Archive for Spione

The Sunday Intertitle: Booby hatch/trap

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2021 by dcairns

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?

The Sunday Intertitle: Ich

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 5, 2017 by dcairns

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“What power is at work here?” asks the government man, and Fritz Lang cuts to his chief villain, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, who says, simply “I” — even though he’s in another room in another building in another part of town and can’t be conversing with the spymaster who doesn’t know he exists…

The idea of words connecting to images to bridge scenes is a big Fritz Lang trope, and he used it again, after SPIONE, the example quoted above, in M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE. And then he took it to Hollywood and did it a bit in FURY at MGM. And then he phased it out, as if he felt it were somehow un-American, until his return to Germany to make THE INDIAN TOMB and THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, and it came back in full force: a line at the end of one scene will be picked up by an image at the start of the next. A bit of film language that had lain dormant in Lang’s dark heart for decades, and suddenly burst into life again under the lights of Babelsberg.

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MGM seems like a peculiar home for Lang anyway, and indeed “that marriage did not last,” as Donald Sutherland would say, though in fairness none of Lang’s studio relationships lasted for more than a few films. His journey back to Germany may have been prompted by the fact that nobody in Hollywood would talk to him anymore, I don’t know.

But the weird thing is, there’s a beautiful example of this device in my favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — see here. And this was the very first MGM release. It was meant to be.

The Sunday Intertitle: What an odd thing to say

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by dcairns

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“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.

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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.

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