MOVIE REVIEW : Istvan Szabo’s Touch Glows in ‘Hanussen’

Times Film Critic

“Hanussen” (at the Goldwyn Pavilion Cinema, Westside) is the third of director-co-writer Istvan Szabo’s meditations on influence, free will and corruptibility, and possibly the most mature and subtle of the trio. The first two, “Mephisto” and “Colonel Redl” served to introduce the mercurial Klaus Maria Brandauer to American audiences, who would finally appreciate his gift for energizing a scene after “Out of Africa.”

As the telepathic “Erik Jan Hanussen,” born somewhat less mellifluously as Klaus Schneider, Brandauer will eventually hold pre-Hitler Berlin in his card-palmer’s hand. But first, he has to learn the extent, if not the source, of his talents himself.

Szabo stages that moment in a World War I military hospital, which has brought Erland Josephson’s Dr. Bettelheim together with Brandauer’s Austrian sergeant. Ill and disoriented as the sergeant is, he and the senior physician recognize a bond of power and sensitivity.

In a scene that is almost a match in intensity for Richard Lester’s bomb-defusing sequence of “Juggernaut,” Brandauer faces an enraged soldier who threatens to annihilate the whole hospital ward with a smuggled hand grenade. It becomes an exchange of will that leaves Brandauer limp, sweat pouring from him.


But he has had an inkling of his power, which Bettelheim urges him to refine and use along medical and psychiatric lines. Instead, with an old army friend, Nowotny (the distinctive Karoly Eperjes), and a beautiful assistant he chooses to call Wally (Adriana Biedrzynska), the newly christened Hanussen goes on the stage and into a spiraling exercise of power. His most flippant predictions come true; his direst ones are echoed in the next morning’s newspapers. Tried for fraud, he demonstrates his ability to plug into the yearnings of a whole courtroom of people.

Like “Mephisto,” it’s an actor’s dream role, and increasingly Brandauer is a dream of an actor. Unlike that first collaboration, “Hanussen” is less brash, less flamboyant, less close to the edge of melodrama. You have the sense that Brandauer can take his own powers a little more for granted; he doesn’t have to top himself in scene after glittering-eyed scene and it’s more restful for an audience.

Hanussen himself is a more complex man; almost an automatic womanizer, his deepest attachment occurs after more than three-quarters of the story is past. It’s also in this last third that the most provocative political maneuvering arises, as the seer falls into the hands of a Leni Riefenstahl-like photographer.

White-blond, invariably wearing a dress suit and tie, she announces she’s had it with decadence. Instead, she’s busy posing naked young Aryan gods and goddesses into “Joy Through Strength” pyramids for the greater glory of the rising Adolf Hitler. Fascinated by Hanussen, she works with him too, advising him on the best lighting, studying and photographing his charismatic poses of authority.


But Hanussen develops a living shadow: Each of his poses, his most successful theatrical devices, turns up a day or so later in the speeches and political appearances of Hitler. He must decide what to do with this juggernaut of his own. It’s another Szabo comment on the theatricality of politics, not exactly an unknown element west of Budapest.

Like every film Szabo touches, “Hanussen"(Times-rated Mature for nudity, adult themes) glows with a delicate, soft-edge light, the particular result of the director’s longtime collaboration with cinematographer Lajos Koltai. It is also impeccably performed, by Brandauer, by Eperjes and the great Josephson in particular. It is stocked with a staggering and seemingly endless supply of exquisite actresses, a not-uncommon occurrence in a Szabo film. All told, it forms a thoughtful conclusion to a singular and memorable trio of stories.


A Columbia Pictures presentation of an Objektiv Studio, Budapest; CCC-Filmkunst, Berlin; ZDF, Mainz; and Hungarofilm and Mokep, Budapest production. Co-producer ZDF, Mainz. Producer Artur Brauner, CCC-Filmkunst. Screenplay Szabo, Peter Dobai. With Klaus Maria Brandauer, Erland Josephson, Ildiko Bansagi, Walter Schmidinger, Karoly Eperjes, Grazyna Szapolowska, Adriana Biedrzynska, Gyorgy Cserhalmi.

Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.