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Speaking about his 1985 film Colonel Redl, István Szabó remarked: “A single theme is predominant: what the 20th century has done to the human being. A crucial frailty resides in human nature; we are often unable to carry out the more difficult tasks set for us by history.” In fact, all his films, not just Colonel Redl, are about the intersection of the political and the personal—the efforts of the individual to navigate life through the political turmoil of Mitteleuropa’s 20th century. 

Mitteleuropa’s 20th century is a history of corrupt regimes and failed utopias. Each of these regimes had its true believers and its mortal enemies, but few of Szabó’s characters are either true believers or mortal enemies. Nonetheless, the fact that they wished to live an “apolitical life” didn’t protect them from having to make intensely political choices. Szabó’s protagonists choose some form of compromise with the reality of the existing regime, and they look on with resentful jealousy at the fanatical believers (either on behalf of or against the regime) and the emigres who have opted out of having to make a choice altogether. 

In fact, this fixation on personal and political compromise finds its roots not only in the political history of Hungary and Central Europe more generally, but also in Szabó’s own lived experience of that history. Szabó was born on 18th February 1938, just four weeks before the Anschluss, and three months before the passage of Hungary’s first anti-Jewish law. During the Nazi occupation, young Szabó was placed into hiding in a boy’s orphanage, like so many other Jewish children (the most memorable cinematic representation being Jean Bonnet in Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants). After the war, the Communists eventually came to power in 1948-49, but rather than a worker’s paradise, Hungary became a Stalinist-style dictatorship. In 1956, there was a revolution against the regime with the aim to transform Hungary into a socialist democracy. This revolution was quickly and brutally suppressed as thousands of Soviet tanks rolled into the streets of Budapest. However, the revolution and its aftermath forced an entire generation, particularly the intelligentsia, to make impossible choices, and forever chained that generation to the choices they made during those two weeks. (In my family alone, three relatives played significant roles in the short-lived revolution. In its wake, one fled to France, while the other two were captured and jailed, one of them eventually executed.)

Szabó also played his role in the revolution. In 1956, Szabó was accepted into the prestigious Budapest film academy. That same year, Szabó worked for Free Kossuth Radio, the radio station of the revolution, alongside his fellow film students. Initially, neither him nor any of his friends were arrested. In 1957, however, after leaving a play, he was approached by the secret police. He was brought to a cellar in an unknown location and interrogated for three days and three nights. They threatened him with the arrest of one of his friends who had participated in the armed resistance (this was a capital offense at the time) and, perhaps more significantly for him, with expulsion from the film Academy, which would have effectively made it impossible for him to have ever become a director unless he emigrated. In the face of all this, he agreed to become an informant. When his past as an informant came to light in 2006, Szabó claimed that he never gave the secret police any information that could have been used against anyone, and to have only agreed to cooperate in order to protect his friend. However, the few documents which have been released, reveal that he did provide compromising information about a number of his colleagues and peers. The very same year that Szabó set out on his path to become a world-famous director, he also compromised himself—tying his career inextricably to a grave personal and political betrayal. 

This essay is not intended as an exegesis of betrayal, attempting to draw one to one parallels between Szabó’s own experience and his art. His experience was not unique, but he did live and understand the kinds of betrayals and compromises that hundreds of thousands of others were also forced to make, and this gave him a particular insight into the experience of his generation. His films are “about” this generation, not necessarily his own life. In the words of Erik Jan Hanussen in Szabó’s eponymous film (Hanussen, 1988) about the famous Jewish clairvoyant/charlatan who was also Hitler’s fortune teller for a brief period:

“The prosecutor calls me a charlatan because I know people’s thoughts, I know them because I also live here in Mitteleuropa, in what used to be the Austro-Hungarian empire… I know the fears and longings of those in this courtroom. Their suppressed sorrows flow to me in this court. In the past such sorrows sustained churches and fortune tellers, I merely express their thoughts in order to see the future, the future of war widows and orphans, the abandoned in this mad world. Is this the life we longed for? In all eyes I see the question, ‘what will happen to us?’

