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The Mephisto Behind Mephisto

by DoDo Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 11:40:50 AM EST

István Szabó is a Hungarian film director whose every film seems to be about artists in hard times.

His Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto, which launched Austrian actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer's international career, is about a German actor who plays the role of Mephisto in Faust on stage, and for his career goes into a Faustian deal with the Nazi regime in real life.

His 2001 film Taking Sides, with Stellan Skarsgĺrd and Harvey Keitel in the leading roles, is about the post-WWII ordeal of famous German conductor Furtwängler during denazification, who kept his post during the Nazi regime and even conducted for Hitler, tough he did save some Jewish musicians at the same time.

In today's edition of the weekly liberal literature & politics magazine Élet ÉS Irodalom (=Life AND Literature), an archive researcher exposed that in his time at the directors' school, István Szabó spied on his classmates and teachers for the secret service.


Szabó wrote 48 reports to three successive contact officers over four years. In his reports, he wrote about 72 people personally. And that in hard times: just after the 1956 revolution.

Altough (like many) his recruitment took the form of bowing to blackmail by the secret service (with what is not public), what strikes me reading the many quotes is the zeal of an absolute believer - detailed and forthcoming descriptions and sneaks from a committed Party soldier. However, mixing in his own personal opinions and grievances. But also positive stuff, even on persons his contact requested negative stuff on. With seeming ignorance of the consequences, he gives away everything (from private through social to political) about everyone. But he was intelligent enough to write on himself in third person within the reports (more conspirational).

His before-last report seems to indicate a souring and starting disillusion, it is kind of a protest letter against bad management and too many indexed films at the film factory. But his very last is again a disparagement against a colleague (Miklós Jancsó, who became known in art circles in the west in the Sixties).

His reports led to further 'action' on a dozen people. That is, in the known ones' case (many died since): observation, attempt at recruitment, disciplinary measures, 'putting on index'.

With hindsight, his greatest films seem to be about his own guilty feelings.


Annex on the post-1989 opening of files

Throughout the former 'communist' countries, this has been a contentious issue. Some wanted to just expose everyone and close them out from political life (which may appear sensible and practical from the outside, but more on this below). Others wanted a total opening of the files so that people can learn. Still others wanted to limit the opening of files to various degrees to protect victims. Of course, the guilty ones wanted none of this.

But a main problem is that the secret service files became political volleyballs.

The opening of files was held back or was severely limited for years (and in some countries, still is) because most political groups found it convenient to guard their own set of 'hot' files, to unleash a bombshell at one time or blackmail the opposite side at another time. Also, there was some continuity of the secret services.

In the Czech Republic for example, the unlimited opening of files came only a year or two ago. In Hungary, research is permitted but with severe constraints (no direct access only copies, large swathes of 'personal' stuff are blacked out, relevant files are 'lost') - several attempts at a big reform (ironically, usually promoted by the junior government party, the post-liberal-dissident liberal SzDSz) were sabotaged and made half-measures.

Annex on the complexity of the issue

From cases I read in the last fifteen years, it is clear that evil police state vs. the population would be too simple a picture of what went on - and what we have on file.

First, the secret services didn't just persecute the enemies of the dictatorship. You may be aware from recent War on Terra cases that informants don't necessarily tell the truth, nor victims of torture. But, just from some parts of the Szabó files, it is clear that the bureaucratic machine can 'create' enemies to pursue even if the informant's reports don't really incriminate, just to prove its value to the higher-ups (Szabó described a classmate who was imprisoned for nothing in the pre-1956 Stalinist times as a true communist, but the officers commenting his report had other ideas).

Second, those who got recruited by blackmail could act in different ways, shades from light grey to black. Some wrote useless reports until dropped, others wrote some substance but left out truly incriminating stuff, or even lied. Still others were cowards with much to loose (and don't just think of careerists, but family fathers or mothers with children to raise).

Third, not all informants submitted written reports, many only reported to a secret service officer, who then wrote a summary. Only, that summary often reflected that officers' ambitions (scoops and a higher number of recruits furthered their careers) rather than what he was told - to the extent of maintaining files for persons who haven't reported at all (for example, people talking to an agent without knowing that he is an agent), or even, persons who were observed (sometimes done so to blackmail them).

To conclude, in many cases only patient research can tell who is guilty and to what extent. (Tough, to make clear, I don't count Szabó among these.)

