When the Nazis came to power in 1933 The German actor Hendrik Höfgen, who has fled to Paris for safety, is forced to choose. Anonymous exile in a foreign land, or cooperation with the enemy in exchange for fame, money and prestige? Hendrik already has the one-way ticket to Berlin in his pocket, but hesitates. Then he recognizes his own wife – also a refugee – and her friends on a terrace. “They sat motionless, as if a great pain had petrified them, while Hendrik went quickly away with small and stiff steps, like a man who walks terrified to avoid danger, yet wishes to conceal his flight.”
Höfgen chooses Nazi Germany. This pact with the devil is the central act of Mephisto, Klaus Mann’s novel. The book was published in 1936 by the Exil publisher Querido Verlag in Amsterdam and has a special history, not least because the book was first published in (West) Germany in 1981. In 1936 it was banned by the Nazis, but even after the war no publisher dared to try the book, because the bald and cross-eyed protagonist bore a striking resemblance to star actor Gustaf Gründgens. Even after the death of both Mann and Gründgens, the judge forbade the performance of Mephisto: Gründgens’ good name was more important than the artist’s freedom.
Gründgens and Mann were once inseparable, even family. The actor was briefly married to Klaus Mann’s older sister Erika. Erika and Klaus were the eldest children of Katia and Thomas Mann. Klaus decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Klaus first published at the age of 19 and quickly became a respected writer and critic. Nevertheless, he was always overshadowed by his father, the most famous German writer of the twentieth century. Wrong, because Mephisto is a masterpiece, and Klaus Mann’s autobiography There Turning Point as a reminder of the pre-war period, Europe is no less than Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Yesterday.
Gay Klaus Mann led a messy life and traveled the world in the 1920s with his sister Erika. After his emigration in 1933, he led a nomadic life in Amsterdam, Prague and Paris with many lovers and drugs. In opposition to the Nazi regime, he founded an emigrant magazine, Die Sammlung, with contributions from the likes of Albert Einstein, Jean Cocteau, Joseph Roth and Ernest Hemingway. After the outbreak of World War II, Mann became an American citizen and started another magazine from New York called Decision. Only during the liberation did he return to Germany, now as an American soldier.
Years earlier, then nsdap composed of only a handful of fringe anti-Semites, Klaus Mann played with his sister Erika and Gustaf Gründgens in a theater company in Hamburg. ‘Gründgens’, writes Mann in The turning point, ‘was the versatile star of the Hamburger Kammerspiele (…). He sparkled and burst with talent, the charming, inventive, persuasive, coquettish Gustaf! The whole of Hamburg was under his spell.’
Hamburg at the time of the Weimar Republic is also the environment where Mephisto begins after a dazzling prologue full of Nazi glamour. Roughly speaking, the novel consists of two parts: the period before 1933 and the period after. Besides major differences between the Weimar Republic and the dictatorship, there are also similarities. The world behind the scenes of the theatre, for example: gossip and haggling take place there all the time, talent is an important success factor, but certainly not everything. The right opinion also matters, the right policy, and so Höfgen flirts with communism. He makes plans for the Revolutionary Theater together with the actor Otto Ulrichs, but he also always comes up with a ruse not to manifest his communism outside the salons – because yes, you never know who the next ruler will be.
Everything is in the service of Höfgen’s career. He marries Barbara, who as the daughter of a respected official is a good match at the time. Every now and then Höfgen has to correct his liberal attitude. For example, when she shows understanding for a National Socialist actor: ‘I hope for you, dear, that you will only get along well – with this underworld – when it comes to power; you would be able to discover interesting sides in this fascist terror. Your liberalism would learn to agree with the nationalist dictatorship. Only we, the heroic revolutionaries, are their mortal enemies – and only we will prevent their power from growing!’
That marriage doesn’t last long, but that doesn’t bother Hendrik Höfgen. His star is rising. In 1932 he plays Mephisto in Faust – he has never been so excited about a role. Mephisto must become his masterpiece.
As Höfgen’s fame approaches its zenith, the Weimar Republic is cracking at the seams. But Höfgen, ‘specialist in elegant scoundrels, murderers in coats, historical impostors – sees nothing, hears nothing, notices nothing’. When co-star Dora Martin learns English to travel to America, Höfgen has no idea why.
