A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
There are times in "Mephisto" when the hero tries to explain himself by saying that he's only an actor, and he has that almost right: All he is, is an actor. It's not his fault that the Nazis have come to power, and that as a German-speaking actor he must choose between becoming a Nazi and being exiled into a foreign land without jobs or German actors. As long as he is acting, as long as he is not called upon to risk his real feelings, this man can act his way into the hearts of women, audiences, and the Nazi power structure. This is the story of a man who plays his life wearing masks, fearing that if the last mask is removed, he will have no face.
The actor is played by Klaus Maria Brandauer in one of the greatest movie performances I've ever seen. The character is not sympathetic, and yet we identify with him because he shares so many of our own weaknesses and fears. He is not a very good actor or a very good human being, but he is good enough to get by in ordinary times. As the movie opens, he's a socialist, interested in all the most progressive new causes, and is even the proud lover of a black woman. By the end of the film, he has learned that his politics were a taste, not a conviction, and that he will do anything, flatter anybody, make any compromise.
"Mephisto'' does an uncanny job of creating its period, of showing us Hamburg and Berlin from the 1920s to the 1940s. I've never seen a movie that does a better job of showing the seductive Nazi practice of providing party members with theatrical costumes, titles and pageantry. In this movie not being a Nazi is like being at a black-tie ball in a brown corduroy suit. Hendrik Hoefgen, the actor, is drawn to this world like a magnet. From his ambitious beginnings in the provincial German theater, he works his way up into more important roles and laterally into more important society.
All of his progress is based on lies. He marries a woman he does not love, because her father can do him some good. When the rise of the Nazis destroys his father-in-law's power, he leaves his wife. He continues all this time to maintain his affair with his black mistress. He has a modest but undeniable talent as an actor, but prostitutes it by playing his favorite role, Mephistopheles in "Faust," not as he could but as he calculates he should.