For Auld Lang Syne

A film so obscure, THIS is the best image I could find: 

Dial M for Mommy 

My old chum Christopher Weedman just reminded me about Joseph Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s “M”, a film maudit (cursed film) if there ever was one. Since we all love a film maudit here at Shadowplay, I have to say I’d be fascinated to see it sometime.

It’s easy to see why the film’s reputation is not high — right-thinking people were aghast at the idea of Hollywood tampering with a classic film. Also, Lang himself denounced the remake as theft — he claimed papers had been lost which proved that the original film was still in copyright, so that an unauthorized version should be illegal. In addition, David Wayne, a perfectly good actor, seems in principle an inadequate substitute for the truly extraordinary Peter Lorre. But Joe Losey was a major talent, whose reputation had not yet risen to the level of his abilities, and I think there’s a strong chance that if one could lay aside all comparisons, the Losey film might stand up as an interesting work in its own right. The IDEA of a remake was cheesy, but the film itself need not be.

Lang actually had quite a lot to do with remakes — two of his Hollywood flicks, SCARLET STREET and HUMAN DESIRE, derive from Renoir originals, LA CHIENNE and LA BETE HUMAINE. In addition to the “M” retread, several of Lang’s German classics have been remade, and Lang himself directed a sound-and-colour version of the two-part INDIAN TOMB epic which he had originally hoped to direct in the ’20s before Joe May took over the project.

During this second German period at the end of Lang’s career, producer Arthur Brauner mooted remakes of METROPOLIS and DER MUDE TOD, the latter as a musical (!) but Lang resisted.

What rhymes with

But after Lang resurrected the Dr. Mabuse franchise with THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE in 1960, his second Mabuse, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE was remade by Brauner, using Lang’s cast from 1000 EYES. These Mabuse sequels and remakes have an enjoyable pop-art B-movie zing to them, but totally lose out on the darker, allegorical and political aspects of Lang’s crime-conspiracy-espionage sagas.

Also proposed to Lang at this time was a remake of DIE NIBELUNGEN. But the director saw insurmountable difficulties with such a project — the money wasn’t available to make the film as gigantic as the silent version, and then there was the issue of TALK.

“The first difficulty was: How to make the Nibelungs speak? You can’t say, ‘Hello, Kriemhild.’ Neither can you say, ‘O, noble knight,'” complained the maestro.

It’s very much the same objection as Howard Hawks’ famous, “I don’t know how a Pharaoh speaks.” Writers tend to struggle to find an idiom which can be neutral enough to work in an ancient period, without becoming completely colourless and flat.

Siegfried Sputnik

Nevertheless, DIE NIBELUNGEN was remade by Brauner, with Harald Reinl directing. Reinl had already helmed several Mabuse sequels, and had shown himself to be pacy and able, though hardly a Fritz. The remakes sound rather intriguing: future spaghetti western hero Mario Girotti/Terence Hill turns up, as does Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru (Herbert Lom to you) as Attila the Hun, and Reinl’s wife, Bond girl Karin Dor, adds fresh sexiness to the role of Brunhild. Hanna Ralph in the original is impressively feisty, but she doesn’t have Dor’s exotic glamour.*

Oh Brunhilde, you're so lovely

I’m sure Reinl’s NIBELUNGEN films are ludicrous (the DVD packaging suggests as much) but I bet they’re fun. Probably best to see the Langs first… those hover right on the brink of ludicrosity, but if you can keep your sense of humour in check, they’re a toboggan-ride into the abyss, which is quite a thing to experience.

the hun that got away 

This period of German cinema is only just starting to get some attention. Popular in their day with German audiences, the remakes of old German classics and the Edgar Wallace-adapted krimi films have long been dismissed as kitsch und klatsch, and the New German Cinema auteurs presented themselves as the first filmmakers since pre-war days to make authentic films with meaning and a connection to the world.

Which is a sort-of justifiable claim. I wouldn’t hold up Harald Reinl as being equal to the best of Fassbinder or Wenders or Herzog or whoever. His work is in a different register altogether. But I don’t think it’s without value.

*Gee, maybe Reinl shouldn’t have divorced K.D. His next wife SHOT HIM DEAD.

11 Responses to “For Auld Lang Syne”

  1. I finally secured copies of all three Lang “Mabuse” films and have been waiting anxiously for the right time to watch them. Writing eats up all my time and energy but, man, every time I pass those films on my shelf I give a little tremble of anticipation. Didn’t know “M” had been remade. Some cinephile I am…

  2. The first Mabuse is maybe the slowest and toughest, though it has a few fantastically speedy sequences, notably the start. Testament is a rollicking ride, and 1000 Eyes is a great film maudit which seems to anticipate James Bond, as well as being the first Mabuse to mention Hitler — the series’ real subject.

    Worth grabbing a copy of Lang’s Spione as well, which is even more entertaining and a sort of honorary member of the group. Of his Hollywood films, Ministry of Fear is also pretty Mabusian.

  3. The first Mabuse is indeed slow by contemporary standards. But if you get into its rhythms it’s really something. Rather crucial in terms of Rivette, whose Out 1 echoes any number of Langian ideas.

  4. I’ve got a not-so-good-quality copy of Losey’s M. Could send it over to you for research purposes. Drop me an email.

  5. Brandon: thanks for the offer — I’ll be in touch.

    DEh, am very keen indeed to have the Out 1 experience, and whenever I get the chance I may presage it with a return visit to Dr. M: Der Spieler.
    Am eagerly awaiting the release on DVD of several other Rivettes here later this month, I just got Fuest’s Wuthering Heights on DVD so will soon be able to compare and contrast it with Rivette’s.

  6. Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler isn’t simply a thriller. It’s a panorama of Weimar-era Berlin. It juxtaposes the vision of a society “out of control” with the notion of man who, with numerous sinister allies, secretly controls it. This is an essential idea in Rivette cropping up right at the start with Paris Nous Appartient. In Out 1 a secret society called “Les 13” after Balzac’s “History of the 13” is discovered by chance by two outsiders (Berto and Leaud) working without any knowledge of one another. Rivette’s 13 have much in common with the secret society Bataille proposed in “L”Acevale.” It never really took off, and Rivette’s 13 remain just an idea until the interlopers bring it fitfully to life. It ecoes the failed utopianism of the May ’68 period and its immediate aftermath.

    The 13 that Balzac created are on view in Albiccoco’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes and Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe — where they’re rather like the Keystone Kops.

  7. David: You have some smart, knowledgeable folks who pop by. Speaks well of the quality of your site. Good on ya…

  8. Oh, if you Google D Eh you’ll find he’s KNOWN for his knowledgability.

    I am indeed thrilled to have him spend time here. And that goes for all of you!

    Am looking forward very much to the new Rivette…

  9. Merci Monsieur Cairns. I LOVE this site!

  10. Double merci.

    Coming up: the first Shadowplay competition…

  11. […] reeling at the concept of a musical version of Fritz Lang’s DER MUDE TOD / DESTINY. If you recall, this was seriously mooted by producer Arthur Brauner as a project for Lang to undertake upon his […]

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