Translated from German by Robin Smyth

A talented actor becomes the star of the show in the provincial theatres of Hamburg, seizes the opportunity to move to Berlin when it comes, and his star continues to rise. The zenith of his acting career arrives when he plays Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust. It is the role which secures his stardom. The irony though is that he is the one who has sold his soul to the devil. Hasn’t he?

How does the question even arise? Because of the timeframe which progresses from the final days of the Weimar Republic through the early years of the Nazi Reich. This actor’s upward mobility was only possible through keeping a powerful patron on side, in this case the second most powerful man in the Reich, Hermann Göring. To do that no argument would be tolerated, absolute obedience mandatory. Accepting a promotion to become director of the State Theater, albeit an honour, attaches you firmly to the leash. To be tugged and pulled as and when the benefactor wills. That the actor argues that only by staying in Germany is he in a position to help others who may fall foul of the regime might sound admirable at the start, but it gets lamer by the minute as we begin to understand that success is his real motivation, and see the moral compromises it takes to hold onto his position.

Although Klaus Mann denied the Mephisto was a roman á clef, his protagonist Hendrik Höfgen is a thinly disguised version of the actor, Gustaf Gründgens. A very thinly disguised version indeed when you consider that both characters changed their first names: Hendrik was born Henrik and Gustav, Gustaf. They share objectionable pasts from a Nazi point-of-view: seedy erotic lives and dalliances with communism but somehow manage to wash the stains away. Hermann Göring (the fat prime minister of the novel) was the man with the eraser if you will. But such “benevolence” only goes so far, as Höfgen, the blonde Rheinländer with, he thinks, nothing to fear, discovers after asking for one favour too many.

What is truly remarkable about Mann’s novel is his incisive understanding of the nature of National Socialism. One of the characters on returning from a concentration camp says “he has seen what no human eye can look upon without clouding with despair.” And regarding the party’s objectives another says “This militarily organised, disciplined, well-drilled youth had only one aim – the war of revenge, the war of conquest. Alsace-Lorraine was German. Switzerland was German. Denmark was German. Czechoslovakia was German. The Ukraine was German. Austria was so completely German that the case did not even have to be stated.” Remember these words were written in 1936 and not after the events with which we are now so familiar.

Klaus Mann fled Germany in 1933 with not an iota of tolerance for Nazi Germany in his being, or any doubt whatsoever that his protagonist’s stated motives are disingenuous.

It was a performance truly worthy of a great actor. One might almost have thought that Hendrik Höfgen cared only for money, power and fame instead of undermining the regime.

Waspish, scathing judgements like these are scattered throughout the novel, and yet it’s hard to dislike Höfgen entirely. Perhaps because his real life inspiration was the author’s ex-lover … and ex-brother-in-law. (There’s Weimar decadence for you.) Klaus Mann remained obsessed with Gründgens and his decision to remain in Germany for many years, but probably couldn’t bring himself to totally trash a man of whom he had been so fond (though he misses it by a whisker!) So there are still traces of naïvety and amiability remaining in his Höfgen, which are even more pronounced in Klaus Maria Brandauer’s portrayal in the 1981 film.

This stems primarily from the difference in his relationship with Juliette, a German black woman. In the novel she is a whip-branding dominatrix to whom Höfgen is unhealthily addicted. In the film there is mutual natural affection. In both she must go – this is “Rassenschande” and cannot be tolerated. A solution is found and her life is spared, but in the novel Höfgen must dirty his hands.

A key step in her dismissal is missing from the film, due to usual time constraints. So too are the arguments between Goebbels and Göring about Höfgen’s suitability to direct German theatre. They are not needed. The vulnerability of Höfgen’s position is clearly shown in the final chilling scene (an addition to the novel). Caught and blinded in the floodlights in the Berlin stadium, a puppet of the Reich, you can almost believe Höfgen’s anguished cry “What do you want from me? I’m only an actor!”

PS History has been kinder to Gründgens than Mann. Gründgens did help some of his former left-wing friends. Those acts which are shown in the novel are, however, scathingly dismissed as an “insurance policy”.