Carlos Zilio, PRATO , 1972, industrial ink on porcelain, ø 24cm


Commentary on the film by István Szabó

On February 24, 1971, the German Constitutional Court was divided in its ruling on the famous “Mephisto Case”. The opposition between artistic freedom and the right to honor was discussed in the context of a novel, Mephisto. In the background, there is the metaphor of the seduction that power exerts on artists. The narrative, as conceived, also raised a constitutional issue: the opposition between freedom of artistic creation and protection of image and honor. The author of the novel, Klaus Mann, narrated the career of an imaginary character, Hendrik Höfgen, an actor during the Third Reich, and who in the plot is characterized as an unscrupulous opportunist. Kind of roman-a-clef, Höfgen was the idealized representation of a real character, Gustaf Gründgens.

Gründgens' adopted son, the plaintiff, invoked the late actor's honor, violating his image and social reputation, as well as the memory of the well-known artist. The book's publishers, on the other hand, insisted that the conception of the novel and the characters was protected by freedom of expression. The Court understood, in fact, that artistic freedom is realized within the scope of the work and its effects. Art would contemplate a certain autonomy that has its own laws.

The Court understood that the plaintiff and the victim both had rights protected by the Constitution. That is, the dignity of Gründgens should be protected, in the same way that the freedom of expression of Klaus Mann should be protected. The full right to freedom of artistic expression was recognized; however, more emphasis was placed on human dignity, for which reason the constitutional claim filed by Klaus Mann, who had lost in the Hamburg Court, which had decided that the novel tainted Gründgens' personal honor, was dismissed. This decision was maintained. The book was no longer marketed in what was then West Germany, although it was found in East Germany, which western jurisdiction did not reach.

The case is rumored. Klaus Mann, author of the book, is the son of writer Thomas Mann (whose mother, Julia, was Brazilian). Gründgens was married in 1926 to Erika Mann (Klaus' sister). The divorce came three years later, therefore before the rise of Nazism. Thomas Mann was one of the most important opponents of the Nazi regime, against which he recorded several speeches that were broadcast on the radio throughout the war. Klaus Mann felt neglected by his father. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949 at the age of 43.

The argument of Klaus Mann's book, in general terms, supports the narrative of Mephisto, by Hungarian director István Szabó. The film took the Oscar for best foreign film in 1981. The imaginary Hendrik Höfgen is played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. An actor obsessed with success makes a pact with Nazism. Although Hitler's name is never mentioned in the film, nor is the name of Hendrik's protector, Göering, mentioned, the allusions to Nazism are explicit, clear, direct, as in a scene that reports members of Hitler's youth. in training.

The characters are confused with real life. There is a communist actor, Otto Ulrichs, who Hendrik houses. Lotte Lidenthal, who protects Hendrik, is actually Emmy Göering, an actress of little importance, who married Göering, becoming a kind of first lady, given that she was the companion of the regime's eminence grise. Hendrik's first wife, Barbara Bruckner, is Erika Mann. Barbara's father, in the film, is Thomas Mann. Sebastian, a childhood friend of Barbara's, Klaus, is the author of the book on which the film is based. The prime minister, clearly, is Göering.

Director István Szabó, based on Mann's work, explored the myth of Faust, central to the German literary tradition. Doctor Faust is a mythological and literary character, who is treated in several works. Thomas Mann, for example, wrote a Doctor Faust in which the central character is a fanciful Adrian Leverkün, a German composer, who also made a pact with the devil. Theodor Adorno, who knew music, would have advised Mann in the construction of this beautiful novel.

As for the traditional Faust, some maintain that he existed and that he would have lived at the end of the Middle Ages. He would have made a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles, or Mephisto), who offered him knowledge for servitude, eternal life for subjection, love for surrender. Faust accepted the offer. He will pay the price for his reckless decision. In István Szabó's film, this logic is maintained. However, Mephisto becomes Faust, and Nazism becomes Mephisto. In this composition, and in this symbolic inversion, the high point of this disturbing film.

