Mephisto is one of the modern classics on artistic integrity and political commitment. Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, first published when Mann was in exile from the Nazis, was primarily an act of revenge against German actor Gustaf Grundgens. Mann, who worked with Grundgens, regarded him as a traitor for accepting Nazi patronage while his former colleagues were forced to flee the country. Ariane Mnouchkine’s adaptation of Mann’s Mephisto takes the emphasis off the “Mephisto” character who abandoned his communist roots for artistic ambition and collaborated with the Nazi regime, and places it onto the group of actors around him. We see a collection of socialists and incipient fascists, and watch how they react to Hitler’s steady climb to power. Where does art stop and life begin? The question is vital, and fatal to them all.
Mephisto is about the devil in all of us. Based on a real life character, Gustaf Grundgens, the play shows how easy it is for artists to sell out to the state (in this case Nazi Germany), and how impossible it is to be ‘only an actor’ when the society around you is in political turmoil. The play examines the impact of fascism on the artistic integrity of a whole bunch of actors. It is a play which is both a fascinating historical document and a paradigm of any power game where moral instinct is sacrificed to political expediency.