Sunday, 10th December, pm

163.V: I. Svabo: Mephisto, 1981, colour, full screen, from BBC2 broadcast, November 1999, 138′00″

I saw Mephisto down in London when it first came out. Even then, I remember feeling that the early dancing scene was anachronistic in style and featured the most unsettling use of leg-warmers since - oh, all those other leg-warmer films. Once over that little hurdle, the film is alluring, though nearly a one-man show. Klaus Maria Brandauer is Hendrik Hofgen, an ambitious actor whose inner emptiness makes him an arch manipulator. Rather too schematically he comes to a late realization that the purity of his art was a delusion and he is an empty husk to be tossed aside by the Nazis, now he has served their cause.

As a story, it is pretty much painting-by-numbers, from a novel by Heinrich Mann, the weaker more despairing brother of Thomas. Brandauer’s performance is showy in the extreme; every thought, every mood, every vanity passes across his countenance, as if to say to the world that it must love his playing with it. The power of this film derives from the fact that the same spell is worked on us and Hendrik’s self-conscious vice steals the show.

The film’s theme corresponds remarkably with that of Il Conformisto, especially notable in its toying with lesbiansim as the icing on a decadent cake. Both films also use dance as a symbol of social corruption, here with a memorable influx of white-faced demons. Though Brandauer plays an exhibitionist, he is mocked by his lover as a man who cannot even drink a glass of beer without turning it into a performance. Trintignant’s poker-face may seem the polar opposite of Brandauer’s flamboyance but they are empty vessels both.

As Hofgen’s dark lady, Karin Boyd gives her part a tigerish wildness and otherness which ultimately proves more touching when her vulnerability in the society is exposed. Otherwise the most powerful impression is made by Rolf Hoppe as a truly terrifiying Nazi General, relishing his sudden power. As if to ensure its success with the critics, Svabo cast English film critic David Robinson in the rĂ´le of an effete English critic. That should not have been too difficult but it is pretty hard on the audience!

The picture won an Academy Award in 1982 as best foreign film. Leg-warmers apart, it is beginning to look like a classic. This was a slightly fuzzy old tape from analogue telly. It would be good to see this from a better source.