The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset
Reviewed by Chris Fujiwara
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset, including, on four DVDs, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (270 min., 1922), Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (116 min., 1932), and Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (99 min., 1960). A Eureka Entertainment release in the Masters of Cinema series (#89-91), www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/
What might be the central moment of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse cycle occurs midway through Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), the second of the three films (now conveniently boxed together by Eureka! in the Masters of Cinema DVD series) in which the great director contemplates his most famous character. In a chilling scene, the ostensibly dead Mabuse criminal mastermind materializes (as a spectral superimposition) before the asylum director Professor Baum, the director of the asylum where Mabuse, having gone mad at the end of the previous film, spent his last days. The apparition places before him some pages from Mabuse’s voluminous manuscripts on the desk in front of Baum, and then (again through superimposition) merges with Baum’s body—his possession of the man reinforced on the soundtrack by a period-marking drum fall.
This scene gives image to an idea that organizes the entire series: Mabuse is a ghost, who does not inhabit his films as much as he pervades them, just as he pervades the moral and financial chaos of post-World War I Germany, through various embodiments willed by himself, more emanations than beings. Furthermore, it is not merely the form, the body of Mabuse that pervades the films, but his vision. As we watch the films, we see them through (or after) Mabuse: our sight passes through his, traces the hidden causal connections that he has establishedexploits in his complicated machinations, surveys the wreckage that he has made makes of the world he despises.
The famous beginning of the first film in the cycle, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler)—Mabuse at his dressing table, choosing from a hand of photograph-cards the disguise he will next assume in order to further his numerous plots—also expresses this idea, except that here, Mabuse “himself” also appears, apart from his emanations, as a substantial, characterized human figure who is something more than a pod-like blank on which the individuality of the disguise is to be stamped. But in this something more, there is also something else, an alternate mode of presence from that of a human character embodied within a narrative and a narrativized social space. The man who can choose his own identity stands outside the narrative (“outside the film,” Noel Burch wrote) and literally holds the cards of the narrative, which we see therefore as a game the man plays. This gesture is not strictly personal, but also representative: “Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit” (“The Great Gambler: An Image of the Time”) reads the subtitle of Part One of this two-part inauguration of the Mabuse series, drawing a connection through the image between the “gambler” (whose preferred stakes are human destinies) and the time, making the image the means by which the man becomes the representative of his time. So perhaps this opening sequence, positioning the audience on the threshold between the narrative and the act of narration, should be considered the central moment of Lang’s Mabuse cycle.
But cCan any moment be considered central, in the center of a group of films so marked by dispersion? (Dispersion is Mabuse’s way of entering the narrative, of pervading it.) A repeated gesture in the films is the scattering of papers, and there is a resonant superimposition at the end of the great sequence of Mabuse’s triumph at the stock exchange stock-exchange scene in Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, showing a huge closeup of Mabuse’s face over the trading floor the way it looks after the closing of a day of panic: depopulated, strewn with papers. The fragmented, meaningless, unread text these papers compose is a double figuration of Mabuse, who often operates through writing and whose own most visible signature is usually wreckage, the aftermath of ruin and destruction (cf. the shots of bombed offices in Der Spieler and in Lang’s third and final Mabuse film, Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse]). Not by his presence, but by his absence, does Mabuse pervade these films.
Then perhaps the central moment of Lang’s Mabuse cycle is the moment in Das Testament when the young hero and heroine, Kent and Lilli, finally penetrate the curtained space behind which, earlier in the film, the mysterious gang leader figure known as “Dr. Mabuse” has been seen issuing his orders to the gang his underlings—more precisely, seen as a motionless silhouette (projected on the translucent curtain) and heard as a voice. On opening the curtain, Kent and Lilli discover that “Mabuse” is a cardboard cutout and that the voice emanates from a loudspeaker.
What is crucial about this scene is not merely the revelation of the absence of Mabuse—a revelation that the logic of the this visionary and terrifying film makes inevitable—but Lang’s pointed disruption of the convention of the shot/reverse shot. Before they open the curtain, Kent, still believing in a flesh-and-blood enemy behind it, fires his revolver. Lang cuts from a frontal shot of Kent and Lilli, as Kent fires the gun, to a shot of the curtain. The shot of the curtain arrives at the place where, in conventional editing, the reverse shot—showing that at which Kent is firing—would come. But even an inattentive viewer probably notices quickly (because the flashes of gunfire are seen through the curtain) that this shot is not taken from the point of view of Kent and Lilli, but from the opposite point of view—from inside the curtained portion of the room. This is confirmed when, in the course of the shot, Kent and Lilli open the curtain and emerge, facing us, from behind it. Only at this point does Lang use the true reverse shot of the cardboard cutout and the loudspeaker, riddled with bullet holes.
