An autopsy got Aleksander Sokurov’s “Faust” movie off to a promising start.
Huddling over a corpse, Faust slowly pulled off a dirty skin layer and rearranged a few organs.
What about the soul, where might it be?, his dimwitted apprentice asks, watching his master extract a long section of small intestine which reminded me of the sausage links we used to consume in the heimat of my youth.
On Munich’s Rathausplatz, the tables would fill up with folks sitting down with piles of plump white sausages and a frothy beer, having themselves a good time.
Back in the 1970s, you could also assume some of them were old enough to miss the Fuhrer who loved this town, even though he was a vegetarian.
I did drift during Sokurov’s two hour movie, whose pea-soup colored dullness comes as a surprise to admirers of “Russian Ark,” a technically brilliant evocation of the pre-Revolutionary elite drifting cheerfully, obliviously through the glittering rooms of the Hermitage until they fade away as a door opens on the Neva River leaving behind a palace of memories.
Still, “Faust” made me think of Goethe, not really a constant in my life, and another film, Istvan Szabo’s brilliant 1982 “Mephisto,” which is set in a time when Germany became hell on earth.
Sad Old Guy
Goethe’s epic play gets going with Faust doddering about his study. After decades of deep thinking, he is neither sage nor happy. A stranger arrives, enchants him with a few magic tricks (like turning himself into a poodle) and soon the old man consigns his soul in return for youth, the secrets of the cosmos, plus a lot of time travel. It seems like a good deal.
In fact, Faust thinks he got the best of the stranger: He will only have to relinquish his soul and become the devil’s servant if he admits to having achieved such bliss, that he wants to stay in that moment and not move on. (Verweile doch, Du bist so schon).
Like so many people today, Faust doesn’t think there will ever come a time that will be so fabulous, that he can’t conceive of being somewhere else more fabulous.
It’s a story for the ages. We meet these people all the time, though their pacts are written not in their own blood, but in that of others.
They walk over bodies to build large boats; they’re psychopaths and seducers, they clamor for world renown and have no fear of a final accounting, though as they age, they often endow a hospital for sick tots and yet another museum. Just in case.
The Fat Man
In “Mephisto” the actor Hendrik Hofgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) sells his talent to the monstrous prime minister, also known as The Fat Man, who appoints him director of Berlin’s State Theater. Like most top Nazis, the Fat Man enjoyed relaxing after a difficult day depopulating the Reich and thrilled to Hofgen’s portrait of Mephisto, the agent of destruction and negation. They had so much in common.
Drawing on Klaus Mann’s sardonic novel, Szabo’s extraordinary film begins at a small theater with a spotlit soprano singing a seductive operetta tune and ends at night in a huge arena where his patron makes Hofgen run in circles, shielding his eyes from the stadium lights.
“The world is my stage,” sneers the Fat Man at his frightened pet.
The backstory is fantastic.
Klaus Mann, son of the far more famous Thomas, published “Mephisto” in 1936, after fleeing Germany as Hitler became chancellor in 1933.
Hendrik Hofgen is just a alliterative letter removed from Gustav Grundgens, whom Klaus knew very well since the actor had once been married to his sister Erika, even though they were both -- in fact, all three -- gay.
The Fat Man is Hermann Goering, Hitler’s No. 2, who really did have an actress wife Emmy, a full-bosomed Valkyrie type, who occasionally enjoyed saving another actor from execution as a collegial gesture.
Mann must have been frothing at the mouth when he described her beloved hubby: “Set on a small bulging neck, his massive head looked as though it had been basted with red gravy.”
In a curious turn of events, Thomas Mann also wrote a novel “Doctor Faustus,” in which a composer relinquishes love for 24 years of greatness. He changes music, writing revolutionary works of dense complexity that sound a lot like the real compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, who invented a 12-tone style whose end result is the absence of melody.
When an ill child touches his heart, he descends into silent madness.
As a friend tells the story of Adrian Leverkuhn, he is also telling the story of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. But Mann’s 1947 novel was written in the sunny safety of Los Angeles exile. “Mephisto” was published before the war and the worst atrocities. He saw the future and in a Parisian newspaper nervily dispatched wedding wishes to Frau Goering:
“Lord what a career the mother of our country has made…and what fine guests you had: so many old comrades your husband has not yet murdered…”
In Szabo’s film, Hofgen comes off as the super-gifted artist who anchors himself in the world of make-believe. Theater is my life, he shouts. German is his language. I can’t emigrate. That the real Grundgens saved a few colleagues helped him after the war and he continued to triumph as Mephisto until his death in 1963.
Absurdly, his adopted son sued successfully to have “Mephisto” banned in Germany (for a while), though without the once popular bonfires and loud choruses of “Deutschland Uber Alles.”
Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” provoked a funnier response from another emigre in California: Schoenberg. He wasn’t so much perturbed at having his compositional style connected to the Prince of Darkness. No. He wanted credit from the author. Mann agreed and added a grateful end note that appears in all editions.
As for the Fat Man, he swallowed cyanide en route to the noose at Nuremberg, leaving Emmy bereft and bewildered. She thought the camps were for reeducation, she said, and thus had no idea that I.G. Farben, the chemical conglomerate that showered her with synthetic gems at her wedding, also perfected the pesticide Zyklon B gas for human consumption.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)