Hanussen on stage

Magic and the Nazis. Hanussen, the bizarre and true story of Eric Jan Hanussen, is ideal big screen material, you’d have thought, since the Austrian stage hypnotist and soothsayer was a charismatic performer who held Germans in his thrall in the dying days of the Weimar Republic and into the Nazi era. The parallels with Hitler are obvious, and once you add in the rumour that Hanussen was the man who taught Hitler his techniques of mass manipulation and crowd control, it has all the ingredients of a story with a ready audience.

However, there have been only two attempts at it. A 1955 version which seems to have vanished into the ether, and this one from István Szabó in 1988, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer.

It’s the last of three collaborations between Szábo and Brandauer detailing the rise of men on the make, all of them with no real sense of personal integrity. If Hanussen doesn’t work as well as the other two, Mephisto and Colonel Redl, it’s still a great showcase for Brandauer, who here plays a soldier injured in the First World War who discovers he has a great gift for mind control after a traumatised fellow soldier threatens to blow everyone in his ward to pieces with a hand grenade.

Hanussen – then still going by the name Klaus Schneider – talks the man down, using techniques he picked up dabbling in variety before the war. These work on women too. He’s a man with the ability to charm females into his bed, starting with the hospital’s head nurse, the mistress of the conscientious Dr Bettelheim (Erland Josephson), the liberal, humane man of reason responsible for Schneider’s recovery. As he prepares to leave the hospital and set out for a life on the stage Hanussen is already playing with fire.

The grenade incident is one of many meticulously constructed set pieces which daisy chain through this luxuriously appointed film – an Indian clairvoyant act, children doing a Mini-Me version of a Mozart opera, a sojourn at the spa town of Karlovy Vary (or Karlsbad, as it still was), an appointment with the photographer Henni Stahl (a Leni Riefenstahl type), who’s shooting heroic nudes as Hanussen arrives. A grand courtroom scene. Decadent Weimar parties. A Nazi rally. Szábo keeps it coming.

Hanussen and Dr Bettelheim
Hanussen and Dr Bettelheim

Is Hanussen, as he exotically rebrands himself, partly in an attempt to put distance between himself and his Jewishness, a phoney? Szabó gives us a couple of instances where the clairvoyant makes remarkable predictions – a ship will founder at sea, he says, the price of cotton will drop from 93 to 25 overnight, he says – which come absolutely true. At a certain point, breaking with his “no politics” rule, Hanussen predicts that Hitler will become the Chancellor of Germany. At another the Reichstag fire, the prediction that ultimately seals his fate.

The fact that Hanussen was injured in the First World War, is charismatic and can hold a crowd in his thrall, and that his birthday is 20 April, Hitler’s birthday, leads us inevitably to make connections. Hitler never appears, and Szabó doesn’t engage with the rumours that Hanussen became his personal clairvoyant or that he taught him his demagogue’s tricks, though again the suggestions are there.

At a certain point you might start muttering under your breath, “OK, I get it”. The clamour of the relentless read-across undoes some of the great work. Worse, to make this read-across work, Szabó has de-Judaified Schneider/Hanussen (whose real name was the more obviously Jewish Steinschneider), which seems perverse in the circumstances. Mephisto and Colonel Redl were far less heavy handed. As for the suggestion that Hanussen, the Mitteleuropean Mensch, also represents the fissured war-torn continent, it’s an idea hinted at rather than explored. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Brandauer is great though. Lively, loose, plausible, charming, humane, suggesting with a nanoscond flicker of interiority here and there that this man knows exactly what he’s about and is conducting the orchestra of his own life, even though for the most part Hanussen plays out as the story of a man caught up in events beyond his control.

Where does it all end? Where do you think? Not well.

As I write (November 2021) there is no Blu-ray of this film. No one has remastered it. All the versions out there seem to be soft and milky. The dubbed sound needs working on too. While it’s not a perfect film by any means, Hanussen is a good one and deserves better than what looks like a VHS transfer.

Hanussen – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

István Szabó Seven-Disk box set, including Mephisto, Colonel Redl and Hanussen – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Colonel Redl

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Colonel Redl




Colonel Redl is an adaptation of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and charts the rise and fall of a soldier with opportunism where principles should be. It’s a sumptuous affair set in the dog days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and builds slowly towards a painfully frenzied climax, as did the previous collaboration between director István Szabó and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. And as in Mephisto we’re following a man of few scruples making his way from relative obscurity to the top of his tree – the secret service in this case. Redl was a real man, an officer in the espionage wing of the Austro-Hungarian army who sold his country’s war plans to Russia on the eve of the First World War, thereby condemning thousands of countrymen to their deaths. The Hungarian Szabó doesn’t set out to condemn a traitor. Instead he’s delineating the mindset of someone who doesn’t know who he is. Szabó claimed in interviews when the film first debuted that his reason for making the film was that identity was one of the key drivers of the modern psyche – Redl is ashamed of his homosexuality, his poor background, his ethnic outsiderdom. But Szabó must also have been thinking about identity closer to home – the ethnic fallout from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire was yet to produce the war in former Yugoslavia but the tensions were already there (and still are, all over the former empire).

After Mephisto, made four years earlier, Brandauer had seemed set for international superstardom. He’d turned up as the stooge husband to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s lovers in Out of Africa. And he was a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. Between then and now he has regularly popped up in English language films, often playing the villain, but has seemed happier to work on a broader canvas in German-speaking countries. It’s our loss. Here, as in Mephisto, his performance is a thing of wonder. He conveys every turn of the coat by Redl with a subtle shift of demeanour. If Szabó has given Brandauer all the canvas an actor could want, Brandauer has responded by delivering a beautiful performance of sympathetic villainy – not a white cat in sight. Szabó’s film is undoubtedly a masterpiece and Brandauer is one of the key reasons why.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Colonel Redl – at Amazon