This disruption is characteristic of Lang’s mise-en-scène, which presents, through a mastery of what has become known as classical narrative film style, an effect of seamless continuity, but does so deceptively, emphasizing absences, gaps, and contradictions. In a card-game sequence in the first part of Der Spieler, the ill-fated Hull, a wealthy young man whom Mabuse sets out to destroy, has the winning hand, as we, the audience, ascertain in an extreme close-up from Hull’s point of view. We are in fact the only ones who both see and know the strength of the hand, since Hull, under Mabuse’s hypnotic spell, tosses his cards face down, believing that he has lost. For the characters, the revelation that Hull held the winning cards occurs only after the game. As Hull and his fellow club members discuss his debacle, one of the men casually picks up the cards and carelessly drops them face-up on the table. Even now, the men do not immediately look at the cards: the moment of revelation is further delayed the length of an intertitle card.
Such an example—of information deferred, of signifiers separated from their signifieds, of a gulf opening between vision and knowledge—could be multiplied by scores of others from the three Mabuse films and hundreds more from the rest of Lang’s oeuvre. In its inscription of delay, Lang’s cinema becomes not merely an exemplary mise-en-scène of suspense, but a criticism of seeing, especially of a kind of seeing that projects onto what it sees the demand that the visible answer the logic of desire. As the extreme form of this type of seeing, Mabuse fascinates and repels Lang.
Once the universe has been struck by Mabuse’s vision, a certain unreality pervades it. Devoted to negation, Mabuse sees—and spreads to others’ vision—only hollowness, absence, delusion, and destruction. In this sense, the central moment of Lang’s Mabuse cycle could be the scene in Die 1000 Augen (a film that relocates Mabuse in the flattened context of Adenauer Germany and Cold War nuclear terror, just as Das Testament placed him at the moment just before the Nazi ascendancy) in which the millionaire Travers crashes through the two-way mirror by means of which he has been spying on his beloved, Marion. The scene is a kind of replay of the curtained-room scene from Das Testament, both in spatial terms—each scene is laid out in two contiguous spaces separated by a membrane of partial visibility—and in terms of what might be designated as the social order, or even a sacred order: the membrane is supposed to remain inviolate; an unwritten prohibition bars passing from one space to the other. Furthermore, in both scenes, the central action has a similar force: a man—not accidentally the “heroic” character (though the role and nature of the hero are subjected to merciless criticism by Lang)—violates the rule, demonstrating that the two spaces are part of a single space, subject to the same logic.
These two spaces can be assigned to two different worlds: that of the fiction film and that of the film viewer. The mirror in Die 1000 Augen is, unmistakably, a metaphor for cinema (as is the curtained room in Das Testament, as Michel Chion has shown)—one of the most fully worked-out such metaphors in all Lang’s work. When Travers is shown the mirror (part of a surveillance system that the Nazis installed in the hotel where most of the film is set) for the first time, he witnesses a trivial scene—merely a display—played by Marion and her maid. As we watch the scene along with Travers, we become aware somehow that something is missing and that we are seeing a degraded copy of life that is at the same time completely available to the gaze and not fully real. (This uncanny feeling may be compared with the realization by a character in Ministry of Fear  that no one lives in the apartment to which she has been sent on an errand.) This unreality is emphasized by the hollow quality of the (seemingly direct) sound recording in Marion’s room. The visible beings go through the motions of self-directed life but give the impression of being soulless automata, an impression that the narrative later confirms and explains when it turns out that Marion has been acting all along under the hypnotic direction of the “Mabuse” of the film.
This sense of an absence of reality is closely related to the exhaustion that many commentators have sensed in numerous aspects of Die 1000 Augen: in the repetition of scenes, motifs, and lines of dialog from earlier Lang films; in the threadbare quality of the process shots; in the minimal characterizations and functional sets (already a feature of Lang’s last American films); in a sense of untimeliness that Lang acknowledged before undertaking the project (“the son of a bitch is dead,” he claimeds to have said when offered the chance to make a new Mabuse film), and that palpably enters the film itself. Two things should be pointed out about this exhaustion. First, as Joe McElhaney has shown in a detailed analysis, “the sense of cliché and exhaustion brings [Die 1000 Augen] closer to the concerns of the postwar period than one might originally believe.” Second, exhaustion is no new ingredient of the Mabuse cycle but was a key part of the very first film, Der Spieler, in which one of the central figures, the decadent Countess Told, stands for and articulates the contemporary sense of boredom that drives her on a passionate quest for ever-more exotic and refined excitements. Declaring the world empty, the Countess’s boredom has an obvious affinity with the all-negating, world-emptying gaze of Mabuse (which is why he becomes drawn to her). Both are “images of the time” that construct the world as a despised object.
