Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Mephisto by Klaus Mann


 Mephisto, written in 1936, is Klaus Mann’s revealing, if fictional, portrait of his brother-in-law’s ascendancy to the directorship of the State Theatre under the Nazi regime.  In this novel, we see the trajectory of Hendrick Hofgen (Gustaf Grundgens in real life), a talented if mercurial actor, from relative obscurity to fame as a result of a Faustian bargain within himself.  


With early successes under his belt, Hofgen, a somewhat left-leaning actor/director is at first fearful for his life as Nazi power grows in Germany, given his earlier (albeit largely superficial) embrace of Communism, and his poor treatment of a brown-shirted fellow actor.  Safely out of the country when Hitler is elected Chancellor, he is lured back by his desire for fame when he is assured protection by an old acquaintance, an actress who has become the paramour of a powerful party member (clearly Hermann Goering, although Mann is careful not to use names when referring to high-ranking Nazis).  He acquires fame and wealth, a mansion, and a stable full of fine automobiles, and hosts fantastic parties with the well-connected.  Still he finds himself in precarious circumstances as the Minister of Propaganda, a rival to his protector, learns more and more of his suspicious past, which includes not only leftist activities but sexual deviances as well (disguised in the novel as a masochistic relationship with a half-black dominatrix, it is generally acknowledged that Mann was loathe to expose Grundgens’ true “deviance” – homosexuality – as he was in fact homosexual himself).  Ultimately, his protector wins out over the propaganda minister, and Hofgen comes to feel secure in his bubble, distancing himself from former loves and acquaintances (some very obviously representative of the “old” Germany), desperately shuffling off those who could expose his past, and shutting out the more unsavory events transpiring around him.

Growing used to his exalted position and emboldened by his fame, Hofgen assuages his guilty conscience by securing the release of a former leftist compatriot from torture and detention, but the release is short lived as the man, Hans Ullrich - in clear contrast to our protagonist – is a man of ideals and commitment who returns to his heroically doomed anti-Nazi activities.  In seeking further aid for his friend, Hofgen is starkly put in his place by Goering, who coldly reveals that he knows everything that Hofgen is, and that he is his to use or dispose of as he sees fit.  The bargain is complete, and Hofgen is in Hell, placed there by himself, and himself alone.

Klaus Mann was the son of the pre-eminent 20th century German author, Thomas Mann (who himself confronted the degeneration of the German soul in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus). Although written in 1936, the book was not translated into English until 1977.  A film version of Mephiso, directed by Istvan Szabo and featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981. I had hoped to re-watch it after finishing the novel, but despite its former acclaim, it has proved difficult to find on streaming services. After some wandering in exile from the Nazi regime, Klaus Mann became a U. S. citizen in 1943 and served in the United States Army during World War II.  He died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949.  His novel was the posthumous focus of a long-running lawsuit in West Germany brought by Grundgens’ adopted son. 


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