Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto at a fleamarket (1 euro). This undated German paperback edition is bound with 60 type-written pages at the end, which aren’t part of the novel but instead a facsimile of a judgement passed down by the Constitutional Court in 1968. The name Gustaf Gründgens features prominently, though you will search in vain for it in the novel itself. Curious, I looked into the background of this strange insertion and found it almost as interesting as the book itself. It goes a little something like this.
Gustaf Gründgens was born on this day in 1899. He started performing as an actor during the First World War, his natural gifts and driving ambition marking him out early on, and he became a principal in Hamburg’s main theatre. Although Gründgens was essentially gay, in 1926 he married Erika Mann, daughter of the great novelist Thomas Mann, who was essentially lesbian (Erika, not Thomas). The marriage dissolved after three years, though Gründgens remained close to Erika’s brother Klaus.
The twilight of the Weimar Republic brought Gründgens two of his most famous roles. In 1931 he appeared in Fritz Lang’s film masterpiece M as the judge of a kangaroo court convened to try a child murderer, played with manic intensity by Peter Lorre. The following year he played Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust under the direction of Max Reinhardt, the man who revolutionised German theatre.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933 many, including Klaus Mann, saw the writing on the wall straight away and left. Gründgens stayed, though the extent to which he compromised his principles in the advancement of his career is still debated. He was essentially apolitical, but his ambition blinded him to the social and political calamity around him. He became a protégé of Goering and made a sharp ascent in film and theatre circles. Gründgens moved into a handsome villa in Brandenburg vacated by Ernst Goldstein, a Jewish businessman forced to emigrate, and he likewise owed his career in part to the departure of people like Reinhardt and Lang, who left a vacuum in the Third Reich’s cultural life.
As well as becoming the head of Berlin’s prestigious Staatstheater, Gründgens appeared in populist fare such as the 1938 film Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the Volcano). From that film comes the song “Die Nacht ist nicht allein zum Schlafen da” (“The night isn’t just for sleeping”), which earnt Goebbels’ displeasure for being “unsuitable for a German movie”. Records of the song were banned, though it was kept in the movie.
Safe in exile, Klaus Mann was struck by the parallels between Gründgens’ greatest stage role and the Faustian nature of his arrangement with Goering, and put them, thinly veiled, into his novel, Mephisto. A post-script by Mann claims “all people in this book represent types, not portraits”, but this was disingenuous to say the least. The protagonist, Hendrik Höfgen, is indisputably a double for Mann’s one-time brother-in-law, whom he called “the macabre embodiment of corruption and cynicism”. Outside of Germany (where it was naturally banned), Mephisto became Mann’s most acclaimed novel.
After the Second World War, Gründgens was soon able to return to performing, despite the taint of his close association with the Nazis. But he wasn’t chastened enough to avoid Faust, reprising his famous role at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. This production was filmed in 1960 by Peter Gorski who was legally Gründgens’ adoptive son, but also — according to Andrea Weiss’s book In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story — his lover.
After Gründgens’ death in 1963, Gorski brought a suit against the German publisher of Mephisto, claiming the book defamed his father/lover, a statement with which the Federal Constitutional Court essentially agreed, ordering that its judgement be printed with the book. Though Gründgens sold his soul to the Nazis there is in fact considerable evidence that he used his position to help a number of Jewish and left-wing friends.
Mephisto was filmed in 1981, starring that terrible old ham Klaus Maria Brandauer mercilessly chewing the scenery in a performance which makes Peter Lorre look subdued, unaccountably helping it to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Meanwhile the villa once owned by Gründgens, which was occupied by the Soviets after the war and then used by the East German Foreign Ministry, is the subject of an ownership dispute between Peter Gorski and the son of Ernst Goldstein. It is slowly falling into ruins.