Confidence (1980)

Confidence (1980)

Szabó’s early films, such as Age of Illusions (1965), Father (1966), and Lovefilm (1970), all explore personal history within the wider political context, and while they are all marvelous films, they are highly indebted to the French New Wave—these films all address intimately Hungarian subjects, but they do so through a style that is some kind of mix between Resnais and Truffaut. It was not until his 1980 film Confidence and 1981 film Mephisto that Szabó began to fully elaborate the themes most important to him—the themes of betrayal, trust, and compromise with political reality—in his own fully matured style. 

Certainly, all of his films address these themes in one way or another, but Confidence and Mephisto, are his most complete works both aesthetically and philosophically. They are both about betrayal of self—about people who live in what Sartre calls “bad faith.” But while in Confidence, the protagonist compromises himself partly out of cowardice in order to save his own life, in Mephisto, the protagonist compromises himself for the sake of his ambition and artistic career. These films potentially represent two different ways in which Szabó may have understood his own compromise, and two of the different “types” of compromises made by his generation more generally. Had Szabó agreed to become an informant—to betray his friends while also lying and feigning ignorance to the secret police—in order to advance his own ambitions? Or had he compromised in order to save his own skin, and potentially to help his friend as well?

At a press conference after the revelations about Szabó’s informant past surfaced in 2006, Szabó avoided directly addressing the issue, responding instead, “I made a film—Confidence—it’s all there.”

Confidence takes place during the final months of the Second World War. Kata is forced to go into hiding when her husband, who is part of the underground resistance, flees their home in order to escape arrest. The resistance then arranges new housing for her under a new name. She is to be the “wife” of another resistance fighter, whose false name is János (we never learn his real name). János, a long time communist, is used to a life of hiding, false names, and constant subterfuge. He believes he has learned that “the only strength is not to trust.” Eventually, their pretend marriage becomes an actual romance, but János never truly lets his guard down. As the Soviet troops begin to encircle Budapest, János leaves Kata to join the fight. The film ends in the first days after liberation, with Kata appearing before a clerk in order to secure new identity papers. The clerk asks her various identifying questions about János: “What was his real name? What was his job? Was he ever in a concentration camp? What were his connections to the resistance? Who were his contacts? Where do his relatives live?” She is unable to give adequate answers to any of these questions. 

Throughout the film, János is constantly tense, constantly on guard, knowing that he could be betrayed at any moment. In a crucial moment in the film he opens up to Kata, explaining the extent to which it is impossible for him to trust:

“Maybe suspicion is already in my blood. You don’t know how much I loathe myself. What will happen when we resurface? Will we be as we were underground? How will we drive away the terrible things we’ve seen. Will I still be alright? I was born in a well-off family. I was told not to reveal my background, the workers would trust me less. I denied my family. If someone asked me, I would say they were clerks or tradesmen. I’ve become so used to it, I automatically say it. I just wait for someone to spit in my face and say it’s not true… It’s in my blood…. Happy are those who believe.”

Kata’s only response to this pitiful monologue is, “please love me.” Ultimately, they do form a genuine connection and it is clear that they care for each other, but as we see at the end of the film, their love is like a castle in the air, an edifice without foundations. 

In Szabó’s words, Confidence is about the “mentality of underground movements… you don’t trust anyone… you can never be free.” Being underground means that one must show different faces to different people, while the true “core” of one’s self is a carefully guarded secret. If this secret is guarded for too long, the self begins to become foreign even to itself. János has been in “hiding” for so long, he can no longer trust, love, or live freely. 

The protagonist of Mephisto, Hendrik Höfgen, also finds himself trapped by his choices, trusting no one, and incapable of love. But Höfgen, unlike János, compromises himself for his artistic career, rather than for the sake of some “cause” or even for self-preservation. Mephisto is based on a novel by the same name written by Thomas Mann’s son, Klaus Mann, in 1936. Speaking about the purpose of his novel, Mann wrote that he meant to “analyze the abject type of treacherous intellectual who prostitutes his talent for the sake of some tawdry fame and transitory wealth.”

