectly. Mephisto isn’t simply about one actor and Nazism, but of Europe and Nazism; those tensions between the private and the public face of things are effectively writ large, though Szabo’s lightness of touch means that such concerns never become overbearing. He’s able to use Brandauer as a channel, just as the actor utilises his director. The two feed of each other to their own ends – a stunning performance, a sharp political analogy – resulting in the perfect collaboration.
A key work on many levels, it’s disappointing to see Mephisto’s UK DVD handling left wanting. No extras are offered and the presentation is serviceable at best. Despite preserving the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the print has clearly seen better days, being blemished and somewhat faded. Furthermore, the grain has prompted quite visible artefacting whilst the burnt-in subtitles aren’t always the easiest to read. As for the soundtrack, background hiss is yet another problem for a film which deserves so much better. As said, it’s serviceable though fans may be advised to wait for either a lowering in price or a more suitable edition to emerge.