When Höfgen reads that Hitler has become Chancellor, he orders a bottle of champagne to recover from the shock. To be safe, he flees to Paris, but he is shocked by the baldness of emigrant life. It may be against his principles, but maybe it’s not so bad with those Nazis.
When art is used for a political purpose, it is always at the expense of the artwork
And then Höfgen returns and, after expressing remorse for his communist childhood sins, becomes the favorite of the Prime Minister, who is also Minister of Aviation (nicknamed the fat one and looks like Hermann Göring). His patron is fond of theatrics and can’t help but talk about Mephisto: ‘Haven’t we all got something from him? I mean: is not every German a piece of Mephistopheles, a piece of scoundrel and villain? If we had nothing but the soul of Faust, where would we be? It would be so easy for our enemies! No no. Mephisto is also a German national hero. You just can’t tell people that.’
Höfgen himself says that he himself has not changed. He is now trying to erode the regime from within and is making half-hearted attempts to do so. His former communist friends meanwhile disappear and die in the torture chambers and concentration camps.
The horrors pile up, but Höfgen sits firmly in the saddle. He drives a silver Mercedes, lives in a big house in Grünewald, he sometimes has parties, but he is not happy. Even when he ruins his Hamlet, the audience is frantic. They applaud because he is part of the power. His ambition has cost him his artistry. The curtain falls with the despairing cry: ‘Ich bin but nur ein ganz gewöhnlicher Schauspieler!’
In 1936, the real horror of Nazism was yet to come, yet Klaus Mann was already showing how art is used for the benefit of a totalitarian regime. Mephisto Written as a novel against Nazism, it is above all a revealing study of the corrupting effect of power. When art is used for a political purpose, it is always at the expense of the artwork.
First Hendrik Höfgen resolutely rejects the Nazis, then hesitates, then responds to temptation, then watches his own degeneration in horror, until finally even his acting talent has crumbled to pulp.
There is no such thing as one little Fault: Höfgen knows he is involved with dark forces, but tells himself he is different from others. His commitment is self-delusion: he wants to fight the Nazis from within and is still communist deep down, but can you undermine the regime from within while drinking champagne with Göring and Goebbels?
Höfgen is most annoying when he lectures his friends about their lack of commitment and about the coming of the revolution. Precisely because they take place before is Faustmoment with which Mann makes it clear what commitment is really worth when one none makes offers. Little.
Through his light-hearted narrative style, Mann creates more distance with the characters – they are set pieces and each time represent a different reaction to the Nazi regime. The notion of a key novel is far too narrow to describe the genius of Mephisto not least because it reduces a novel to a puzzle. Still, it is understandable that Gustaf Gründgens was not at all satisfied with the portrait of Hendrik Höfgen.
“Someone else might as well have served me as an example,” Mann writes in his memoirs The turning point. “I chose Gründgens not because I saw him as a particularly bad case (he was perhaps better than many other dignitaries of the Third Reich), but simply because I happened to know him very well.”
Klaus Mann and Gustaf Gründgens meet one last time. In 1946, when Mann goes to the premiere of There Snob, by playwright Carl Sternheim. After a short stay in an internment camp, Gründgens is back on stage playing the lead role. Klaus Mann sits in the front row and notes that Gründgens has not changed: ‘Attractive as ever, with white tie, ruddy complexion and a blonde toupee: Berlin’s indestructible darling before, during and after the Nazi era’.
Where Gründgens again caused a furore after the war and was allowed to play Mephistopheles again in the film adaptation of faust, Klaus Mann ends up in a trough, he makes all sorts of new plans that don’t come true: Lack of enthusiasm among the publishers. He is a pre-war writer. He is disappointed, depressed and in May 1949 he dies in Cannes of an overdose of sleeping pills. In his last letter, he accuses a publisher of not wanting to risk a reprint of Mephisto, because of Gründgens’ reputation: ‘Don’t take any risks! (…) Always that power! You know where this is going. To concentration camps, which they later say they didn’t know about…’
Berend Sommer is an author, including the recently published novel golden days