Archive for Thea Von Harbou

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?

A trick of the light

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2021 by dcairns

One thing that fascinates about Fritz Lang’s late duology The Indian Epic — THE TIGER OF ESHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB — is that the orientalist fantasy of its story and cardboard characterisation is so utterly pulp. Lang’s was an inescapably melodramatic sensibility, and freed from the traditions of Hollywood, he returned to the attitudes of his silent work. Even active the contribution of his former wife, Thea Von Harbou, who had perhaps a little more interest in character psychology, is gone. So the last German films may represent Lang in his purest form.

Accepting Lang’s greatness means accepting his focus on sensational literature and comic book narrative style, which combines in him with a dark, weird sensibility and incredible aesthetics. While the Indian Epic falls down in a few places — there’s a terrible weak battle in the throne room of part 2 — evidently, time and money ran out, and the extras could not be induced to struggle convincingly — it fits Welles’ description of “the beginning and end of every shot” in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT’s Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, before editing tightened it: “pathetic in all the wrong senses of the word” — but otherwise, the two films are stunningly lovely.

And there’s a weird blunder early on: the disappearing child. Lang sets up a tragedy — a small child runs out of shot, is pursued by a tiger, and eaten off-camera. While it’s quite possible the ruthless auteur would have been satisfied to actually loose a big cat upon an expendable child, more compassionate heads have prevailed and so the gag is accomplished by having the kid run through frame, stopping the camera, and filming the tiger’s pursuit as a separate piece of film, its victim long removed to safety. The idea would have been to jump-cut the two shots together, the join being rendered invisible or at least non-obvious by the fact that we’re looking at an empty set, nothing in motion after the kid leaves and before the pussycat appears. There are other sequences in the film where tiny jumps are visible, as Lang tightens the pauses between characters’ entrances and exits.

For some reason, a straight cut wasn’t working — possibly the camera got nudged marginally out of position and so the angles matched less than perfectly. So a dissolve has been introduced. This is unfortunate, since cheap lab work has resulted in all The Indian Epic’s dissolves being clunky, the colour changing as soon as the dissolve begins: to save money, only the part of the shot that’s dissolving has been duped, resulting in a very visible and abrupt change of image quality, a jump-cut of colour. Some filmmakers, like Nick Ray in JOHNNY GUITAR, got around this by filming their dissolves in-camera.

But the dissolve has also been ludicrously mistimed, so that we don’t mix from one empty frame to another — we actually begin to dissolve while the child is still in shot. He fades from view, as if some unseen James Doohan is pushing a slider and beaming him up. Pretty poor. Part of what makes Lang so impressive, perhaps, is that not only are his triumphs quite idiosyncratic, personal, unique, so are his lapses. A Langian screw-up is not the kind anyone else would be likely to make.

On rewatching, I notice that the little dog the kid is chasing ALSO vanishes by jump-dissolve, as if the same bit of alleyway always has that vanishing effect on everyone who passes through it. Perhaps one of those chronosynclastic infundibula you hear about.

But that’s a quibble. I really want to talk about the weird spotlights. Throughout the two films, Lang is picking out key elements in his shots with a slightly amber-orange light which has no naturalistic reason for being there. A subtle spotlight or reflector effect might be introduced invisibly, but not if it’s a different colour from the surrounding daylight. It’s attractive and totally theatrical, a lovely idea.

A bellringer up a tower is bathed in his own little sunset.

When Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert, the patch of sand they’re headed for is already neatly picked out for them in an amber glow.

For all I know there was simply a shortage of half-blue filters for the lights on location, necessary to balance electric light with daylight — you get an orange look contrasting with the more blueish surrounding light — there are pitfalls in ascribing intent to any film effect. But you can still admire the effect itself.

And, towards the end of the second film, it suddenly transforms from a theatrical image into a quasi-naturalistic one. Our hero, architect Harald Berger, the strongest man in India, has been imprisoned in a dungeon dark, dank and donk. A villain appears at a high window to look in on him by torchlight. And the familiar spotlight hits Harald, only this time it has a plausible alibi.

Tom Gunning suggests that the architecture in Lang’s films often acts as a kind of “destiny machine” — like the “propitious rooms” collected by Michael Redgrave’s architect in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, his spaces create the actions of his characters, channelling them towards the most dramatic outcome. So it makes sense that a lighting style already present in the film should eventually link arms with the physical shape of a scene.

Oh, and the set-up is also one we’ve seen before: when Harald spies on the forbidden temple ceremony in film 1, he occupies a high window from which to look down into the big space, exactly like Gustav Frohlich spying on the religious meeting in METROPOLIS, and exactly like a projectionist looking through his little window at the audience and film below.

I’d also add that, while the city/palace of Eshnapur here does indeed behave like a classic “destiny machine,” the titular tomb is an even better example — it’s a tomb being built for a living person, and the completion of the tomb will signal the execution of its intended occupant. It’s the most propitious, Langian building imaginable, rising stone by stone as a structure of death, like the sand accumulating in the bottom of the Wicked Witch’s hour-glass.

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.