Lang partly joins Mabuse and the Countess in this seeing. The filmmaker’s own gaze at the world is disabused and critical. The degree to which Lang implicates himself with Mabuse as a figure of cinema becomes quite clear in the theatrical mass-hypnosis sequence in the second part of Der Spieler (“in this sequence,” comments Tom Gunning, “Lang presents Mabuse as an embodied visual illusion apparatus”). On the other hand, it is also clear that Lang negates Mabuse. What is missing from the empty world is an animation that, the films assert, can be provided only by love. Here we arrive at another “center” of the Mabuse films. In Der Spieler, love as invoked in her jail cell by Carozza, Mabuse’s discarded mistress, causes the Paul-like conversion of Countess Told. The crucial importance of this revolution is indicated by its placement at almost the midpoint of the film, near the end of Part One. In Das Testament, love again leads to a conversion: that of Kent, whom Lilli encourages to renounce his life of crime and join in the police hunt for Mabuse. In Die 1000 Augen, the love of Travers and Marion causes a comparable conversion, this time on the part of the woman.
Lang’s interviews and published statements, no less than the films themselves, suggest that he indeed ascribes a revolutionary power to love and wants the audience to agree with his sense of it. But it is difficult not to feel that here, too—even here, where the films would seem to need all possible fullness of realization—there is, instead, an absence. Lang’s mise-en-scène of love is deliberately abstract, stripped of visual and psychological interest, and rhetorically blunt. To convey the awesome force of love, Lang relies on three things: the utterance of the word “love,” a certain visual austerity (apparent in the jail cell setting in Der Spieler and in the concentration on the faces in the love scenes of Das Testament and Die 1000 Augen), and a forthright, reduced performance style. In Die 1000 Augen, the flatness of the performances of Peter Van Eyck (Travers) and Dawn Addams (Marion) is a recognizable late-Lang performance strategy, which he developed in Hollywood through such acting styles as those of Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews. But with Van Eyck and Addams there is also the trace of a gesture back toward the purified, white-hot blankness of the Weimar-era films (as opposed to the functionalized and ambiguous blankness of the American films). In Der Spieler, Aud Egede Nissen (Carozza) and Gertrude Welker (Countess Told) use an acting style that is, perhaps, more distant from us, so it is easier to recognize, with their characters, the passage to the register of love as a stylistic effect. However, I imagine that with all three films, many viewers feel in Lang’s love motif a certain deficiency. (Tom Gunning is not alone in finding the relationship between Kent and Lilli in Das Testament a “rather saccharine and tiresome romantic subplot”; he also calls the love affair in Die 1000 Augen “soporific.”) Love must exist to counter Mabuse, says Lang, and for proof of it he has his lovers declaim their love, but they do so in a way that remains somewhat schematic.thus proved, love remains somewhat schematic.
To believe in love in the Mabuse films requires that the viewer, too, pass into a higher register of viewing: it requires an act of faith. With Lang, we have to see the world of the film as a hollowness potentially transformable and redeemable by love. This potential is something for which we must be responsible, since the films, in various ways, and for whatever reasons (inferable or merely postulable), decline to realize fully the asserted power of love. This will sound like a glib rationalization of what, more straightforwardly, should be called a flaw of these films. I put it forward, however, not to excuse the flaw but to take account of the flaw as something that the films themselves take account of. Love is the antithesis of Mabuse (a psychoanalyst, he recognizes only desire, not love) in that it cannot be predicted and preprogrammed, cannot be controlled, cannot be part of the mise-en-scène of negation. Having already aligned his own cinema with Mabuse (for the purposes of a radical critique of cinema), Lang, with passionate discretion, declines to force love to reveal itself in his mise-en-scène but merely designates the place it would have if it were to appear. (This is clearer, and perhaps subtler, at the end of The Big Heat , when the hero is able to verbalize his memory of his wife only at the moment when his listener is dying.) His gesture resembles the hero’s description of painting in Scarlet Street (1945) as “put[ting] a line around what I feel when I look at things.”
With the release of the Masters of Cinema's box set of The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse, we have a nice presentation of three films that have been available before in good editions, though only separately. There are optional English subtitles for all the films. The small booklets accompanying the DVDs include texts that have, mostly, been available elsewhere. Each film contains a commentary track by the estimable David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse. The sparse DVD extras include an interview with the composer of the score for the restored version of Der Spieler, a short discussion on Norbert Jacques (author of the novelistic source for Der Spieler), a documentary on certain themes in Der Spieler, an interview with actor Wolfgang Preiss (who explains Lang’s bad relationship with Peter Van Eyck by saying that the director liked “actors,” not “personalities”), and the “alternate ending” of Die 1000 Augen from the French release version—really a prolongation of what remains in any case the final shot of the film. The enigma of these variant endings points again to the importance of love in Lang’s work and suggests that in this case, how love fares in the world depends on the timing of a cut.
Chris Fujiwara’s latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by the University of Illinois Press.
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset is a Region 2 release; to purchase it from Amazon UK, click here.
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Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 2