In its most erudite and exuberant form, Faust is unveiled in the work of Goethe (1749-1832), the most emblematic of German poets, alongside the no less seductive Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Both were protagonists of the radical phase of Teutonic romanticism, which the authors of literature manuals call Sturm und Drang, which brings us to the sensations of “storm and impulse”, as we sometimes feel when listening to Mozart and Haydn. O auspicious, by Goethe, is divided into two parts. The first of these was completed in 1808; the second, in 1832. Goethe dedicated 60 years to the composition of this seditious work. Just as Dante's description of hell is more enticing than the description of heaven or purgatory, the first part of the auspicious is more intriguing than the second. Romantic radicalism is at its zenith. There is a tragedy, in the form of a poem.

Goethe was ahead of the thinking of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, especially Horkheimer and Adorno, for whom enlightenment is a form of illusion, an instrument of cunning, for those who work with reason. Faust was offered an eternal life, rich in pleasures. Faust refused; earthly delights were not enough to content him. He sought knowledge. However, they reached an agreement. Mephistopheles would be Faust's servant on Earth. However, if for once Faust admitted an earthly pleasure that he thought of living indefinitely, then he would die and be Mephistopheles servant in hell. The contract was signed with the blood of Faust. Faust symbolizes the arrogance of the pursuit of power through knowledge. It's the same plot as composer Adrian Leverkühn (in Thomas Mann's book) or actor Hendrik (in Karl Mann's book, taken to the cinema).

In István Szabó's film, the devil takes the place of Faust, and Nazism takes the place of the devil. Hendrik is an actor in Hamburg. Identified with the left, he defends a theater of enlightenment for the working class. Art would be a prospective agent in the class struggle. He hated the Nazis, whom he called rascals. Protected by his father-in-law, a well-known writer (some analogy with Thomas Mann can be drawn here), Hendrik moves to Berlin. He witnesses the victory of Nazism (first in the elections) mocking the new chancellor. The Nazis proclaim that they want to build a new world.

Hendrik refuses to accept the Nazi victory. Unlike most artists who left the country, he refused to leave his language: he shouted that he needed his homeland. Artists, according to Hendrik, should be neutral. It follows the burning of the Reichstag and violence against Jews, which Hendrik witnesses in the streets. At the same time, he has an affair with his dance teacher, German, black, who will be persecuted by Nazism, even though she was German. The teacher was the victim of a hateful skin prejudice.

Realizing that the political situation had an impact on the artistic environment, Hendrik gradually accepted the Nazi presence. A gradual process, like what happened in Faust's narrative, which gradually receives Mephisto's influence. Hendrik, at this point, wants to represent Mephisto in the theater. He approaches Göering's wife. The couple protects him. Göering is sympathetic, claiming to have read Hendrik's horoscope, which changes. In one of the presentations, he goes to Göering's box, as a sign of total obedience. From then on, he ceased to be appreciated for his artistic qualities: he was respected because he was a friend of the regime.

Hendrik is appointed director of the Prussian National Theater. It's at its peak. His wife had already left Germany, she was in Holland. The dance teacher (whose lover she was also) went to Paris. She had already predicted Hendrik's downfall, saying that the lover's eyes were already dead. Perceiving himself totally co-opted by Nazism, and even humiliated by Göering, Hendrik recognizes that he has lost his freedom. He justified himself, questioning to what extent and what purpose this lost freedom was for.

On superior orders, he begins to rehearse Hamlet. They nationalize Shakespeare. The Danish character, symbol of indecision, becomes, in Hendrik's montage, a prototype of a German hero. Increasingly dominated, Hendrik asks what they want from him, precisely because he considers himself just an actor, from whom political responsibilities cannot be demanded. From an actor, he believed, one could only demand commitment to the art.

In István Szabó's film, the Faustian pact that so torments artists and intellectuals is revisited. The option for art for art's sake would justify the seduction of power, the exchange of favors, mutual distrust and total detachment from ethical references and from any relationship with human values. This pact of ravens unfolds as a drama when the devil (be it Mephisto, Nazism or any substantially evil entity) exacts his part of the contract. At that point, there is no more room for regret. The other contractor (whether Faust or Mephisto or any substantially ambitious entity) finds that success built on these foundations is the measure of its own tragedy. But there is no turning back.

* Arnaldo Sampaio de Moraes Godoy is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP).


Hungary, 1981, 144 minutes
Directed by: István Szabó.
Screenplay: Péter Dobau and István Szabó.
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Krystina Janda and Ildikó Bánsági.

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