Archive for The Testament of Dr Mabuse

Pay no attention to that Mabuse behind the curtain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2021 by dcairns

I half-jokingly pondered the other day if Professor Baum, the Mabuse substitute in THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, was named after L. Frank Baum, but, you know, the more I think about it…

Oz gets everywhere. Mabuse appears as a big floating head at one point in DER SPIELER — of course the Victor Fleming MGM film hadn’t been made yet (it’s only six years in the future, but feels like a whole other eon of filmmaking) — but the Baum book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, existed, and when Dorothy and her friends visit the wizard in that, he appears differently to each of them. Shades of RASHOMON. But Dorothy sees him as a giant head.

Baum is surrounded by heads in his study — African masks and actual deformed skulls, some of unusual size.

And of course, there’s a man behind the curtain. That’s what Baum is, effectively. The petty human disguising himself as a big head. Oh, but Baum is also a partial anagram of Mabuse. Probably that’s it. He’s an Alucardian alias. But any good character name ought to have at least two possible rationales behind it.

Still, interested to hear if any Mabuseians out there in the dark can see any more possible connections, apart from the flying monkeys of course.

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?

Devious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2020 by dcairns

I got an email from my New York chum Jaime Christley about GW Pabst’s ABWEGE, streamed from Pordenone, and I liked it so much it put me off writing anything about the film myself, so I’m just publishing it here.

Frame-grabs are by Jaime and also Mark Fuller, who can get them to work even though I can’t, suddenly.

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I forgot I’d already seen ABWEGE but yes, it looked great. One of Pabst’s most haunting images is the junkie at the party – MORE haunting after she’s had her fix than before. Pabst can go toe to toe with anybody in depicting the gilded rot of the continental leisure class of that era, but even with his talent for vivid, packed images, he’s a lot more sly than he lets on. Plenty of “let the audience put 2 and 2 together.”

Maybe too much Gustav Diessl and his furrowed brow? Lang knew well enough in THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE that a little Diessl goes a long way. (Actually, looking at what I’ve seen him in – several Pabsts! – I tend to like him. I don’t know what makes him come across like a paperweight here….. might just be my mood.)

Jaime N. Christley

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DC again. Note: Diessl famously plays Jack the Ripper in PANDORA’S BOX, and Louise Brooks always claimed that Pabst cast him in that role because he was “her type.” Psychological manipulation being Pabst’s metier.

The only other thing I wanted to talk about in this louche and lustrous presentation was the dancing. First we get Lutz and Lola doing their celebrated Intrepid Crouch —

Then there’s Brigitte Helm doing a startling visualisation of what it means to literally melt in a man’s arms. Impossible to represent this in still images but worth trying anyway. Sorry, I don’t know who I’m stealing this frame-grab from:

Wait, yes I do, Donna Hill. Thanks!

Helm’s entire form becomes snakelike, bending seductively in places it shouldn’t be able to bend, like the serpentine woman in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, then she takes it further and becomes a snake made of butter dancing in an oven. It is something to see.