Welcome back to Take Two, a column focusing on two films released in the same year, one a major release the other a hidden gem that share similar themes. The first entry focused on 1980 and the theme of trauma, looking at Best Picture winner Ordinary People and indie film Out of the Blue.
This time, the focus turns to 1981, where we will be looking at one of the most successful blockbusters of all time, and a small Hungarian film about an obsessive actor. While these two films, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mephisto are different in virtually every way, one common theme links them together. The role of Nazism is vital to the existence of both films. So, without further ado, lets get to it!
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic for a good reason: the film is extraordinarily watchable, and a bonafide thrill-ride from start to finish. Directed by Steven Spielberg, with a script by Lawrence Kasdan (from an original story from George Lucas and Philip Kaufman), Raiders was the biggest box-office hit of 1981. Adjusted for inflation, the film still stands as one of the most financially successful films ever made. The critical acclaim was immense as well, as the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four. The films plot is simple and well known: renowned archaeologist Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is hired by the U.S. government to locate the Ark of the Covenant, and he finds himself in a battle against the Nazi regime.
The first scene involving Nazis tells the audience a great deal about how they will be presented in Raiders. Entering Marion’s (Karen Allen) bar late at night, after it’s closed, looking for a headpiece in Marion’s possession. As Marion begins to close up, the bar door opens. Standing there is Nazi Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) surrounded by a gang of thugs. Lit from behind, the gang is cloaked in darkness, immediately highlighting their sinister intentions. With the John Williams score blasting its most diabolical tones, there is nothing left to the imagination, and this group of characters are immediately painted as villains. Toht’s first words are “Good evening, Fraulein”, establishing his position as a Nazi. Set out in a straightforward shot/reverse shot pattern, the frame shows Toht and his gang’s approach towards Marion. Instead of cutting directly to Marion’s reaction, however, the camera first focuses on the gang’s menacing, heightened shadows on the wall before panning down towards Marion. This moment highlights the menacing intentions of the Nazi regime and Toht in particular. As the conversation between Toht and Marion continues, her face is fully lit while Toht’s remains cloaked in shadow, not so subtly creating a divide between good and evil.
After a brawl, Toht grabs hold of the amulet, it burns his skin and he drops it, recoiling back into the night. The burning not only serves the plot by foreshadowing the films spectacular climax, but suggests a sort of impurity on Toht and the Nazi’s part. Toht cannot hold the amulet, and therefore cannot wield the power of the Ark of the Covenant. The film does show the amulet sitting amongst flames, so it is easy to suggest that the amulet would be burning hot for anyone to touch. However, Marion is seen picking it up moments later (albeit covering the amulet in a scarf) with no reaction. Surely such light material is not enough to counter the burning heat of the amulet? Therefore, someone with noble intentions like Marion or Indy can pick up the amulet, and is deserving of such power, but such deplorable beings like Nazis are certainly undeserving of such things.
This sequence, while not normally discussed amongst the most memorable moments in the Indiana Jones franchise, is crucial for the way Raiders establishes its position of Nazis. They are boorish, evil, and manic – motivated purely by their quest for global domination. There is something compelling about taking such an evil force like Nazism that had such an enormously devastating impact on the world and reducing the very essence of Nazism into a cartoonish caricature. Raiders is a lot more subversive than it is given credit for, and adds insult to injury by reducing the Nazi regime to a gang of bumbling caricatures.
While the first scene involving the Nazis is crucial in establishing their representation, their final moment on screen affirms their role in Raiders. In it, the Nazis finally get hold of the Ark of the Covenant, and are moments away from what they believe to be invincibility, allowing them to successfully take over the world. Dr. Renee Belloq (Paul Freeman), an archaeologist whom along with Toht is the main antagonist of the film, sides with the Nazis to get his hands on the Ark. Belloq sides with them to contact God via the Ark, and performs an incantation upon opening it. In a shocking twist, spirits begin to emerge, as the Nazis (as well as Indy and Marion, who are forced to watch while tied to a pole) look on in confusion. As the spirits escape the Ark and begin to move around the Nazis, the camera cuts to a shot of spirits circling Marion and Indy, and moving on. The spirits begin to attack the Nazis, and the camera cuts back and forth between the Nazis and Indy and Marion, establishing that they will be spared, while the Nazis undergo unspeakable torture. The Nazis are burnt alive, shockwaves travelling through their body, while Toht and Belloq’s skin melts off their faces, in a spectacular use of special effects.
A volcanic eruption occurs, and all the Nazis are completely obliterated, while Marion and Indy remain unharmed. Here, Raiders returns to its initial assertion that Nazis are subhuman and impure, and are burnt alive while the heroic characters are spared. The film indulges in a glorious wish fulfillment fantasy, as the evil Nazi regime is not only defeated, but burnt to a crisp and completely evaporated from the earth. It’s no coincidence that an American like Indiana Jones is responsible, and Raiders is a spectacular action film that celebrates the defeat of the Nazis while indulging in thrills and brilliantly choregraphed action sequences that have been copied time and time again.
