The end of the modern artist–not with a bang but a whimper

I just watched a Hungarian-German film called Mephisto, about an actor who refuses to leave Germany after the Nazis take over and, despite his own dislike of Nazism, does propoganda work and becomes the biggest star in the country. The film relies overly on symbolism as shorthand in lieu of real dramatic development, including a conclusion that tries far too hard to sum up the entire film in a single image instead of drawing to a general conclusion, and thus makes the film seem not concluded but merely arbitrarily curtailed. More importantly, it falsely sums up the film by suggesting that the protagonist has gained the world but lost his own soul. This is of course the classic Faustian theme, suggested by the film’s title and by constant references in the film (being a German stage actor, Goethe naturally comprises a large part of the protagonist’s repertoire). But the real conclusion of the film is indicated a bit earlier, when the protagonist attempts to intervene on behalf of a friend who has been arrested and his patron, the Göring-like Reichspräsident, mocks the actor’s insignificance. Hence, while the short-term result of his Faustian pact is an increase in personal fame, in the end the Nazi regime will end by obliterating, or at least trying to, the very literary culture that is the foundation of the theater and his career. It reminds me of a comment I once read regarding Carl Schmitt, the German theoritician of the ’30’s who praised dictatorship and ambivalently embraced the Nazi regime, of whom it was said that it was ironic that he idolized a political system that had no real need or use for philosophers like him.

So while the portrayal of an artistic personality grappling with a social conscience may be revealing on a personal level, it would be somewhat presumptuous for another artist to claim that the stakes of this artist’s battle are as high as Faust’s for the rest of the world. The protagonist in the film is little more than artistic window-dressing for the Nazis, and in my opinion here, as in much of the 20th century, it is the insignificance of artists in society rather than the immoral use of their talents at which it is most to be remarked. Or as Douglas Adams puts it in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

“Things had certainly come down a long way since the great days of Faust and Mephistopheles, when a man could gain all the knowledge of the universe, achieve all the ambitions of his mind and all the pleasures of the flesh for the price of his soul. Now it was a few record royalties, a few pieces of trendy furniture, a trinket to stick on your bathroom wall and, whap, your head comes off.”

p.s. Although Faust is one of the constant points of reference in the film (Hamlet is another), the protagonist actually portrays Mephistopheles on the stage and is identified with him off it. Is this to insinuate a more condamnatory tone than is otherwise presented in the film, and to imply that he is more the seducer to evil than the seduced? These are rather intriguing ideas but somewhat unconvincing, since the protagonist is a opportunist and a follower of the path of least resistance, someone without the boldness or the stamina to be much of a force for good or evil, though the circumstances in which he lives may be enough to tip him decisively to one side or the other. A more natural comparison, though one with less resonance to the specific events of the film, would be to The Hollow Men.

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