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Mephisto hungarian poster 1981.png
Hungarian theatrical release poster
Directed byIstván Szabó
Screenplay byPéter Dobai
István Szabó
Story byPéter Dobai
Based onMephisto
by Klaus Mann
Produced byManfred Durniok
StarringKlaus Maria Brandauer
Krystyna Janda
Ildikó Bánsági
CinematographyLajos Koltai
Edited byZsuzsa Csákán
Music byZdenko Tamassy
Distributed byAnalysis Film Releasing Corporation (U.S.)
Cinegate (U.K.)
Release dates
  • 29 April 1981 (1981-04-29) (Germany)
  • 8 October 1981 (1981-10-08) (Hungary)
Running time
144 minutes

Mephisto is a 1981 drama film based on the novel of the same title by Klaus Mann. Directed by István Szabó, produced by Manfred Durniok, with a screenplay written by Péter Dobai and Szabó, Mephisto follows a German stage actor who finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. As his associates and friends flee or are ground under by the Nazi regime, the popularity of his character ends up superseding his own existence, until he finds that his best performance is keeping up appearances for his Nazi patrons. The film stars Klaus Maria Brandauer in the main role, alongside Krystyna Janda and Ildikó Bánsági in supporting roles.

Mephisto was released on April 29, 1981[citation needed] in Germany and on October 8, 1981[1] in Hungary. The film received generally positive reviews and was the first Hungarian film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.


The film adapts the story of Mephistopheles and Doctor Faustus by revealing the costs to the main character Hendrik Höfgen as he abandons his conscience and continues to perform, ingratiating himself with the Nazi Party in order to retain his job and improve his social position.

Hendrik Höfgen (Brandauer) craves center stage. The first third of the film follows his career as a frustrated actor slogging it out in provincial theaters, occasionally dancing and singing and doing parts in films to gain notice. He even founds a Bolshevik theater with a friend to generate more work, in the avant-garde period of the early 1930s, before the Nazis came to power. Initially, Hendrik is more successful in his love life than as an actor. Both strands unite, however, when his new wife Barbara (Krystyna Janda) watches him play the ultimate role, Mephisto, just before the Nazi Party rises to power in Germany. While his wife, leading actors, and friends go into exile, or protest against the new regime, Hendrik returns to Germany lured by the promise of forgiveness for his communist theatre escapade and a desire to act in his native language. When the Nazi Party effectively offers to make him a star, he doesn't hesitate. Great roles and accolades quickly come his way, and Hendrik revels in his success.

Hendrik reprises his greatest role as Mephisto and agrees to run the national theatre, working around the cultural restrictions and brutality of the Nazi government. He blithely overlooks the profound moral compromises of his situation, excusing himself by using the power of his close relationships with Nazi officials to help friends who would otherwise be targeted by the regime.

The plot's bitter irony is that the protagonist's fondest dream is to become Germany's greatest actor, playing Hamlet and Mephisto, but in order to achieve this dream he sells his soul. In the process, he realizes too late that he is not playing the role of Mephisto but that of Faustus; it is the Nazi leader (Rolf Hoppe) with a major role in the film (modeled on Hermann Göring) who is the real Mephisto.



The film was the highest-grossing Hungarian film in the United States and Canada with a gross of $3.9 million.[2]


Mephisto was awarded the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was submitted to the Academy by Hungary.[3] It was the first Hungarian film to win the Foreign Language Oscar, and the only one until Son of Saul won in 2016.

At the 1981 Cannes Film Festival the film won the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Prize.[4] It received the award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982 by the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Cunningham, John (2014). The Cinema of István Szabó: Visions of Europe. New York City: Columbia University Press. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-231-17199-1.
  2. ^ "Pix from afar: National bests in the U.S.". Variety. January 7, 1991. p. 86.
  3. ^ "The 54th Academy Awards (1982) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2013-06-15.
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Mephisto". Retrieved 2009-05-31.
  5. ^ "1982 Award Winners". National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2016.