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Mephisto and the Sleeping Left

Film by István Szabó shows that there are moments in history when conciliation is impossible

In a remarkable scene from Mephisto (Mephisto, 1981), directed by Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó, actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is sleeping when a friend rushes into his apartment to tell him that Hitler was the new chancellor of Germany.

The friend warns Höfgen about the urgency of a vehement protest needed to prevent Germany from going down to a nightmare, but the actor does not listen to him, saying that it was not the moment and that he was exaggerating.

The scene is symbolic, representing apathy by the forces that should be the first to rise against the horror. Our historical moment has clearly shown us how this happens: the refusal to mobilize the working class since the coup against Dilma Rousseff is still, unfortunately, the norm, demonstrating how wrong the paths chosen by leaders of trade unions, leftist political parties, and other progressive forces in reading the historical situation and leading workers in moments that demand maximum and urgent action.

In our case, this apathy is wrapped up in sensationalist appeals to fear and despair on social networks. A cacophony of superficial and mediocre ideas reigns and reveals the individualistic and tacky behavior of people and institutions that should lead the debate. In this imbecile mass spectacle, the only goal is the number of likes.

Szabó's film is one of the best about the rise of Nazism in Germany that I have ever seen, including The Damned (1969), by Luchino Visconti, and The Serpent's Egg (1977), by Ingmar Bergman. In Mephisto, the focus is on the artist´s responsibilities in extreme moments. Brandauer's character is a young actor who produces Brechtian plays, without the ideological conviction that the times impose on him.

He thinks he can outsmart the Nazis, and use his acting and celebrity attributes as protection. Can we list current examples of the same behavior? Its inspiration is in the play Faustus, by Goethe. In the theater, to the delight of the Nazi audience he tries to seduce, Höfgen plays Mephisto, the diabolical spirit with whom the doctor makes a demonic pact in the name of personal glory.

The film is an adaptation of the same-name novel by Klaus Mann, published in 1936, at the height of the rise of the Third Reich. Klaus was the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann. Years later, Mann wrote his own Doctor Faustus, which is also about an artist, - a composer -, and offers an analysis of the German genius in classical music and the madness of demonic pacts in German history.

Szabó explains his main goal with the adaptation. “I wanted to show the problem in the hope that the viewer would identify with the character and then feel ashamed. And if he feels embarrassed, he will understand and get to know himself better. And maybe that feeling of shame — that cathartic feeling of shame — is a vaccine against situations like that. This is our effort with that film. I see the film as medicine.”

The complexity of Mephisto's plot lies in the fact that the main character is not a Nazi. Therefore, this cathartic process of shame is associated with those who, as noted above, were asleep when history called them to action.

We also can raise the hypothesis that Szabó sought to make a film about the situation in Hungary and communist eastern Europe in the early 1980s. I recently wrote about Danton, a film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, made in 1983.

These films seem to capture, in a distinct but strangely complementary way, the crises of those years that would culminate in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. It is worth understanding them in this context as well.


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