The Sunday Intertitle: Booby hatch/trap

Since we’re making a video essay about Joe May’s THE INDIAN TOMB (1921), we’re naturally also digging into Fritz Lang again, since he co-wrote it with Thea Von Harbou. Lang is more distinguished than May, a genius rather than a sometimes-astute craftsman and businessman with moments of wizardry. Also, there is far more Lang available to see than there is of May’s long oeuvre.

Some of this research was already done — you can buy my video essays accompanying CLOAK AND DAGGER, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, DER MUDE TOD and SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.

So, we rewatched SPIONE and THE TESTAMENT OF DR, MABUSE and THE 1,000 EYES of same, and Lang’s own remake of the TOMB, which he liked to trash-talk later as “Indienschnulze” (India-tearjerker) and as DER TIGER VON DEXTROPUR (The Corn-sugar Tiger) and DAS KINDISCHE GRABMAL (the Childish Tomb). Thanks to Ulrich Ruedel for the nicknames and translations.

TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE stands out among the films we watched — I had always sort of doubted Lang’s word when he said he’d put Nazi slogans in the mouths of criminals, but it depends how good the translations are. On the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray you can hear Professor Baum (L. Frank?) speak of a thousand-year empire of crime. If you assume that Lang, in some way, saw the writing on the wall with his one good eye, or with some other, better eye, then the film’s ending is really remarkable:

Baum is reduced to gibbering insanity, as Mabuse had been, when his empire crumbles. The asylum attendant closes the door to lock him into the padded cell. And he closes it on us, too. Everything goes black and we hear the lock click with finality over a massive ENDE.

Assume it’s not modern mankind Lang intended to incarcerate in the loony bin (but it could be). Assume he senses on some unconscious level that he’ll soon be leaving the country. Assume it’s Germany that’s being shut up with the raving maniac, left behind.

Lang thrillers sometimes sag a bit in the middle — I think SPIONE does — but they kick in and become frenzied at the end. SPIONE has an equally great, abrupt ending, one which seems like a good Hitlerian prophecy (suicide by pistol, before a theatre audience, yet).

The brutal abruption of these endings is made possible partly because of the lack of end credits. What I’d somehow not noticed before is that Lang doesn’t have any opening credits either: just the production company (unavoidable), EIN FRITZ LANG FILM (with the F and I of FRITZ, the L of LANG and the M of FILM shaded to make a second FILM of shadow) and the title. Even Thea doesn’t get her name up there.

Other random thoughts —

There’s a Fritz Lang cinematic universe: Inspector Lohman from M comes back in TESTAMENT, tying the one-shot in with the series. And I’d like to think that Professor Baum’s collection of African masks (which mark him as a Lang stand-in, looking at Fritz’s own decor) made their way across the Atlantic to decorate Mark Lamphere’s home in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR. Lanphere, a neurotic quasi-wife-murdering architect obsessed with predestination, is CERTAINLY a Fritz surrogate.

In SPIONE, a bad guy crashes his speeding jalopy into the revolving doors of the Atlantic Hotel — coincidentally or otherwise the name of the hotel in Murnau & Mayer’s THE LAST LAUGH, which has, memorably, the same doors. Possibly some acerbic commentary at work there. Murnau was transatlantic by that time.

The POV crashes, of car and train, are pretty incredible. Lang also blows up a factory, for real — I guess he was in competition with Harry Piel, the king of demolition and an ardent Nazi (most of his negatives were bombed out of existence, which is a shame for film history but seems somewhat fair).

The greatest intertitle in German cinema

Haghi, the Klein-Rogge mastercriminal here, is pretty close to being Mabuse under another name: he’s a master of disguise in charge of a criminal empire with an impressive desk. But the great thing about Mabuse is his dispersion through society. In the first double-film, DER SPIELER, he operates through disguises and proxies, but is still a corporeal spider at the centre of his criminous web. By the time TESTAMENT, he’s lost his mind, but is still scribbling crazy plans, which have seized the mind of his asylum superintendent, Baum. When Mabuse dies, his spirit appears by double-exposure and possesses Baum. Lang later felt this was an artistic mistake, for some reason — usually a good sign that he’s on to something. Lang’s inspirations are sublime, his afterthoughts often erratic.

In THOUSAND EYES, Mabuse is merely an idea. Anybody can become a Mabuse, simply by thinking about it too much. The fake Mabuse, appropriately enough, is a medium. Having dispensed with flesh and blood, the good doctor is unkillable. We’re stuck with him.

Or is it?

17 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Booby hatch/trap”

  1. Nice sentence: “Anybody can become a Mabuse, simply by thinking about it too much.”

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The main thing Mabuse and Lang-villains have in common with Hitler is the way they serve as allegories for mass media and communications. One of the reasons why Hitler rose to power was that he was the first German politician of his time in the 1920s and early 1930s to make use of mass media (radio, publicity, newspapers) and put a lot of focus on his image, while his opposing candidates left that for him to command rather than counter it effectively.

