NEW YORK — KLAUS MARIA BRANDAUER became a Hollywood star in the Oscar-sweeping ``Out of Africa'' a few seasons ago. But some of his most celebrated work has been done with Hungarian filmmaker Istv'an Szab'o, who shares with Mr.Brandauer a special interest in Central Europe at the time when Nazism was rising to power. Together they made ``Mephisto,'' an Oscar winner featuring Brandauer as an actor who collaborates with the Nazis, and then ``Colonel Redl,'' an Oscar nominee with Brandauer as an Army officer who betrays his commanders. In their new picture, ``Hanussen,'' the energetic Brandauer plays his most exotic character yet: a stage hypnotist and clairvoyant who really lived in Europe during the '20s and '30s, and earned his greatest fame by foretelling the triumph of Hitler and his party. The picture earned yet another Academy Award nomination for its makers this year, in the ``best foreign-language film'' category, although it lost to Bille August's long Danish drama, ``Pelle the Conqueror.''
Like its title character, ``Hanussen'' can be approached in different ways. On one level, it's a supernatural story, about a man with strange powers to control others and predict the future.
Looked at another way, it's a story of show business, as Hanussen turns his bizarre talent into a passport to fame and riches - until he makes one political prophecy too many and finds himself in a lot of trouble. And it's definitely a tale of politics and history, tracing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of Hitler's fascism in starkly dramatic terms.
What weaves the story together, despite its many different facets, is the close rapport of star Brandauer and director Szab'o, who are on exactly the same wavelength.
Brandauer is excellent in ``Hanussen,'' running a gamut of emotions from childish anger and fear - especially near the beginning, when he's been wounded in combat - to the egotism of an entertainer who thinks the world is right to worship at his feet. He also does a skillful job of reminding us that Hanussen doesn't really understand his own strange talent. Even as he performs wonders and basks in the applause of all Berlin, you can tell he's ill-at-ease because he simply doesn't know how he does it. Brandauer's remarkable performance, supported by Mr. Szab'o's sensitive directing, makes this feeling come alive.
As much as I like ``Hanussen'' in this respect, I must say it could have been a better film if it had been written and edited with a stronger sense of control.
The movie has at least two fascinating subjects going for it: the rise of Nazism and the hero's supernatural powers. Yet it seems colorless and poorly focused at times, and some of its secondary characters are two-dimensional clich'es. Perhaps the blame lies partly with trimming inflicted on the film to suit the allegedly meager attention span of American audiences; a version shown at last spring's Cannes Film Festival was almost a half-hour longer.
Despite its flaws, though, ``Hanussen'' is a vivid look at an always-gripping period of modern history. And its main performances - by Brandauer and by Swedish actor Erland Josephson as a doctor who tries to understand Hanussen - are marvelous to behold.