A German stage actor finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. As his associates and ... See full summary »
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A German stage actor finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. As his associates and friends flee or are ground under by the Nazi terror, the popularity of his character supercedes his own existence until he finds that his best performance is keeping up appearances for his Nazi patrons. Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
I have been surveying film for mechanisms that control vision, a set of mechanisms, on the assumption that most of these are modeled from the way we approach the real world. In the usual mode, film works upon Greek catharsis. We are a vessel whereby a sin is conveyed, so that we can briefly experience the redemption that eludes us in life. This feeling of redemption is none other than emotion surfacing n a way that is reasonable and has purpose. Our best dramatic works, Seven Samurai, Lawrence, crystallize the external world of conflicting emotion with the most clarity. We shiver redeemed by the clutter of indecisive thought. It all makes sense to us, in a way that transforms confusing day-to-day life into a clear struggle that is akin to destiny.
This is fine and has some merit, but there is another remove that often goes unnoticed. We are not just, all of us, actors on the big stage of the world. We are also actors in the private world of dreams, and this one comes before the other (this is clear, in that we usually have to think before we act). That is again fine. You can still observe these things while conventionally remaining the protagonist, this is clear in the works of Cronenberg and many surrealists.
But, it turns out there is another level, even more abstract, seldom observed, where all those things are set in motion. There is another level where lighting and decor of that stage is decided, where self and images come into being looking for a story, purely cinematic machinery. This is a formative mechanism, insofar as the stage being set a certain way directly affects the two layers above. The big spiritual struggle - mirrored in scientific attempts to understand the universe - is having insight of this stage.
So a great film, truly great, has power in that it operates and lets the world unfold from this level. You don't even have to give us the 'real world'. It's enough to get layered introspection that suggests the cosmogonic trickle.
This is not as deeply felt as Tarkovsky, or as ambiguously sketched as Resnais. It works from a 'real world'. But it's a good film because it's committed to clearly spin and align these layers all at once.
The story is Faust, both the film and the play-within. Our film is about an actor who sells his soul for a gilded life on the stage, the play is where he is Mephisto - not Faust - and tries to reason with his decision to be Faust, and a third layer is about an era, Nazi Germany in the early years that was also about a Faustian bargain and staged images of power. The protagonist is an actor from the German stage and plays one. It has a Hungarian filmmaker at the helm who knows probably too well the type of life from the Eastern Bloc.
So this succeeds where Hollywood's Cabaret felt contrived and false, because everyone is a step closer to the nervous soul of that world.
Something is quite brilliantly handled here, and I believe it's this; one of the conceits of our actor, a leftist in the early days, is for a Peoples Theater that directly involves and agitates into action. Of course that's all gone when the Nazis come into power, with their Wagnerian notions on the ideal and the pure. He has to do Hamlet, the ambition however is still the same, a play that involves the audience, but in this environment seems ludicrous and hypocritical. It's a state-sponsored event after all.
Now we see several excerpts of Faust, and more shots of our man backstage in pale Mephisto make-up acting the role in real life, but we never see Hamlet. We never see just how he intended this Peoples Theater. We skip to the curtain call and rapturous audience applause.
But of course, the main thrust of the film is that of a man, and later society, that simply doesn't know where the stage ends and life begins. His way of involving the people, in a broad sense, is acting out in this world that is all about posturing and pretending, but doing so in a way that actually saves lives.
The man can thrive in this world, because the world has shifted to align with what he was all along. He doesn't become true. There is no destiny that redeems.
It has a very cool conceptual design. The world becomes as false as he is, it's the stage and lights that shift, so when the narrative planes align for us, we understand that all along he was a very decent human being. The chilling finale is him on that stage that is yawning void where cinematic machinery is decided.
Just who controls the lights that he acts to?
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