MEPHISTO (István Szabó, 1981)

István Szabó’s Mephisto is based on Klaus Mann’s grudge novel against someone who had been married to his sister and who became the manager/lead actor of Nazi Germany’s national theater in Berlin. (Another part of the grudge came from the fact that this Mann, Thomas’s son, was Jewish, from his mother.) To get through it, one must weather the constant distraction of watching jaws flapping in Hungarian while dubbed German voices come out. In closeups, this sort of thing can drive a viewer crazy.
     The film is okay, it has its moments, and it’s gorgeously photographed (by Lajos Koltai); it’s moderately interesting, but hardly worth all its international prizes (including the international critics’ and screenplay prizes at Cannes, and the Oscar). I did like Mephisto when I first saw it at the movie-movies in the early eighties, and I still sort of like it. Just not enough.
     The passage that unfolds in Paris is the one part of the film that eludes the heavy-handedness of the rest. The montage of street signs is heartrending. If only Szabó had come up with more visual metaphors—and this stunning metaphor for Parisian freedom is enrobed in the irony of Paris’s upcoming fate—rather than relying so heavily on character and narrative. If only he had been less of a writer and more of a film artist!

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