Mephisto is set during the late Weimar republic and early years of the Third Reich. It charts the spectacular rise of Höfgen (who Mann modelled off of his former brother in law, Gustav Gründgens). Höfgen is a wildly charismatic and talented actor who gets his start in a Hamburg theater, directing and acting in avant-garde plays, and flirting with the idea of starting a “revolutionary workers theater” with his friend Otto Ulrich. While Höfgen often goes on vehement tirades about “capitalist exploiters,” he constantly puts off starting the revolutionary theater, and it gradually becomes clear that the only thing he truly believes in is himself and his need for the spotlight. 

After the Nazi coup in 1933, Höfgen briefly flirts with emigration but instead moves back to Berlin and, by leveraging some of his contacts, receives a role playing Mephistopheles in a production of Goethe’s Faust. His performance impresses the minister president (a fictionalized version of Hermann Göring), who eventually appoints him to head the Berlin State Theater. As the political situation deteriorates, Höfgen becomes ever more compromised, and although he attempts to help his former friends in the workers theater, he has only limited success.

Höfgen is used for propaganda purposes by the Nazi state, giving speeches on the “greatness of German art” before assemblies of the foreign press. Meanwhile, he manages to secure safe passage to France for his former lover, a black woman named Juliette. He also shelters a Jew in his home for a time. However, his meek and cowardly “resistance” is not enough to save Otto, who disappears one night, never to be heard from again. The minister president eventually becomes fed up with Höfgen’s efforts to protect his former friends, and in order to prove to him that he is only a pawn, an actor in the service of the Reich, the Göring takes Höfgen to an enormous, newly built amphitheater and sends him out into the middle of the stage. The film ends in a surreal scene, potentially a product of Höfgen’s guilt-addled imagination. The minister president taunts Höfgen and trains an overly bright spotlight on him, forcing him to run around the vast stadium like a hounded animal. In the last shot of the film, blinded by the spotlights, Höfgen looks unseeingly into the camera and says, “What do they want of me, after all, I’m only an actor.” Forever wanting to be in the spotlight, Höfgen is now devoured by it. He has surrendered himself completely to the spotlight, to the gaze of the outside would. His artistic, personal life and his political life merge. He is no longer the person Höfgen. He has become the Nazi state theater director and actor that Höfgen plays.

“What is an actor? He is a mask,” Höfgen says towards the beginning of the film. Perhaps this is why Höfgen is obsessed with mirrors, and the motif of the mirror recurs again and again throughout the film. What he sees looking back at him as a chameleon—at various points he wears the mask of the communist revolutionary, the sophisticated bourgeois, the “inner emigrant” who attempts to act according to his “conscience” to help his friends despite participating and being complicit in the fascist regime, and lastly Göring’s loyal pet. He knows himself only as that mask and “discovers himself” only through the gaze of the other, or, more precisely, through the mirror, gazing at himself from the position of the other. At the moment in which he introduces himself to  Göring, on the opening night of Faust, Göring asks him “I imagine you’ve prepared for the role for a long time?” “All my life, Prime Minister,” he responds – and we are unclear which role it is that he is talking about: the role as Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, or the role he is now assuming as the Doctor Faust to Göring’s Mephistopheles. 

His character is never stable—his only consistent motivation is to remain in the spotlight. He always sees himself from the outside, as others see him, viewing himself as an object rather than a subject. In this sense, it would be more accurate to say that while Göring is the external force that drives Höfgen into his Faustian bargain, Höfgen himself is both Faust and Mephistopheles, both the doctor lusting after knowledge, fame, and immortality, and the demon who convinces him he has no choice but to sell his soul.


Mephisto (1981)

Mephisto (1981)

Artists who do not actively take up arms against a dictatorial regime often become “inner emigrants,” a rather broad term that gained popularity during a debate between Frank Theiss and Thomas Mann about the role of art under the Third Reich. Artistic production somewhat resistant to the extant regime is forced to abandon explicitly contemporary references in favor of historical themes. Its meaning is not manifest but esoteric and appears between the lines through complex camouflage. Beyond art, inner emigration refers to small acts of non-cooperation with the dictatorship through which the inner emigrant supposedly holds on to a certain degree of independent will and action. If we are to believe Szabó’s claims that he attempted to hide as much as possible from the secret police, concocting a series of lies or irrelevant truths, this, in itself, could be interpreted as an act of “inner emigration.” Furthermore, while Szabó’s films are “about” their manifest content, like much post ‘56 art in Hungary, they also contain veiled criticisms of the communist dictatorship. However, not only are the films themselves acts of “inner emigration” (albeit not particularly brave or dangerous ones, given that by the ‘80s far more direct condemnation of the Stalinism of the ‘50s was permitted) many of Szabó’s characters themselves are “inner emigrants.” 

