Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann
“I am absolutely indispensable!” yelled the director into the dark garden. “The theater needs me! Every regime needs the theater! No regime can get along without me!”
These words spoken by Hendrik Höfgen, the protagonist of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, echo across the decades as we in the 21st century confront political regimes that rely heavily on the manipulation of the populace through theatrical devices of mass media, from the confrontational tone of reality television — which has become so ingrained in politics in the United States as to make political rhetoric almost indistinguishable from popular entertainment — to the art of fake news reporting as propaganda par excellence, whether it be in the form of State controlled television broadcasts, Tweets, unsubstantiated memes, viral Internet “news articles” that circulate in social media, or actual fake news programs (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Onion) that often double as legitimate information sources. Klaus Mann’s novel seems prophetic not only in its prediction of the violent atrocities of the Nazis in the years after the novel’s publication in 1936, but also in its foresight to position theatrics as the essential means by which political regimes in the 20th century and beyond would disseminate their messages as a form of ritualistic entertainment.
Höfgen is a talented young performer and director who initially fears the Nazis due to his earlier flirtation with Communism. He has moderate success in the first stage of his career in Hamburg and eventually moves to Berlin to conquer the “system” and achieve stardom. It is here where he faces a choice: does he stay true to himself and to his art by rejecting the accolades of the Nazi regime, or does he make a pact with the “devil” by joining their ranks to seek fortune and lasting greatness? He does the latter with a performance of Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust (the symbolism here is not subtle!), becoming the darling of the regime and the public artistic face of the Nazis. However, his success is won, in the prophetic words of Mann, “over the bodies of corpses,” as he soon discovers that his pact with the devil will “poison the air of European cities” as readily as gas attacks. The power of propaganda will transform his art into lies, stunt the growth of his craft, and finally destroy his soul.
By the end of the novel, Höfgen is humbled and defeated. The Nazis use him as much as he uses them; he is, after all, only a man–an actor. But as Klaus Mann makes clear, the greatest atrocities and cruelties in the world are perpetrated by mere simple men. They are the foundation upon which fascist regimes are built.
With an expansive gesture Höfgen threw wide his arms under his cloak, making it seem that he had grown black wings. The man of power slapped him on the back. A respectful murmur went around the orchestra. Then, like the music at a circus before the most dangerous act, it fell silent in deference to the extraordinary happening that followed.
The prime minister had risen. There he stood in all his magnitude, his shining bulk, and stretched out his hand to the actor. Was he congratulating him on his magnificent performance? It looked more like the sealing of a pact between the potentate and the actor.
In a sense, all fascists are actors. They perform with a specific stagecraft that combines communal ritual with bombastic rhetoric, very often in a way that twists lies into truth. Every regime needs theater, but not every theater needs to be a cog in the machine. And not every actor or artist must take part in the performance. Indeed, Mann is arguing strongly in favor of an art that can do the opposite of fascist theatrics — the power of fiction (as a type of “lie”) to unravel the twisted rhetoric of fascism and reveal the truth that their political stagecraft veils. To drive home this point, Mann includes actual members of the Nazi regime in his novel as characters — including Hermann Göring, named only as “the Fat One,” but described in such detail that it is obvious to whom Mann is referring — which adds a sense of immediacy and realism to his novel, not to mention a touch of personal risk for Mann!
Ultimately, Höfgen is unable to follow up his success as Mephisto with a performance as Hamlet, leading him to realize that selling out for success and fame doesn’t translate to an elevation in his craft. If anything, the price for his new fame is an artistic void that sinks him deeper into despair. Whereas Mephisto is a character of action — exaggerated, flamboyant, over-the-top — Hamlet is subtle, brooding, and an “intellectual,” in the words of the Nazi propagandist critic quoted in the novel. In the eyes of the Nazis, Hamlet is the type of character that the Führer must help the German people to overcome. While Höfgen excels at embodying Mephisto, a character condemned to repeat his same performance in servitude to a larger force of darkness, he is unable to muster the emotional honesty and vulnerability of Hamlet, who must struggle openly with questions of moral relativism. Höfgen comes to realize that he is more Hamlet than Mephisto, but that he has deluded himself (and his fascist audience) into thinking otherwise. He plays Hamlet as a dashing Romantic hero, to the acclaim of the Nazis, but the performance rings empty and false to Höfgen. He cannot remain true to his art and to the twisted sensibilities of the regime at the same time. Whereas art is the creation of fictions to reveal honest insights (Hamlet), propaganda at the behest of the regime is the manipulation of fictions to conceal truth (Mephisto). In both his personal and artistic life, Höfgen has traded Hamlet for Mephisto, the fiction of revelation for the fiction of concealment.
The question Mann leaves with his readers is, “Which fiction will you embrace?”