A man willing to sell his soul to the devil — the centuries-old legend of Faust hits so much on the crux of the human condition that it’s been re-envisaged and updated many times to fit the politics of any given era. Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, who often explores the corrupting effects of power and the struggle for dominance in Europe in his work, delivered a hallucinatory riff on Goethe’s tragic play recently with Faust (2011). But it’s Mephisto (1981) by István Szabó, one of Hungary’s great directors, that transported this tale of traded-in integrity most devastatingly into modern cinema, setting it in the world of German theatre during the rise of the Nazi party.

Szabó, now 80, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Transilvania Film Festival in Romania this May for his long, prolific career. Mephisto was among his films shown, as was another classic from his famed trilogy starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, Colonel Redl (1985), about a closeted gay officer amid the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The trilogy as a whole is underpinned by the theme of compromise — of one’s ethics and one’s authentic self, in pursuit of a spectre of success under an immoral regime (the third of the series, which did not screen, is Hanussen (1988), about a Jewish clairvoyant and hypnotist co-opted for Hitler’s propaganda machine).

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    Klaus Maria Brandauer as the Faustian Hendrik Höfgen in Mephisto (1982)

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    Klaus Maria Brandauer as the Faustian Hendrik Höfgen in Mephisto (1982)

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    István Szabó directs children portraying Hitler Youth cadets on the set of Mephisto

While the Faust of early legend was a bored scholar thirsting for an earthly knowledge quick-fix, Szabó’s anti-heroes belong to a tumultuous 20th-century Europe in which social status was becoming relatively fluid. They cannot resist the lure of advancement at any cost, with the stakes of failure as high as exile or death. Northern Transylvania, reassigned to Hungary by the fascists during the Second World War before the Romanians and Soviets took it back, was a fitting place to grapple with Szabó’s work and its reflections on wartime Central Europe. Renascent tensions across the continent add an extra sting of relevance to revisiting these films.

In his Oscar-winning Mephisto, Szabó explores the inner conflict endured by artists and intellectuals who, faced with totalitarianism, must decide when co-operation crosses the line. Brandauer, who Szabó recently declared “one of the greatest actors of my generation”, portrays a man of the theatre who goes far down the road of complicity. The film is based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann. Having fled Nazi Germany, Mann felt betrayed by his brother-in-law Gustaf Gründgens, an actor who embraced the regime as a means to advance his career. The film tells an equivalent tale. Hendrik Höfgen, blacklisted for performing in a leftist theatre group, returns from self-imposed exile and rapidly rises to become head of the national theatre by using a professional connection to curry favour with a Luftwaffe general, who then champions him.

“A crucial frailty resides in human nature: we are often unable to carry out the more difficult tasks set for us by history”

Höfgen pulls strings to land the role of Mephisto in a spectacular, Nazi-produced Faust, but in a chilling closing scene his patron (modelled on Hermann Göring) shines a blinding spotlight on him in a dark, empty stadium. “What do you want? I’m only an actor,” utters Höfgen, terrified by the epiphany of the gravity of his pact. The psychologically astute film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness. Höfgen puts in words with higher-ups to save his friends throughout his career (helping his black girlfriend leave for Paris, and asking that a dissident former colleague be spared). But these seem less impulses of integrity than a bargain with himself to stave off guilt. By the time his words are no longer heeded and his self-delusion of being apolitical becomes too loud in its cognitive dissonance to ignore, he’s in too deep to extricate himself, even if he wanted to. “Only” an actor and not a citizen, he intuits finally that he has attained all he wanted; he is Faust, not Mephisto, a role that proves too severe for his stunted ethics, with unavoidable and stark consequences. With his white make-up and red cape, hovering over a general in his theatre box, Höfgen had appeared infused with the potency of the devil; but in the end, he is not even sinister. With nothing of worth left behind his actorly facade, his pathetic inadequacy on the brutal stage of history is nakedly, glaringly apparent. In an interview at the time, Szabó said of the film: “A single theme is predominant: what the 20th century has done to the human being. A crucial frailty resides in human nature: we are often unable to carry out the more difficult tasks set for us by history. And the tasks it’s set in this century may be unique in their difficulty.”

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    Klaus Maria Brandauer as the titular Colonel Redl (1985)

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    Klaus Maria Brandauer as the titular Colonel Redl (1985)

While Mephisto is Szabó’s best-known film internationally, his Cannes-awarded Colonel Redl might just be his greatest masterpiece; at any rate, its finale is the most unforgettably harrowing (no spoilers). Its backdrop is the rise of inter-ethnic tensions and the scrabble in the upper echelons to hold onto power as the Austro-Hungarian Empire declines just before the outbreak of the First World War, accompanied by a dissolute lack of discipline at its outposts as officers sense the impending end. Brandauer plays the fascinatingly complex, inscrutable Alfred Redl, a real historical figure (though the film adapts the facts of his life loosely). A Ruthenian from Galicia who is appointed into a prestigious military academy despite his humble peasant background, he’s assigned to a garrison on the Russian border, where procedure is laxly imposed and drinking is the typical way to pass the time. Redl stands out for his discipline, and upon promotion to commanding officer tries to draw his wayward officers strictly into line.

Szabó tells tragic tales of human inauthenticity

The film’s portrait of Redl conveys astutely the predicament of the outsider with imposter syndrome: Redl is not just an ethnic interloper of low origins among Hungarian nobles (who resent his authority over them all the more because of it), but also a closeted homosexual at a time when public knowledge would have ended his ambitions. This is succinctly captured in a scene in which, as a youngster visiting the grand family home of his friend Kristof Kubinyi (for whom he harbours a long unrequited love), he struggles to turn off a samovar that is flooding the floor. He is desperate to fit in, but lacks the second-nature grasp of decorum that come from highborn status to ever feel comfortable in the game. When he’s promoted to a top counterintelligence post in Vienna, rumours about his sexual orientation begin to swirl. After an underhand scheme to shake up a complacent regiment goes awry, he unwillingly ends up as the fall guy himself despite his unshakeable devotion to the Emperor. Szabó essentially makes the tale a tragic one of human inauthenticity, documenting the immense pressure placed on individuals to disown their innate freedom, to act opportunistically and in bad faith, to adopt sycophantic dutifulness in defiance of their true selves. Like Höfgen in Mephisto, because Redl’s status is achieved only through disavowal and performance, he has already lost his life before it comes to an end.

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