Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults, Malefice and The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, and two for young adults, Last Train from Kummersdorf and Saving Rafael, both of which are set in Nazi Germany. Her mother was German and her father English, and she was brought up bilingual. Leslie enjoys dogs, gardening, the society of her grandson, t'ai chi and going to Berlin, and she is a member of the Society of Friends. In this post she writes about Klaus Mann's Mephisto.
Leslie Wilson on Mephisto by Klaus Mann
There are some performances that spoil you for anyone else in the role. One of these, which I saw as a teenager, was Gustav Gründgens as Mephisto in Peter Gorski's production of Goethe's Faust. I rewatched the film last week and was spellbound at Gründgens's acting; vigorous, sometimes burlesquely humorous, sometimes subtle and ironic, manipulative, with flashes of truly diabolic brutality.
Years later, I came across a novel called Mephisto in a German bookshop, picked it up and was fascinated to see to see that the central character, Höfgen, was an actor. I read further down the blurb and saw that the book, first published in Amsterdam in 1936, was the subject of a famous – or infamous – libel trial in 1968 when the Nymphenburg Press tried to publish it in the Federal Republic of Germany. You can sue on behalf of the dead in Germany, and Peter Gorski, who was Gründgens' adopted son, successfully prevented its publication, or rather delayed it; the court ruled that it must wait till Gründgens' fame had faded a little in the eyes of the German public. It was finally published in the FRG by Rowohlt in 1981, though it was available in the GDR well before that. Its author, Klaus Mann (son of the more famous Thomas) wrote it in exile. I've read and re-read Mephisto; it's a gripping, absorbing story, a brilliant contemporary spotlight on Nazi Germany, and a warning to us all.
Mephisto's protagonist, Hendrik Höfgen, starts his career as a Communist - or so he claims, though he always finds wonderful excuses for not getting involved with the 'revolutionary theatre' he claims to believe in. He bullies his colleagues when he produces plays, reducing them to tears, but has tantrums like a toddler when his artistic temperament gets too much for him. He has talent, which is recognized by the Jewish actress, Dora Martin, who sees him on the Hamburg stage and recommends him to 'The Professor', a world-famous producer. Höfgens finds his way to the Berlin stage, the silver screen and enormous success - especially in the part of Mephisto, which he makes his own. When the Nazis come to power, he's taken up by Hermann Göring, who forgives the actor's dodgy left-wing past. Höfgen divorces his part-Jewish wife Barbara and flourishes anew.
The novel paints a fantastic portrait of Germany between the wars, and is written with as masterly a command of language as Klaus Mann's father's. There are wonderful, vivid scenes; my favourite is the one where Höfgen, in his Mephisto costume, first meets the Fat Man (Göring) in the interval of Faust. The 'demi-god' succeeds in putting Höfgen, terrified at first, at his ease and at one point he 'spread his arms under the cape so that it looked as if he was growing black wings'. It looks, we're told, 'as if the powerful man wanted to sign a pact with the comedian'. It's a situation, of course, where the pact with the devil is signed in blood by all concerned. Mephisto, in Goethe's play, is 'der Schalk', as God calls him, 'the jester'. Gründgens (and Höfgen in the novel) underlines this by making up as a clown for the role. And this is the point about Höfgen: he's lacking in some essential substance, something that might save his soul. 'Perhaps he's unable to love,' Barbara reflects in the early days of their marriage.
It's this hollowness - epitomized in Höfgen's inability to properly play Hamlet - that I've seen in the star-studded, yet lacklustre, films that were produced by the UFA studios when most of their best actors had fled and the remainder weren't able to act anything that might be threatening to an essentially philistine establishment – the worst kind of philistinism, that pretends to culture but only wants what is safe and familiar. (One only has to look at Gründgens himself, in the schlockily vapid 1941 film Friedemann Bach – and then compare it with Fritz Lang's brilliant last film for UFA, also starring Gründgens, M, A City Hunts a Murderer.) Höfgen himself can only sometimes believe in the acclaim he gets; often he knows it's only 'the applause of children and apes'.
Klaus Mann vehemently denied that he'd written a roman à clef in Mephisto, yet Höfgen is undeniably modelled on Gründgens - the cleft chin, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the acting style and the affectations. Apart from the Nazi leaders, never named but clearly recognizable, other personalities of the time are echoed – though not exactly reproduced - in the novel: Elisabeth Bergner (Dora Martin); Max Reinhardt (the Professor); Klaus's sister Erika, who had a short-lived marriage with Gründgens (as Höfgens' first wife Barbara); Thomas Mann (Barbara's father); and Klaus himself as Barbara's friend Sebastian. But in the end the historical personalities don't matter. The question is whether the novel comes alive, and it does, triumphantly.
The crucial thing about Höfgen is that he's an utter, consummate actor, and this works out for him: 'The theatre needs me,' Höfgen says, 'and every regime needs the theatre.' But this careerism is counterbalanced by a profound inner immaturity. Without labouring the point, Mann depicts in him the calamitous infantilism Hitler's regime fostered in its subjects, a population fed on lies about its right to rule the world, lies that were bolstered by the deceptions of theatre; the torchlight processions, the rallies, the endless propaganda, the stagey, depersonalizing buildings. Just how effective the performance could be is demonstrated by the fact that a Jew in hiding could take cover among the crowds at one of the mass events and wish he'd been allowed to be part of it all (The Hidden Jews of Berlin, Channel 4, 1999). Berlin, in the year of Mephisto's publication, staged the Olympic Games; the 'Jews not welcome' signs were taken down, the act was tidied up. The performance worked, not only on the foreign visitors, but disastrously on many German Jews, fooling them that if they only kept their heads down and endured, the trial would pass.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]