Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Film Every Day #1: Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse] (West Germany, 1960); Dir. Fritz Lang

So it's 2011, the last full year before the world is engulfed by chaos and destruction. Time, I think, to embark on a project that gives my life purpose and meaning; to fulfill the latent promise and finally achieve deliverance from my habitual indolence. A project so ambitious it may serve as an inspiration to others, but more likely will seem colossally pointless....

For each and every one of the next 365 days I intend to watch and review a different film.


Those reviews will be published on this blog, for the interest and amusement of anybody that sees fit. Some will be long and detailed, others short, others digressing wildy from the intended subject. Feel free to comment on them if the inclination takes you.

As somebody who loves film in all its myriad forms the idea is that over the course of the net year it will build up into a portrait of the world of cinema. I'll make no apology for the fact that my choices may often seem rather esoteric and non-mainstream. If you want to read about Avatar or the Harry Potter series there are plenty of other places to do so.

Here are the rules:

1. A MINIMUM of different 365 films must be reviewed or discussed. On some occasions there may be double (or more) bills, but barring extenuating circumstances they can only be considered a single entry.

2. I must make a reasonable attempt to watch a different entry within each 24 hour period, barring (again) extenuating circumstances.

3. A review of each entry should follow by no later than the end of the following day. I'm cutting myself a little slack here.

4. A MAXIMUM of two entries a week may be films that I've seen before. This allows me some licence to write about films that interest me, but not enough to get lazy.

5. Short films (anything under 45 minutes) are permitted but can count for only one entry per week. This may include cartoons or animated films provided that they were originally shown theatrically (i.e. Tex Avery cartoons are okay, Wacky Races isn't). Films over 45 minutes are considered 'feature length' for the purpose of this project.

6. Documentaries are permitted, providing they were shown theatrically.

7. At least one film a week should be by a woman film-maker. This is something of a wild card and might be interpreted as a sop to political correctness. Maybe it is, but the comparative lack of women directors is something that bothered me. So tough shit if you don't like it.

8. I reserve the right to break every one of these rules.


Why do this? I can only refer you to the words of Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: "Because it's there". I don't think it's big or clever and I'm not convinced I'll last a week, let alone a year. Still, better to have tried and failed.

Enough preamble, let's go....

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse]. Dir. Fritz Lang, 1960.


When I decided to take up this challenge a few days ago this film seemed like a very good place to start. I'd just received Eureka's boxset of the Mabuse series for Christmas (it was on my Amazon wish list, my parents wouldn't have been intuitive enough to do so otherwise) and there was also a certain symmetry in having director Fritz Lang's last film as my first.

For the benefit of the uninitiated Lang is one of the giants of world cinema. As a young film-maker in Wiemar Germany he was active in the German Expressionist movement, creating such work as the silent epic Metropolis (1927) and the still chilling M. After fleeing the Nazis in 1934 Lang headed to Hollywood where he was instrumental in the development of film noir.

Lang had first visited the character of Dr. Mabuse - the psychoanalyst, hyponotist and master criminal created by Norbert Jacques - in his four and half hour Dr Mabuse, der Spieler ("Dr. Mabuse the Gambler") early in his career in 1922. Mabuse was inspired by villainous pulp characters such as Fu Manchu and Fantomas but took the idea to a different level, weaving political commentary and Nietzschean theories of the Übermensch into it's anti-hero's nefarious antics.

The director returned to the character a decade later with Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse ("The Testament of Dr Mabuse") (1933). Despite now being confined to a lunatic asylum and dying early in the film, Mabuse's genius so beguiles one of the psyhciatrists treating him that he adopts the Mabuse moniker and embarks upon a criminal career of his own. Nazi propoganda minister Joseph Goebbels was sufficiently distubed by the film's content as to ban it, one of the factors that precipitated Lang's departure.

After more than a quarter of a century away from Germany it's tempting to think that sentiment played a part in Lang's decision to be reunited with his most famous character, although according to writer David Kalat (who provides a commentary on the dvd) he took some persusion to take it on. The country had of course changed massively and notwithstanding other factors the film industry was a pale imitation of what it had been in the heyday of the mighty state studio UFA.

Producer Artur Brauner, who had been active in the West German film industry since the end of the war, had been courting Lang (professionally speaking) for a number of years. Now, having observed the success of rivals with cheap and cheerful adaptations of Edgar Wallace crime stories (the beginnings of the genre known as Krimi) he was keen on developing a franchise of his own and saw Mabuse as the ideal property.

In its early stages you'd be forgiven for thinking The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is going to be a straight remake of The Testament... which, by all accounts was the original intention. When a journalist is shot in his car whilst waiting at a traffic light it's a conscious homage to the earlier film and the introduction shortly thereafter of corpulent police inspector Kras (Gert Fröbe, who'd find fame a few years later as the titular Goldfinger) deliberately evokes the character of Hofmeister in the same.

Nothing from Lang would ever be quite so predictable though. As events unfold we're introduced to a motley collection of characters, none of whom are entirely what they seem. Even the film's apparent hero, wealthy American industrialist Henry Travers (played by Peter van Eyck, an actor I must confess to liking more than most) is ultimately revealed as little more than an insipid patsy in 'Mabuse's' elaborate charade. The true hero, when he emerges, is sufficiently leftfield that many viewers may have drawn quite the opposite conclusion about his motives.

Along the way we're treated to some intriguing set pieces designed to pique our interest and keep us guessing. A scene in which several of the players attend a sitting with the psychic Dr Cornelius becomes a guessing game of who-knows-what, while the virtue of Travers is cleverly undermined in a scene in which he's coerced into watching the woman he's fallen for (Dawn Addams) getting dressed through a two-way mirror.

Indeed voyeurism is a central theme of the film, leading to parallels being drawn with Psycho and Peeping Tom. Mabuse's '1000 eyes' are the closed-circuit cameras through which he observes his pawns as they go about their business in the hotel where much of the action takes place. Necessity, one might surmise, was the mother of invention and the smaller budget perhaps impelled Lang into taking a more televisual approach - sometimes literally.

Mabuse, or at least the would-be Mabuse, when finally revealed at the denouement, is actually something of a cipher. We're no wiser at the end as to who he really is or what his motives were. The idea of crimes and statements being attributed to a long-dead criminal who's somehow attained a supernatural dimension actually seems quite prescient. Osama bin Laden anyone?

In summation I was genuinely surprised by just how creative, and I suspect influential (on Bond, et al) this film was. Unlike most sequels it confounds the law of diminishing returns and perhaps of all the series is the one which bears repeat viewings. I'll certainly give it another look, if I ever find the time.

Christ, I hope not all entries will take as long as this one.

2 comments:

  1. Christ on a moped, what have I started? I was beginning to worry about the flagellative approach to this until I saw point 8. You ever considered a career as a policy maker? You could only have made it more difficult if you insisted that the first letter of each film title should make up a well known phrase or saying of no less than 365 letters.

    Good luck mon brave.

    Oh, loved the first review by the way. More like that please!

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  2. Definitely shaping up to be a loooong year. Sure to slip up sooner or later but I'll keep the run going as long as I can. Damn you for putting this idea in my head!

    I'd love to maintain the same quality but must concede they've been a pretty mixed bag so far. A lot depends on how much knowledge or research I can call upon, otherwise it can become self-indulgent waffle.

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