It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
In "Mephisto," a movie that takes place in Germany during the rise of Nazism, there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word "actor"! It is screamed at the film's hero by his sponsor, a Nazi general who is in charge of cultural affairs. We stare into the actor's face, but are unable to determine what he is thinking, or what he is feeling. Maybe that is what makes him a great actor and an ignoble human being.
The actor is played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, in a performance of electrifying power; he makes us intensely fascinated by his character while keeping us on the outside -- until we discover there is no inside. He plays an actor named Hendrik Hoefgen, but even that's not quite right; his real name is "Heinz" until he upgrades it. ("My name is not my name," he says to himself, "because I am an actor.") Hoefgen bitterly reveals early on that what he hates most about himself is that he is a "provincial actor." Eventually he will become Germany's most famous and admired actor, and the head of its State Theater, but that progression is in fact a descent into hell.
We should begin by noting how particularly "Mephisto" (1981) makes its details vivid: The look and feel of the theater, the rise of the Nazi Party from the 1920s through the 1930s, the Berlin social life that was itself a stage. The film's Hungarian director, Istvan Szabo, demonstrates that the Nazi uniforms themselves seemed to transform some people into Nazis, just as costumes and makeup can make some actors into other people. The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic; to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them. And we sense the sadomasochistic undertones that helped seduce a ruling class into a system of evil.
The film opens in Hamburg, where Hoefgen is involved in a small-time theater scene that is later described as communist, bourgeois, decadent -- everything but National Socialist. Consumed with ambition, he throws himself into his work with abandon. During a meeting to discuss the props for one production, he hears the words "lamppost" and flies into a manic fury, declaring that the lamppost, and the exploited worker woman who stands beneath it, symbolize all that is rotten with Germany. He leaps from the stage into the auditorium, screaming that the lampposts will not be confined to the stage but will extend into the orchestra! -- the dress circle! the entire theater! -- as their revolutionary spirit unites actors and audience. The others look at him with astonishment.