While it may appear that Mephisto, a Hungarian film directed by Ivan Szabó, couldn’t possibly have less to do with a film like Raiders, it offers a completely different yet equally compelling view of Nazism, making for a fascinating comparison. It was a great critical success, wining Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and was the first Hungarian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. However, nowadays it is extremely difficult to come by, and never received a DVD release in North America. This is nothing short of a tragedy, as the film is a challenging yet hugely rewarding watch.
Mephisto begins with a man screaming in his dressing room after a performance. He is Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauber), an actor and a prominent member of the provincial theatre scene in Hamburg, Germany. Everything about him is theatrical – he even changed his name from Heinz as part of his performative lifestyle. The film begins in the early thirties, and Hoefgen proudly disdains the Nazi party and all that it stands for. Still, his interests are almost exclusively theatre: in one scene, he bursts into a passionate, wild diatribe about the placements of lampposts in a show and what they represent, leaving everyone else in the room dumbfounded.
Mephisto is not just a character study of an attention-seeking performer, but a searing look at persuasion and the cost of success. The film takes place over several years, beginning before the Nazi party took power in the early 1930s, and into World War II. Hoefgen’s talent as an actor does not go ignored, and after years of slumming it (so he would perceive) in local theatres, and playing the role of Mephistopheles, he grabs the attention of prominent folk who help assure his success, and ultimately his place at the National theatre in Berlin. The particularly prominent man in question is the cultural tsar of the Reich, referred to as the General (Rolf Hoppe). He is amazed by Hoefgen’s performance, and affectionately refers to him as “My Mephisto”.
The General helps Hoefgen’s history with left-wing friends and policies disappear, which is helped by most of his former friends fleeing Germany in fear of their lives. This never seems to ruffle Hoefgen, who remains dead-set on his ambition to be a star and remain in the spotlight. It is disturbing to see a character who once appeared so passionate and steadfast in his beliefs have them effortlessly wash away when it becomes evident that the only thing Hoefgen wants is to be admired as an actor.
The way Nazis are perceived in Mephisto is part of what makes it such fascinating viewing. Unlike the zany mustache-twirling caricatures found in Raiders, those in Szabó’s film seem just like ordinary citizens. Szabó links the Nazi uniform to that of a costume, inciting a sort of transformative power that occurs when the uniform is put on. Similar to the way Hoefgen puts on costumes to inhabit characters in the theatre, the Nazis in the film wear their uniforms and progress into a more sinister version of themselves. Interestingly, the atrocities committed by the Nazis are entirely off-screen. The only exception is when Hoefgen witnesses a group of Nazis gang up and attack a Jewish person on the street. Here, Szabó places this scene directly before a grand performance of Hoefgen, suggesting that as the audience and applause for Hoefgen increases, so does the violence and terror around him. As Mephisto exists largely through Hoefgen’s perspective, the audience sees through his deluded mind, so Nazis in the film are often just like everyone else, sometimes even good people who want to help him succeed.
This does not, however, make the film pro-Nazi in any way shape or form. In fact, Szabó’s condemnation of Nazism is simply subtler. It comes across in conversations about culture, in which Nazis, and particularly the General, speak about the end of Bolshevism and the importance of specifically German art. German culture is pure, while stories about other countries are cancerous and cannot be spread. While the General has worked to remove Hoefgen’s past of left-wing ideology, the two argue when he discovers Hoefgen is having an affair with a mixed-race woman, highlighting the disgraceful Nazi racism and their desire for a so-called racial purity.
The General’s office is beautifully constructed by Szabó as a giant throne room, heightening the dictatorial power of the Nazi party. Hoefgen and the General get in a massive fight, and the General hurls insults at Hoefgen, culminating in using the word actor (the very word that Hoefgen takes great pride in defining himself as) as a blistering insult in one of the film’s most powerful and effective sequences.
Ultimately, Mephisto plays out as the reverse of Raiders. While Indiana Jones gains control of the Nazis, letting their greed and thirst for domination lead to their fiery demise, Hoefgen is controlled by the Nazis. He relinquishes everything he once held dear – his lover and his friends – for his acting career. This is a man who is horribly vain, and his vanity highlights the Nazis ability to control and manipulate the populace, turning those who once opposed them into people willing to abide by their laws. It’s here where Szabó’s representing the Nazis is the most powerful; his nuanced approach allows viewers to see just how calm and manipulative the Nazis really were, and this subtlety allows them to feel more menacing and evil than painting them as caricatures.
In the end, Szabó produces a tour-de-force in the film’s final scene, where Hoefgen gets the spotlight all to himself, and the camera is completely focused on him, with no other soul in sight. But there is a question reverberating in the film’s final seconds: at what cost?