Two Films By István Szabó Reviewed: ‘Mephisto’ And ‘Colonel Redl’

by Rachel Bellwoar

Colonel Redl and Mephisto share a director in István Szabó. They both star Klaus Maria Brandauer, but they’re also both about men who let their careers shape their lives and where that leaves them in the end.
In Colonel Redl, Alfred Redl (Brandauer) would do anything to prove himself as a soldier, including sell out his own men if asked. At one point he’s told by a friend, “That civilian suit is the greatest lie in your life,” and, for a man who goes on to work in intelligence, that’s saying something.
Mephisto’s Hendrik Höfgen (also Brandauer) had a chance to leave Berlin before the Nazis came to power but didn’t take it out of fear that he would lose work as an actor. Redl and Höfgen have a lot in common but Redl is a believer. Höfgen is not, and whether that makes one morally superior to the other, it does make for different viewing experiences.
Redl has complete faith in the Austrian emperor. He thinks what he’s doing is right, a point Szabó makes by having the camera take Redl’s point of view. At first it seems like the characters are breaking the fourth wall but they’re really looking at Redl, not the audience. This stops once he joins the Imperial Royal Cadet School because Redl’s found the place where he belongs. In the military, he’s not the one being observed. He’s the observer.
There’s only one other person Redl ever expresses concern for and that’s his old school friend, Kubinyi (Támas Major), but for being such an important relationship, they don’t have a lot of scenes together and it makes it difficult to get invested in their friendship. Kubinyi isn’t exactly a good guy, either, so it’s not like you’re rooting for him instead.

Höfgen, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with the Nazis so much as he’d rather stay out of their way, but while he demonstrates more guilt than Redl does in Mephisto (and Brandauer’s performance is especially physical here), that’s because he’s in denial about his role. Theater is political, and as much as Höfgen would like to believe he’s removed from politics, that’s not what being a “bystander” means.
One thing that makes Mephisto more accessible than Colonel Redl is there’s more of an awareness around what was going on in Nazi Germany. Colonel Redl, on the other hand, is set before WWI and looks at the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s a period that doesn’t get covered as much, which means there’s a need for these stories, but Colonel Redl is more of a character study than a history lesson, so when Redl says he’s loyal to the emperor, the film is counting on viewers knowing which emperor he means.
Both DVDs include a featurette on production designer, József Romvári, and a featurette called “The Central Europe of István Szabó.” The former was directed by Romvári’s granddaughter, Sophy Romvári. Szabó is credited as narrator but the audio sounds like it was taken from a conversation between him and Sophy, so it’s more personal and casual, which is great. He shares a story about Romvári’s work on Confidence (another of Szabó’s films that they collaborated on) and at the end, when Sophy says she got to meet her grandfather once, there’s actual home video footage of their meeting. “The Central Europe of István Szabó” is a montage of Szabó’s films but, since none are labeled, you’re likely to find a clip that catches your eye and not know which film it’s from. Mephisto also comes with a commentary by film historian Samm Deighan that’s really helpful for providing more historical context.
Mephisto And Colonel Redl are available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting July 22nd from Kino Lorber.

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