classic film

Five-star cinema: Istvan Szabo’s ‘Mephisto’

This enduring study of the tricky relationship between power and the performing arts is told through the gradual sellout of a gifted actor.

A period drama from 1981 about Nazi-era Germany speaks to our times, and that is both a testament to its brilliance and a sad statement.

Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s study of the tricky relationship between power and the performing arts begins where it ends: on the stage. Hendrik Hofgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is one of the stars of the Hamburg theatre scene in the 1930s, but he chafes at being a “provincial actor”. Like any respectable self-aware entertainer, Hofgen acknowledges his insatiable craving for recognition and success. When his dance teacher and girlfriend, Juliette, tells him that he only loves himself, and “even that is not enough”, he does not feel insulted.

Play
The trailer of ‘Mephisto’.

The lines between the real and the performed have long been blurred for Hofgen. “So many thoughts are just parts I’ve played,” he tells his future wife. Hofgen’s facility for self-deception will get full expression in Berlin, where, despite his declaration that “all Nazis are thugs”, he accepts a position at the prestigious state-sponsored theatre. His performance as Mephisto in a stage production of the famous story of Doctor Faustus and his soul-destroying deal with the devil brings the theatre to its feet and catches the eye of prime minister Tabornagy (modelled on Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler). Tabornagy summons Hofgen to his box, shakes his hand and comments on his limp wrist, and blesses Hofgen’s talent as the entire theatre watches in awe.

In a regime obsessed with symbols and semantics, there is no clearer indication of Hofgen’s acceptance. He has been anointed as one of the Nazi Party’s cultural ambassadors. From practising a firmer and more manly handshake to managing the Prussian State Theatre as per the prime minister’s orders, Hofgen will deliver the finest performance of his life. The German word for actor, schauspieler, literally translates as “one who plays”.

Szabo’s adaptation of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel of the same name raises troubling questions about state patronage of the arts that resonate beyond its specific political context. Mephisto can be quoted every time a cultural personality lobbies for a Padma Shri or a government position, assumes a nationalist stance instead of speaking to power in troubled times, denounces dissenters as traitors, and abandons skepticism for cheerleading.

Can art ever be divorced from politics? Szabo, one of the leading figures of the Hungarian New Wave and no stranger to state control, delivers an unambiguous yet complex answer to the question. Hofgen is not merely a state apparatchik fulfilling his boss’s orders. His profession is implicated in his choices. Szabo suggests that the vanity, insecurity, ambition, constant need for validation and dependence on financial support and patronage that characterise the acting profession make it especially vulnerable to manipulation and corruption.

The movie doubles up as a psychological study of an actor, and rests on Klaus Maria Brandauer’s indelible performance. Brandauer portrays Hogfen as a restless soul who’s brisk in gait and generous with his hand gestures. Szabo uses close-ups beautifully, and when the camera rests on Brandauer’s mobile face, the price of his sellout becomes glaringly clear.

Brandauer assumes subservient body language when dealing with Tabornagy and struts about semi-drunk on his elevation at all other times. In a montage of scenes after he takes over as the state theatre director, Brandauer wittily conveys Hofgen’s self-imposed predicament. He is oleaginous with his staff, dutifully flirtatious with his secretary, servile with Tabornagy, and tortured only when no one is looking. His wife has divorced him and fled to France, and his girlfriend Juliette, a black German, has paid the price for the colour of her skin, but Hofgen soldiers on. When he finds anti-Nazi pamphlets in his theatre, he personally removes every single piece of incriminating paper and burns them. It’s a miracle that he doesn’t swallow the ashes.

The avuncular-looking Rolf Hoppe is also superb as Tabornagy, as are the several Teutonic blondes who applaud Hofgen’s mercurial rise. Mephisto is a cautionary tale of moral compromise, told from within the core of a cultural class that unblinkingly signs up for a fascist cause. As high art becomes kitsch and inevitably propaganda, Hofgen wonders, “What do they want from me? After all, I am only an actor.” The answer is contained in the self-deceiving question itself.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.