Two Stunning Tales of Corruption Restored In 4K

Man, it has been a long wait for to upgrade my old Anchor Bay DVDs of Istvan Szabo's masterpieces Mephisto and Colonel Redl.  The nice thing about it, though, is it took so many years, leaving them sought after and out of print for so long, that selling them was enough to pay for Kino's new 4k restorations on blu, with more leftover.  But before you get too jealous, that may have actually backfired on me, because it turns out there's a good reason to hang onto those DVDs... Whoops!
You don't get much better than either of these films.  Both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the first Hungarian films to make it to the Oscars, and Mephisto won.  Szabo made them in a row in 1981 and 1985, both with dynamic lead performances by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who's continued to work but really hasn't had the career he earns here.  Thematically, they have a lot in common, too, due to some issues of guilt and regret in the director's past.  This despite the fact that both films are based on other men's, real historical figures', lives, and Mephisto specifically is also an adaptation of a novel but another writer, Klaus Mann (son of Thomas Mann).
 
In the case of Mephisto, Brandauer is a German actor during the early days of World War II.  As most of his peers flee the country, he stays and achieves extreme success under the Nazi government, telling himself he he's uniquely positioned to help people from within the regime, but becoming increasingly unable to break from the dangerous world he's built around himself.  Meanwhile, Redl is a young man who turns in a friend to curry favor in cadet school and ultimately rises through the ranks to the head of counter-intelligence in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.  He's mistrusted by, and spies on, everyone even within his own ranks, becoming both one of the revered and hated military figures of his time.  I've called both of these films tales of corruption, but these are more than morality tales pointing out the evils of ambition, but very complicated portraits of men who are both victims of a corrupting system and master manipulators of their environments that leave us with no easy answers, but many haunting memories.
I'm actually surprised they didn't complete the trilogy.  And you might respond, no they did!  Kino have released three Szabo 4k restorations on blu on the same day this summer, the third one being 1980's Confidence.  But more famously, Szabo did three films starring Brandauer all in a row, the third one being 1988's Hanussen.  And it's another character study of a relatable historical figure harboring a deep personal secret who rises to power and ultimately corrupted to fail during a world war.  This time Brandauer played Erik Jan Hanussen who became the infamous Nazi occultist portrayed by Tim Roth in Werner Herzog's Invincible.  Admittedly, I didn't find it quite as powerful as their previous two collaborations, but it's still very good and was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in its year.  There have been several non-English friendly DVDs, including an anamorphic one from Sweden, but all we've gotten in English are ancient fullscreen VHS and laserdisc releases.  I'm glad we get Confidence, and obviously the ideal is that we wouldn't have to choose and every movie would be issued on high-quality blus, but I think Hanussen would've been a far more rewarding capper to Kino's trio.  Oh well.
2001 US Anchor Bay DVD top; 2020 US Kino BD bottom.
So Anchor Bay matted their DVD tighter at 1.78:1; Kino's new blu opens it up to 1.66:1.  But besides opening the picture up vertically like you'd expect, the new scan also finds a bit more on the sides.  Colors are softer and more natural in general; look at the general's uniform above, or better yet, the woman on the right.  Grain is a little patchy in spots on the blu (these new restorations would surely benefit from UHDs... but I'm psyched to be getting them in HD at all), but it's mostly strong and filmic, while the DVD only hints at it with compression noise.

Both discs give us the German mono track with optional English subtitles, but Kino goes the extra mile and throws in the Hungarian mono track as well (and bumps both up to DTS-HD).  Still, I prefer the German, not just be because I've grown familiar with that version over the years, but because it's what the actors are actually speaking.  Plus, it is set in Germany.
2001 US Anchor Bay DVD top; 2020 US Kino BD bottom.
As for Colonel Redl, Kino's blu is an even bigger improvement, since Anchor Bay only offered us a fullscreen option.  To be fair, it was open matte, as Kino's new 1.66:1 transfer mostly just crops the old 1.31:1, even losing a slight sliver along the left-hand side.  But this new restoration is surely the correct, originally intended framing, looking more attractive and carefully composed than the boxy DVD.  And colors are again a bit more down to earth and warm, though a few shots (like that first set) make some bold decisions.  None I object to, mind you, but it's hard not to notice the differences.

The audio situation is little bit different from Mephisto's.  This time the BD only has the Hungarian track... which makes sense in a way, as this one is set in Hungary.  On the other hand, while the DVD only has the German, that audio actually matches their lip movements.  Anyway, both discs include optional English subtitles, and the BD kicks its sound up to DTS-HD.
deleted scene restored for the new blu.
And here's an aspect I have no mention that nobody seems to be talking about.  Kino's Colondel Redl is longer!  I mean, Mephisto's blu-ray is about three minutes longer, too.  But that's only because of additional logos and additional closing credits that list everyone who worked on the Hungarian restoration.  And Colonel Redl has that, too.  But Redl's blu is roughly ten minutes longer, because it also has a handful of deleted footage that was missing from the DVD restored into the film.  The first of which is a minute-ling scene with a young Redl confronting his best friend about his jealousy of other friends.  The other scenes appear throughout the film, and clearly weren't cut for censorship reasons.  There's no sex, violence, language or anything like that; it's just additional character moments that enrich the story.  So I'm delighted to have them reinstated, even though I had no idea anything had been missing until now.
So if we're talking better picture, audio, and at least in Redl's case, a more complete edit of the film... what was that at the top about a reason to hang onto the DVDs?  Yup, it's about the extras.  Kino's blus aren't packed, but they do have some goodies.  Mephisto, particularly, for having an all new audio commentary by Samm Deighan.  She really knows her stuff, and is packed with information about autobiographical themes Szabo has laced into the film, the novel it's based on, the life of the author, and the various people the characters in this film are likely based on.  You will be impressed and learn a ton.  Besides that, both films feature a little eight minute documentary (yes, the same doc is on both discs), about production designer Jozsef Romvari by his granddaughter Sophy Romvari.  It's nice, but a little light on substance, and feels like it was made more for fellow members of the Romvari family than the general public, but it's nice to see it here as a bonus.  Each disc also has its theatrical trailer, an ad for a film festival's Szabo retrospective, and attractive full color 16-page booklets with notes by Szabo himself and New York Times editor Bilge Ebiri.  All told, not a lot, but reasonably satisfying in Mephisto's case, at least.
But it's also a disappointing step backwards, because Anchor Bay's DVDs (yes, the same doc is on both discs in this instance, too) had an excellent featurette interviewing both Szabo himself and star Brandauer.  It's not super long, clocking in at about twenty-two minutes, but it's all meat and no filler, with all serious discussion rather than lots of frilly film clips, etc.  They talk about both films at roughly equal length, and as impressed as I was with Deighan's commentary, nothing tops getting to hear directly from the artists themselves.  It's the best extra, and the only real one of substance for Redl.  I don't know if they tried to license it or what, but it's a shame they couldn't get it or commission new interviews (they're both still alive and working in 2020).  So, yeah, you're going to want to hang onto a DVD if you can.
So okay, everything isn't tippy-top perfect.  We lost the important feature, and more curiously, we lost Redl's German audio track.  But they're still pretty excellent.  They're two truly great films, debuting not just in HD but with new 4k restorations.  And while they're not really full special editions, they do have some noteworthy features (and they can be enhanced just by keeping a DVD in your collection).  So they may be imperfect, but they're still essentials.  And maybe if enough of us cop these, Kino will follow-through with Hanussen sometime soonish.

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