The protagonists of both Confidence and Mephisto are different kinds of inner emigrants. János’ political reality forces him to be something he is not, and yet his romance with Kata is a small (but potentially permissible) rebellion against his situation. Höfgen, while going along with the demands of the political situation in all important matters, still attempts to assuage his conscience and maintain some degree of independence through aiding his friends. But in all of these cases, inner emigration also involves a denial of one’s own freedom, or, more specifically, in Sartrean terminology, inner emigration involves a certain kind of “bad faith.”

Sartre understands “bad faith” as a kind of self-deception or as lying to oneself: a disowning of one’s innate freedom under the pressure of social forces. Bad faith affirms “facticity as being transcendence and transcendence as being facticity, in such a way that at the instant when a person apprehends the one, he can find himself abruptly faced with the other” (Being and Nothingness). Our facticity consists of the constraints our actual situation imposes on action, however one’s facticity never actually dictates a single necessary way of being. Transcendence, on the other hand, is the “potentiality of one’s being as a free agent which exists for itself.” A quote from Imre Kertész (who was strongly influenced by Sartre) may make this somewhat clearer.

“Conformism: when the individual seeks concordance with facts rather than reality. What is reality? In a word, ourselves. What are the facts? In a word, absurdities. The link between the two? Put briefly, a moral life, fate [or living in good faith]. Alternatively: there is no link, there are only the facts, a series of chance events and adjustments to those events. In this way, the conformist also becomes a fact, an absurdity [someone in bad faith]. He loses his freedom; his center explodes and leaves him scattered in the void of facts… The human is transformed into its opposite: a machine, a schizophrenic, a monster. He becomes both executioner and victim.” (Galley Boat-Log)

Kertesz outlines two reactions to the existential situation. Either we can “transform into our facticity (Kafka’s centipede), voluntarily, so to speak, and in that way attempt to assimilate our determinacy into our own fate; or else we rebel against it, and so fall victim to our determinacy.” For Sartre as well, bad faith can take one of two forms. One that denies freedom or transcendence (“I can’t do anything about it” – assimilating determinacy into our fate), and the other that denies one’s facticity (“I can do anything just by wishing it” – rebelling against determinacy).

Under political situations which call for (but never necessitate) a denial of the self, individuals almost always choose some degree of bad faith. Inner emigration nearly always involves an element of bad faith; an element of, “I can’t do anything about it.” It affirms one’s facticity as one’s transcendence (“I could not act otherwise under the circumstances”); meanwhile it turns one’s transcendence or freedom (after all, one chooses to live in bad faith) as one’s facticity. Acknowledging the possibility of one’s active resistance to the regime is often too heavy a burden. It is incredibly difficult to recognize that one has the freedom to act differently than one does, and to know that it is possible to resist the evil regime in different ways than one does, and yet that one chooses not to. 

After Szabó was revealed as an informant, he claimed that he had become an informant at the request of two of his classmates in order to save their friend—who took part in the armed occupation of the Communist Party headquarters in Budapest in 1956—by authenticating his comrade’s alibi. He deemed his actions responsible for saving his friend’s life. In later comments however, Szabó walked back the importance of protecting his friend in his decision to become an informant. Szabó initially expressed a perspective that his actions were necessary. Perhaps he even convinced himself of their necessity to a certain extent, nevertheless at other times he seemed to be aware that he was living in bad faith—that he cynically chose to deny his freedom by convincing himself that his course of action was the only possible one. In any case, Szabó’s art betrays a far more nuanced understanding of compromise, betrayal, and bad faith than his initial comments regarding his own betrayal. 