    I think Lohmann going from M to Testament is more Balzacian, it’s very much in the spirit of how in Balzac books one character goes into another, naturally and seamlessly and logically to create true juxtaposition, so much better than the corporate driven shenanigans.

  4. In Gravity’s Rainbow several characters worked in the German silent cinema or are obsessed by Mabuse. It’s likely Pynchon took the details from From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer, going by remarks in the book.
    The problem with Lang’s arch-criminals is that they can’t or won’t delegate. Whether it’s because they can’t get the staff or because they enjoy the dirty work, they keep going out to do it themselves. Even Haghi – concealed in a secret lair, fooling everyone into thinking he’s a cripple, with a deaf-and-dumb “nurse” as an attendant – doubles up as a theatre star when he could just vanish silently into the background.

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The lack of delegation is one thing that separates (maybe redeems) the Lang villain from Hitler. Hitler was all about delegation, of basically encouraging people to ‘work towards the Fuhrer’ and stepping out of the chain of command to get his favor. That’s how he maintained power, (and also what ultimately cost him). Whereas Mabuse (the original), Haghi and others are all performers to some kind, and maybe in that way analogues to Lang himself as a storyteller and artist of the mass media, who comported himself in the image of the tyrant (and behaved tyrannically on his sets).

    Of course the way Mabuse diffuses himself in the sequels is an example of Hitler and his ideology infecting, reproducing, reincarnating itself in mediocre epigones and subordinates. So on that level, the sequels are more Hitler-esque.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

  7. The FBI’s interpretation of how cults work — a charismatic central fanatic who believes his own bullshit, surrounded by a clique of cynical gangsters in it for what they can get, with the ordinary acolytes at the bottom and none the wiser — seems to fit the Hitler scenario neatly.

    If you work for Mabuse, the biggest threat to your life isn’t the cops, it’s Mabuse, which may be why he has trouble getting and keeping help…

  8. Fiona Watson Says:

    Thank you for the Buckaroo Banzai clip David. I’d always thought that John Lithgow based his performance on Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang in Metropolis (he certainly looks like him), but as it turns out, he revealed he watched footage of Mussolini and based the voice on an Italian taylor working in the film studio basement. Lithgow even went as far as taking the script and tape-recorder to this guy and getting him to read the whole part out for him! Dr Lizardo’s like a cross between Rotwang and Jared Leto in House Of Gucci. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RmdAlaOiMw

  9. Fiona Watson Says:

  10. bensondonald Says:

    A useful thing I read somewhere about cults, which also applies to such things as pseudoscience and multilevel marketing: Their leaders don’t try to persuade everybody. In truth, they quietly ratchet up the illogic and insanity to drive out anybody clinging to reason or ethics.The result is a hardened core resistant to the most obvious facts.

    A famous paraphrase of Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and that’s really all you need.”

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You’re more than welcome Fiona. But when we first see John Lithgow’s “Dr.Emilio Lizardo” he’s sitting on the floor of hi insane asylum cell with pieces of crumpled paper around him in a shot that duplicates exactly Rudolph Klein-Rogge in “Testament of Dr. Mabuse”

    “Lizardo’s” minions (“Lectroids from Planet 10”) are quite like “Mabuse’s” followers

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    At one point in that speech you can hear a Lizardo minion yell “Death to the Fascist Insect!” which was a watch-cry of the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (remember them?)

  13. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hah! You’re absolutely right David. I was swayed by David when he shot down my original theory that Dr Lizardo was based on Dr Mabuse. He said that Dr Mabuse wasn’t the right fit. I’ll try and trust my instincts next time!

  14. I was misguided — I felt Lizardo was very Rotwangian, but not much like the sane Mabuse, forgetting his lunatic mode — even though we’d just been discussing it.

  15. “The FBI’s interpretation of how cults work — a charismatic central fanatic who believes his own bullshit, surrounded by a clique of cynical gangsters in it for what they can get, with the ordinary acolytes at the bottom and none the wiser — seems to fit the Hitler scenario neatly.”
    I don’t think so: Hitler and his senior followers seem to have been both deranged fanatics and cynical gangsters simultaneously. The same seems to have been true of some Stalinists – most notably Beria if the allegations made bout him are correct.

  16. My interpretation of Hitler’s cynicism is that his psychopathy reinforced his fanaticism so that anything could be justified if it helped his cause. He could be cynical about all the stuff that didn’t mean anything to him because it wasn’t about him and his racist empire-building, but I don’t detect a trace of cynicism about THAT.

    The more cynical ones were probably those that fled, the more committed ones were those who killed themselves.

  17. David Ehrenstein Says:

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