Tag Archives: crime film

‘M’ Marks the Spot: Murder, Metropolis, Mabuse

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Fritz Lang

Writers: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Based on the novel by: Norbert Jacques

Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede-Nissen, Gertrude Welcker

Original title: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler

Germany 1922

242 mins

‘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.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler1
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler

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.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse
The Testament of Dr Mabuse

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 Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set is out on DVD in the UK as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema Series.

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.

This article was first published in the Winter 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Stephen Thomson

Dreileben: A crime trilogy from New German Cinema

One Minute of Darkness

It’s been two years since Channel 4 unveiled its ambitious yet patchy Red Riding Trilogy, which was adapted from David Peace’s crime novels, with each of the three episodes made by a different home-grown director. Following a similar principle, the three-part German TV project Dreileben, which screened in the Cinema Europa section at this year’s London Film Festival, was directed by three of the country’s leading filmmakers, Christian Petzold (Yella, Jerichow), Dominik Graf (Germany 09) and Christoph Hochhä;usler (The City Below, Germany 09). This screening may not have been met with the same level of enthusiasm by UK audiences as back in Germany, when the films premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, yet Dreileben is a bold, innovative and largely compelling experiment in cinematic storytelling that deserves more attention than it has received during its limited festival run.

Almost more fascinating than the outcome is the initial extensive email conversation between the three filmmakers about film aesthetics, which ultimately led them to continue their heated exchange on screen. ‘The three of us had a long and extremely intensive correspondence on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy Berlin,’ says Petzold. ‘It started off with a discussion about the so-called “Berlin School”, which Dominik criticised. According to him we were in danger of compromising our view, our deep and passionate criticism, in favour of a common style, which would ultimately lead to a feeling of artificiality, constraint, and a distrust in communication, in language. We wrote to each other on a daily basis for about six weeks. Suddenly, the DFFB anniversary had passed, but we missed having these conversations, so we continued to meet and to talk, without any recording devices or designated use, until we decided to start this film project together.’

Defined by Hochhä;usler as ‘sibling films rather than a trilogy’, each of the resulting films feels very much like a separate piece of work, although there are more or less obvious plot links and reoccurring characters, similarly to the format of the Red Riding Trilogy. Most importantly, the filmmakers agreed upon a criminal case as the golden thread that binds their individual narratives: the escape of a convict from police custody into a small town called Dreileben. Located in the beautiful yet chilling Thuringia Forest, in the former East Germany, it seemed to be the ideal place for what the directors where trying to achieve. ‘I knew Thuringia from my childhood,’ says Petzold. ‘My mother grew up there, and I made Christoph and Dominik go and visit the area. Despite its proximity to Weimar, the home of Goethe and Schiller, it has always been a very poor area. People didn’t want to live there, they left if they could, and those who stayed told dark stories to each other. We liked that.’ As a consequence, Dreileben draws heavily on the German romantic tradition in terms of its approach to nature – seeing it both as a place of danger and a place of inspiration.

This becomes most evident in the third part, One Minute of Darkness, directed by Christoph Hochhä;usler, which also proves to be the most compelling episode. The film focuses on the investigations by the local detective in charge of the case of Frank Molesch, the escaped murderer, who – if only in the eyes of the detective – may actually be innocent. ‘What I find very intriguing is that we can never be sure about anything,’ says Hochhä;usler. ‘Instead we have to construct reality time and again. And what interested me most about Molesch’s character was the question: to what extent are we the authors of our own destiny, and to what extent do other people have an influence on that? Molesch is an extremely malleable, extremely soft persona, whose entire life has been dictated by his foster mother and external authorities, and I thought it would be interesting to explore what happens if such a diktat no longer exists. Can he actually make use of this moment of freedom? Where does it lead to?’

Hence Hochhä;usler’s episode is told mainly from Molesch’s viewpoint. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Molesch, despite his almost brutish actions, enters into a wonderfully tender bond with a young runaway, who also happens to be hiding in the woods. Meanwhile, the police inspector tries to get inside the head of Molesch, in order both to find him and prove his innocence. Shot in the cool and sparse New German Cinema manner, One Minute of Darkness may bring nothing terribly new to the genre, but it still makes for an effective and solid thriller in its own right.

In contrast, Petzold’s Beats Being Dead (the first episode in the trilogy) dazzles on the aesthetic level, but fails to keep up the tension and intensity from start to finish. Petzold reveals very little about the murder; instead, we meet Johannes, a young male nurse, who begins an affair with an immigrant girl from Eastern Europe who works in a nearby hotel. While the hunt for Molesch always remains in the shadow of the film’s main narrative, Petzold decides to concentrate on the mismatched couple as they struggle with life as much as with their young, and doomed, relationship.

Sitting in between the two episodes is Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, in which a police psychologist has been ordered to Dreileben to help the local police in their investigation. Adopting a style that is less cool and detached than Petzold and Hochhäusler’s approach, Graf manages to deftly weave a compelling personal story about two women, who fell for the same lover in the past, into the crime scenario. However, he gets slightly too carried away by his own ambitions for the project, rather than simply sticking with its initial premise.

Taken as a whole, Dreileben might have benefited if Petzold, Graf and Hochhä;usler were slightly less hard-headed filmmakers. There seems to be a potential in their work that is not quite realised, a kind of brilliance that keeps bumping against the same creative blockages. Still, aesthetically and conceptually, Dreileben is an innovative and engrossing, if slow-burning, TV-style crime-drama experiment that often hits a note of genuine mystery and discomfort in its attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent German filmmaking. It’s certainly worth four and a half hours of your time, even if it’s not quite the triumph that might be expected from each of these three directors.

Pamela Jahn