János decided to join the communist underground, and to submit his will completely to the mission—he makes a choice to risk his life for the sake of the cause. His act of rebellion against that submission to the cause as supreme value—his act of inner emigration through which he attempts to maintain some degree of freedom—is his choice to care for Kata. However, even in this, he positions his secrecy, mistrust, and ultimately his inability to truly love as necessary, rather than as a choice that he makes. “It’s in my blood,” he says. At one point, he and Kata are out, and they see a woman denounce someone on the ration line as a Jew in hiding to a nearby gendarme. The gendarme brushes the woman away, saying that he has more important matters, and Kata pleads with János to warn the Jew that she has been denounced. János responds, “we cannot interfere, it may be a provocation.” Of course, it was a choice not to go and warn the woman, and yet he makes the determinacy of his situation into something that subsumes his freedom. At other points in the film, he says that he cannot allow himself to trust, he cannot allow himself to love, they cannot help a former classmate of Kata’s, he cannot be other than the coward that he is, and he cannot do other than what he does. Instead of saying that he will not or should not do something, he uses language of necessity. He denies his innate freedom, perhaps because acknowledging that at each step he is making a choice, weighing various risks against each other, is a burden that he does not want to bear. It would make him complicit in his own actions; he would become more than a mere body which performs what is “necessary” for the sake of the cause. (Although another key element of bad faith is that it fools itself into believing that some instrumental action is necessary for the sake of some end, even when it’s actually not. In János’ case, there may be things that, in fact, should be done for the sake of the cause, which he convinces himself are not only not desirable, but actually impossible simply because doing these things would be dangerous or would be in conflict with some other, latent motive.)

Similarly, Höfgen’s inner emigration is limited by a bad faith interpretation of his facticity. He helps his friends, but only within certain parameters that do not present any real risk to his own position. When his lover, Juliette, asks him why he propagandizes for the Nazi regime in front of the foreign press, he responds, “because they asked me to. You can’t refuse, none of us can. If anyone says they do, they’re lying.” When  Göring asks him to run the state theater, he gives a long monologue asking “Can I? May I? Must I?” And yet he ends this monologue saying “heaven evidently has great plans for me,” turning what was a matter of choice and freedom into a matter of providence, or necessity. He frames his decision by saying, on the one hand, that it is impossible to refuse, and on the other, that it is his moral duty to take the position and attempt to do as much as possible from within—both of these are clearly bad faith arguments, which interpret the facticity of his situation as proscribing his free choice, it does not. Höfgen is both Mephistopheles and Faust; as Mephistopheles he convinces Faust that his actions are the only possible ones under the circumstances. “What does freedom mean to you? Do you need it to live? Or do you just need to be successful and loved?” asks his ex-wife. But Höfgen doesn’t even acknowledge his own freedom. Throughout the film, just like János, Höfgen uses the language of necessity rather than the language of possibility, duty, or freedom. He frames his actions as though it were not within his power to confer value on them because they are not born of his essential freedom, but are instead the necessary product of his facticity. He claims that everything he does is as it must be. After all, he is “only an actor.” 

Of course, both Höfgen and János occasionally awaken to the fact that they are living in bad faith, and as Sartre is keen to point out, “that a person can live in bad faith does not mean that he does not have abrupt awakenings to cynicism or good faith… [bad faith] implies a constant and particular style of life.” 

Through his art, Höfgen awakens to the fact that his real-life Faustian bargain was made of his own free choice, and perhaps one could draw a connection between Höfgen and Szabó in this sense. Szabó, the artist who molds these characters, sympathizes with their condition, and yet both Mephisto and Confidence approach the bad faith of their protagonists with a cynical eye. Höfgen realizes the cynical nature of his real-life bad faith through the role of Mephisto. Perhaps Szabó also awakens to cynicism through the artistic vision which spawned Höfgen and János. Both of them made unbearable compromises when faced by a pitiless political reality, These compromises meant that both of them played a role, and both of them struggled with bad faith. In both cases, art is a means through which to awaken to the reality of one’s essential condition. 

It’s impossible to make claims about someone else’s inner life with any certainty, but it is safe to say, that like everyone, Szabó lives with some bad faith, and like everyone, including his own characters, he has abrupt awakenings to cynicism. Treating his characters both with empathy and clear-eyed detachment, Szabó helps us understand the existential dilemmas that not only his own generation, but all of us have to confront. Through his work, we can perhaps awaken to our own bad faith.

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