The Sunday Intertitle: What an odd thing to say


“I’m not doing this anymore! Running around at 200kmph! It’s modern cannibalism!”

A strange intertitle from the pen of a strange woman, Thea Von Harbou. Due to a job I’ve got on, I found myself watching both SPIONE and both parts of DR. MABUSE: DER SPIELER this week, which is quite a lot of espionage to consume at one sitting. But highly enjoyable, as most binges are.



The above statement is made here, in the cosy flat of two disgruntled henchmen. I could imagine that being a great premise for a sitcom, except that Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter already nailed that concept. And who IS sending Ben and Gus those baffling orders for scampi &c? Surely it’s the doctor himself, who starts off flesh-and-blood in this film, becomes more of a psychic influence in TESTAMENT, and is a mere principle by the time of 1,000 EYES. By the time he seeps into Pinter he’s a Godot-like abstraction, probably not even a conscious presence…

Post-binge, I found I slightly preferred SPIONE, since by that point Lang’s insert shots have moved on to a new realm of gleaming fetishism, but MABUSE sets out the plan for so much later Lang, it’s like watching the birth of a monster. Horrible yet awe-inspiring. FANTOMAS and his many imitators may have set the pattern, but to the master-criminal scheme is added something fresh, via Norbert Jacques’ novel: while Fantomas worked mostly alone with the occasional foxy accomplice or hired-for-the-occasion goon squad, Mabuse is the leader of a criminal empire, or, as he later calls it, a state within a state. All the Hitler comparisons stem from that one adjustment.

It makes Mabuse both more like a real-world crime boss, and yet also more fantastical, since he seems able to accomplish anything. He has tentacles everywhere, like a naughty Hokusai octopus. One thing I was watching for was some good police interrogation scenes, but the recurring theme of MABUSE is that any time the police clap a perp in irons, Mabuse has the guy offed before he can squawk.


Here’s a Mabuseian insert shot — not quite up to the standard of SPIONE, but very nice.


7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: What an odd thing to say”

  1. That’s a minority view. Eisenstein said “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” taught him everything about editing.

  2. Spione is shorter, more playful and fun to see than Dr. Mabuse…what I like about it is the finale where suddenly when Dr. Haghi plays as a clown before a crowd (who I always project as future Hitler-voters) and the film suddenly makes us sympathize with him, which makes clear the extent to which Lang’s German films identified with the villain.

    Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is interesting because it starts out very expressionistic and symbolist but the finale you have a realistic shootout between Mabuse and his gang and the cops (a great sequence) and then Mabuse goes mad by seeing all his victims and goes crazy again (which is obviously a fake ending, real Mabuses don’t feel guilt). But again you have a sense of identification with the villain because Mabuse’s shape-shifting is mirrored by the film’s shift in style and tone.

    Lang identified with Kriemhild as well in the second part (superior version) of Die Nibelungen. And in Metropolis the most interesting characters is Rotwang and his Robot.

  3. Hitchcock totally stole that Mabuse shoot-out for The Man Who Knew Too Much.

    Mabuse’s disintegration isn’t psychologically convincing, but he was always slightly less than a human character anyway. He attains his true nature in the sequels, where he’s less and less real.

    Lang’s device of using an intertitle (or later, a line of dialogue) to cue a cut (“Who is responsible?” CUT TO Haghi, “I”), which he perfected in Germany, quickly moved away from in America, and returned to when he went back to Europe, is one of the things I like best about him, and I can see how it could have inspired dialectical montage.

    Eisenstein and Lang discussed montage VS camera movement on the set of Metropolis. That would have been a good one to eavesdrop on.

  4. Eisenstein actually planned on making a science-fiction film, The Glass House, which was a left-wing take on Metropolis (which Eisenstein saw as fascist-leaning). There’s a book on Eisenstein’s art which shows the storyboards and I can be candid in saying it’s one of the best movies never made…conceptually that movie is brilliant. It’s like J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise only the building is entirely made of transparent see-through glass (floors, walls, pipes, ceilings, everything) and Eisenstein wanted to clutter every frame with people. So when a character committed suicide by hanging from the ceiling, around him on all sides people are watching and not doing anything…

    For me that is far more Langian than anything in Metropolis. It anticipates the themes of 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

  5. That sounds amazing! Of course, to make sense, the walls and ceilings must be tranparent only to us, not to the inhabitants… like Dogville…

  6. Well Eisenstein’s conceit was that the people could see each other but they have become so indifferent and callous and isolated that they don’t care. So they see a man coming suicide and ignore it even if they can see it.

    It also anticipates some of the ideas of Playtime (albeit on a lighter vein).

  7. Larry Niven postulated an indestructible but transparent material hewn from Dwarf Stars. The great mystery being how they hewed it. But the result was see-through spaceships.

    There’s also a sci-fi concept I always liked, though I forget where it came from: slow glass, which reflects its surroundings, but with a twenty-year time delay. Useful for murder mysteries if nothing else.

    Tati’s unmade film he wrote with Jonathan Rosenbaum also had that interesting X-ray scene, where the people appear to be nude — using airport tech which has since COME TRUE.

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