‘M’ marks the spot: Murder, Metropolis, Mabuse. At the heart of Fritz Lang’s most innovative period, from 1922 to 1933, lies a fascination with metropolitan modernity and the ambivalence of mass phenomena. On the one hand, in M (1931), the sheer number of milling souls amounts to a sort of chaos into which a child murderer can easily disappear, until a capital ‘M’ chalked on his back puts him back on the map. Yet the city is also, as in Metropolis (1927), a vast machine in which individuals are mere cogs, and chaos may only be an appearance generated by the limited point of view of each cog. Mabuse above all names the spectre of someone who has grasped the laws of this ordered chaos, but who has no desire to rule, only to play, to show how thoroughly the everyday can be simulated and controlled.
Rather like cinema itself, Mabuse is a force that links disparate scenes with precision timing. What can connect a man feigning sleep in a train compartment with a chauffeur standing by his car in a country lane in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)? Rhyming close-ups of their respective watches point back to Mabuse at his desk. The rail traveller leaps up to steal his fellow passenger’s briefcase and throws it out of the window just as the train crosses a bridge, and just as his colleague’s car passes underneath. A toot on a horn from the chauffeur, and a brisk cut to an engineer atop a telegraph pole: Mabuse knows the deed is done almost to the second. The very efficiency and order of modern transport and telecommunications have been turned against themselves, and film, the cannibal of modernity, is in its element. The secret trade contract in the stolen briefcase, Mabuse ordains, will be ‘found’ again in exactly 30 minutes. Cut to the Stock Exchange. Amid the panic caused by falling shares, a glossy moustachioed figure mounts a table, impassive above the throng, buying when everyone else sells, then selling at the top. At close of trading, over the paper-strewn empty space, the giant, superimposed, Cheshire-cat head of the rogue trader looms, before melting into the face of – Mabuse.
But behind even Mabuse there is another face, which has loomed over the Stock Exchange from the very start of the scene, a vast luminous clock with the 24 hours picked out in a single dial. Ideally, it ought to stand as the patron deity of orderly commerce, a monumental display of reliable regularity. But time itself is indifferent, available for whosoever cares to master it. This is the first of a series of remarkable clocks punctuating the film. Before we see the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior, its 24-hour clock, with Arabic and Roman numerals in concentric circles, fills the screen. Again, what is meant as a sign of affluence and security is actually the sign that Mabuse is at work. Vast as they are, these clocks are not out of keeping with the great majority of the film’s interiors. For a nation in the grip of economic disaster, Germany seems to be composed of cavernous chambers full of oddly lit planes and alcoves like some expressionist-cum-art deco hallucination. From spivvy casinos run by war profiteers, to hotel suites and private residences, there is nothing resembling a comfortable domestic space here. This is a world of gigantic imposture and in many ways Mabuse is merely an extrapolation of its logic. At any rate, dwarfed by an architecture meant to represent their own grandeur, the effete aristocrats of 1922 are easy pickings. It is hard to feel too much sympathy for the limp Count von Told as, under the spell of Mabuse, his impressive collection of ethnic fright masks turns against him. Mabuse is not above murder, but inducing suicide is more worthy of his talents. Having invited his future destroyer into his home, von Told asks him what he thinks of expressionism. ‘Spielerei,’ replies Mabuse: everything is game-playing these days. A languid aristo who dabbles insipidly in representations of extreme psychological states is fair game.
When Mabuse returns in The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), he is confined to an insane asylum, but being a spectre anyway, has no difficulty spreading the word. He acts only as a voice from behind a curtain in a basement room whose walls bear the outlines of decommissioned urinals, but the goal of anarchy for the hell of it is more insistent than ever. That his empire was crushed by a mere shoot-out in the first film was due to the urbane amateurism of State Prosecutor von Wenk. This time, he has a different sort of adversary in beefy police inspector sensuel moyen Lohmann, fresh from tracking down Peter Lorre in M.
The forces of order are, in other words, a little more professional, more bourgeois. Likewise the decor is more in keeping with Germany’s parlous state. Indeed, one could say desks are the heroes of the piece. Beautifully composed workspaces litter the film, filling the screen like still lifes. A pane of glass bearing enigmatic scratch marks is the object of a number of wonderful compositions before they are finally deciphered as spelling ‘Mabuse’. Later, as the tide turns, Lohmann shows one of Mabuse’s captured associates the evidence: two bullets in a little case are set against a beautiful composition of file and gun, all crisscrossing at 45 degrees. As the crim looks on, an oblong magnifying glass glides into view, perfectly covering the case. Round-headed Lohmann stands behind the desk in a spotlight with the map of the city behind him. Order has almost been restored.
But desks also communicate with each other in some pretty strange ways. At the very start, fallen cop Hofmeister has already tried to tell Lohmann that Mabuse is back, but while he is on the phone he is driven mad by some unspecified shock. Later, when Lohmann visits him in his cell, we see Hofmeister still on an imaginary phone at a spectral desk littered with animal ornaments in glass, superimposed, doubly transparent. Madness, clearly, but how do these relate to the little glass crocodile on Lohmann’s own desk? The desk behind the curtain from which Mabuse booms his orders is an empty shell. But the desk that communicates to it gramophonically is not straightforwardly occupied either. The scene in which he takes possession of it, so to speak, makes staggering use of superimposed images, and remains genuinely spooky to this day. In both films, psychoanalysis is an instrument of deception defeated by common sense and decency. But Lang’s eye is a little bit of the devil’s party.
By 1960, Mabuse’s sphere has narrowed to a single hotel once frequented by Nazis. And after years of relatively routine cop flicks, Lang is at the end of his career. As it turns out, Mabuse’s was only getting started: The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) begat the thousand sequels of… Even so, the film is well worth seeing, and it is fitting that Lang returned to place the third and final pillar of a giant ‘M’ over his career.