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Great presentation of the complexities and shades of grey  in this subject. A prof I know, an emigre Hungarian, found out in the nineties that a grad student of his had informed on him. (The prof had left soon after the war following a session with the secret police for being a Socialist activist, he was subject to what the White House would call an aggressive interrogation. At the time of the informing he was involved with emigre Hungarian activities in the US.) The grad student was an American who had been threatened with being barred from the archives if he didn't inform, so he did, instead of trying to get advice on how to deal with the pressure. The secret police were looking for dirt on the prof's private life and on his friends in Hungary. He had the gall to ask the prof for a rec after the spying had come out - needless to say he did not get it.

A couple friends of the family in Poland informed - they ranged from people who broke one time under interrogation  and didn't cooperate afterwards to scumbags who eagerly volunteered for privileges and favours.  As you say, quite a range.  From your description Szabo's case sounds like a darker shade of grey, though not the darkest. Though it certainly gives a different perspective on movies like Mephisto and Colonel Redl.

by MarekNYC on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 01:29:18 PM EST
Could you recall the year when that spying incident with the emigré Hungarian professor and his US student happened? I have a faint feeling of familiarity with the story, but can't put it anywhere right now. It may be something I read about when it happened and could recall more with some help.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 01:38:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure when the spying happened, I think it was in the eighties. The story came out sometime in the mid nineties I believe, at least that's when he told me about it.
by MarekNYC on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 01:44:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Eighties? Hm... sounds even more familiar.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 01:48:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just to clarify (I just re-edited that part of my text), that example I quoted of the holding officer over-interpreting Szabó's report is a single example - in other cases, there was no hesitation to write all negatively about some persons, and the 'consequences' were based on what he wrote. Also, giving away all kinds of personal details, which could be used for blackmail or noticed as exploitable weakness. (Then again, the article doesn't have much detail about those 'consequences', I guess the researcher is still busy requesting copies of those files.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 01:46:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There was a further category of blackmail-recruited spies, which I think don't even fit on the white-black scale: spies who were 'kept' spying primarily to destroy their self-respect.

An example may be the father of writer Péter Esterházy. The discovery of whom was a minor literary sensation BTW: just after Péter Esterházy finished a large and acclaimed book which told the story of his ancestors - the Esterházy's were a powerful Aristocrat family with lands centered Southwest of Vienna (you may heard of them as the hosts of Haydn and Beethoven) - in the form of father-son relationships, but really was about his own father, he got the dossier of his father. Which he turned into another book titled 'Revised Edition'.

Now Esterházy's father was kept as a spy on his own family until his death, his own earlier spying used as added blackmail. Which did little damage to others. (Well obviously, one of his sons became a national football player, the other a top writer.) But he was a highly educated potential key man for a liberal-aristocratic counterforce, turning him a self-hating wrack was more worth than his reports.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 02:02:52 PM EST
Wonderful introduction to a complex subject. It reminded me of a Czechoslovak secret police report I read translated into English and published in  The Massachusetts Review's 1998 issue on Allen Ginsberg and American Poetry. Allen Ginsberg, already an internationally known  beat poet, was in Prague in the Spring of 1965 where he was crowned the King of May by students. Ginsberg was then expelled a few days later on May 7th. The report published by the mass review, like the ones you describe in your diary, reveals the degree to which Ginsberg was watched and reported on. It was written by a "Chief of DivisionII of the Ministy of Interior" and is a disturbing mix of details of who, when, what, where. It quotes reports or statements by several informants (who's names are all hidden by black ink) as well as quotes from people one would interview in the course of a regular police investigation. It was apparently written in poor Czech but with the authoritative voice of an officer aware of the higher ups who will hopefully be impressed. Here is a short except:


GINSBERG was in the wine club VIOLA, where he spent time in the society of some homosexuals, embraced them and, in particular, got "brotherly" with the poet BIG BLACK LINE who drank himself stiff in this society.

Together with these facts we have secured reports that GINSBERG, with his influence, affects some individuals, that his influence causes serious mental disorders in their mentality and disturbs regular family upbringing. In order to document these reports, investigations were carried out at the appropriate medical facilities where, on May 4, 1965, the appropriate expert reports were secured".

The report goes on to quote a psychiatrist who writes of the "damaging influence of the poet Allen Ginsberg".

Part of the irony of this particular report is that I can image similar write-ups done by USA authorities around the same time. After all Ginsberg had been to Cuba, the USSR and Czechoslovakia and was also seen, in some quarters, as a bad influence on US youth.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 10:39:22 PM EST


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