I finished reading Mephisto last week, written by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas. It’s probably better known these days because of the movie made of it about 40 years ago – which I went and watched straight after finishing the book.
The story is about a German actor in the 1920s starting out in Hamburg who, through a combination of talent, ambition and the right connections makes his way to Germany as the Nazis come to power. Once a Socialist, he becomes complicit with the Nazis to serve his career.
His famous role in the book is Mephisto. If you’re familiar with the story of Mephistopheles – or Faust – then you’ll recall that Mephisto was the diabolical character to whom Dr Faust sold his soul to in return for earthly success. In terms of this book, Hendrik Hofgren may play Mephisto, but it’s he who has sold his soul to the Nazis.
It’s rare I say this, but I thought the movie was better than the book. I found the book quite pedestrian and pretty obvious for the first two-thirds of it. I thought the writing a bit muddy. It really becomes compelling only when Hendrik achieves some measure of success in Berlin, and is drawn into the clutches of the Nazi hierarchy.
In my view, the best villains are those with a conflicted soul – neither all bad, or all good. Hendrik Hofgren is such a man. His overweening desire, and the ultimate justification for his betrayals, is his love for the theatre. As he says many times, he is not a political man. Art and theatre are above politics, as he often proclaims as if to ease his conscience. That isn’t true, and you suspect he knows it in his heart. As the Nazis showed better than anyone, art is a prime tool of propaganda and submission.
I preferred the movie because I thought the themes were tidied up and better expressed. Hofgren is presented more sympathetically, but in so doing the ambiguity of his personality and situation are highlighted. He’s not a bad man – in fact, he’s probably pretty normal in many ways, but that he has a particular talent and an ambition that matches it. He’s not without conscience, nor a kind of courage, but ultimately he is damned because he plays along.
The choice he faces is to make a stand against creeping fascism or complying with it. Instead, he attempts to compromise with it, giving something, and trying to take something back – but you can’t do deals with the devil. While some resist and pay for it with their lives, and others exile themselves abroad, he becomes a part of the system. For convenience and ambition, he has sold his soul.
The events described in the book and the movie both conclude in 1936, with most horrors still to come (Mann published in 1936).
At the heart of the movie is Klaus Maria-Brandauer’s performance, which is magnetic, and a good reason why the movie is so good.
The book has a great, though plain-drawn and simplistic story. At least in translation, it’s not as good as you think it could be. The movie cleans a lot of that up and adds a layer of complexity to the storyline that makes meaningful for many more of us: how normal people come to collaborate.