“The shadow of Mabuse falls over the 1926 Soviet adventure serial Miss Mend, too, but without the angst and gloom of Lang’s Der Spieler.”
Two recent DVD releases –– one, from Britain’s Masters of Cinema, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922); the other, from the American company Flicker Alley, Miss Mend (1926),1 an early Russian thriller –– are vivid reminders of the chronic and international need for filmmakers to suck at the teat of pulp fiction, and just how nourishing that feed can be. Far from brainless entertainment or smirking postmodern contrivances, these 80+-year-old films come to us as complexly layered visions of the troubled times, culture clashes, and societal upheavals in which they were made, and, in the case of Miss Mend, leavened with subversive wit.
And it’s not surprising that Mabuse the über-mad genius would come to power in the land of demented fairy tales, Richard Wagner, Nietzsche, Freud, Carl Jung, followed by horror films like Dr. Caligari (1920), Der Golem (1920), and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Here was a juggernaut of cultural influence to underwrite Lang’s first masterpiece. In hindsight, Lang himself stated that he wanted to create a Germanic fairy tale “for his time,” which was that of the Weimar Republic, an era of artistic adventure, economic instability, sexual disinhibition, and political flux.
In discussing his first Mabuse film, Lang always stoutly denied prescience of Hitler’s rise, and Mabuse is a wobbly metaphor for it anyway. We take it for granted now that the German people’s eager acceptance of Hitler was a matter of the right man –– or right psychotic monster — at the right time, and if there’s anything of second sight in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, it’s in the film’s powerful depiction of its characters’ similar hapless allowance of Mabuse into their lives, everyone from his lower-class henchmen, to a showgirl, to his main victims, the aristocratic Tolds –– a nicely gauged cross-section of Weimar Republic society.
Behind his disguises, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a practicing psychiatrist (psychoanalyst?), which positions him as a 20th-century shaman to begin with, but with potent mind-control abilities that enable him to lift the cranium up not just of an individual but of an entire society. In the film’s breathless first action sequence, we watch Mabuse wrap the stock market round his little finger, and it’s clear that his ongoing project will be pumping counterfeit money into the country’s currency in order to destabilize its already fragile economy.
But to what end? Unlike Hitler’s, Mabuse’s motives for causing chaos are murky. In his “testament,” written during his final years in an insane asylum and used as the device that propels the villain of Lang’s follow-up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), he’s a bit more forthright: his goal in creating mayhem is to establish an “empire of crime.” Such a goal, however, is harder to grasp than Hitler’s will to political power, with the end game being . . . well, you know, world domination.
Meanwhile, as the respected Doctor, Mabuse is free to mix in with polite, upper-class society. At a soirée given by the Tolds, he advances a blasé but highly cultivated devil-may-care attitude when Count Told (Alfred Abel) asks his opinion of Expressionism. “Expressionism is just playing about,” Mabuse answers, “but why not? These days everybody is playing about.”
Couple this remark with others he makes at an earlier encounter with Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker), and it appears that Mabuse sees the whole thing –– the manipulations, the mind control, counterfeiting, screwing with the stock market –– as a large scale “playing about” that takes advantage of his victims’ shallowness, their “loss of faith.” For Mabuse, it’s only congenial activity in a society devoid of meaning, morality, direction. Here Lang is hitting on how he saw the state of Germany at the time, though certainly not the only director to do so: Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925) and Pandora’s Box (1929) and Joe May’s Asphalt (1929) come to mind.2
Mabuse in fact mistakes the Countess and her languorous ennui not as weakness but as potential, willing sexual collusion with his grander designs, and what Dusy Told initially mistakes as mere cynicism in the Doctor’s attitude intrigues her until, the night of the party, Mabuse, as she watches, casually displays his mind-control techniques on her husband. When the Count, playing cards with his cronies but clearly under Mabuse’s power, helplessly begins to cheat, is caught and humiliated, her reaction is horror and disgust, of course –– which leads to her abduction by Mabuse and a melodrama’s need to rescue her.
Throughout, Der Spieler is a confident and precociously clever thriller, but with a pace that’s slowed considerably by the story’s need for expository dialog. Here’s one silent film that would have fared better as a talkie, but no matter, this is a fascinating work –– and easy to watch multiple times –– not so much in how it succeeds or fails as a thriller as in its multifaceted backgrounding of character and event. Everyone must have his own Mabuse experience, but mine resides, partly, in Lang’s extraordinary attention to the nuances of detail that make up his unusual pairings of Countess Dusy Told and State Prosecutor von Wenk and then, ultimately, Countess Told and Mabuse’s discarded playmate, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen).
Countess Told and von Wenk are only one of several pairings that give the film’s structure an off-kilter symmetry, splitting off the parallel lines both of crime, chaos/law, order and upper class/lower class. While Mabuse has his crew of two or three thugs, a drug addict, and a showgirl to do his bidding, von Wenk has his police operatives, although, like Mabuse, he’s the one that must make things happen. Throughout, like Holmes and Moriarty, von Wenk and Mabuse –– the film’s most important dualism –– go mano a mano in a contest of mental willpower. Mabuse’s use of sexual dependency to control his agent, the showgirl Cara Carozza, tormented by unrequited love for the doctor, is parallel to von Wenk and Dusy Told’s platonic bond, which mirrors Mabuse and Carozza even more intriguingly when Told agrees to be the prosecutor’s agent, going undercover to meet with the imprisoned Carozza in the hope that a simpatico female might get Carozza to name the identity of the Spieler.
The meeting in a small prison cell of the two women, each from such disparate classes, yields one of the best scenes in the film, with resonance to the social chasms existing in Weimar Germany. Neither von Wenk nor the Countess has any idea that the respected Dr. Mabuse is the evil genius inspiring such blind loyalty as Carozza now displays under lock and key. Here, von Wenk has reasoned, she might safely be convinced to betray her boss, but it’s a no go. She instantly sees through Dusy Told’s ruse, and as Told listens to Carozza apostrophize her master and refuse to aid in any attempt to destroy him, Told’s carefully molded cynicism collapses in sympathy for the showgirl’s strength of character.3
With Dusy Told’s fragile aristocratic composure crumbling in front of her, the proletarian Carozza briefly, but memorably, becomes heroic for the audience, too. While the two women talk, Lang ingeniously marks the passing of time with a large rectangle of sunlight from the cell’s window progressing across the walls behind them. Until now, the cell’s lighting has been glaring and shadowless, but as the room darkens, lit only by the window’s single source of sunlight, the atmosphere becomes muted and sad. A title introducing the scene designates it as “Evening,” the only time the film feels the need to pointedly state the time of day.
It’s the imprisoned Carozza who foresees Mabuse’s end, laughing at von Meck’s attempts to defeat her master. “He must destroy himself,” she tells Dusy Told, and Mabuse seals his doom in Lang’s final reel, by escaping capture once only to be ultimately cornered and undone by his own ingenuity.4
Der Spieler is a long (4½ hours), two-part film, and Lang fills its length with a huge amount of metaphor, analogy, and play of opposites that quite deliberately express the cultural and political climate of Weimar Germany. Lang called its second half The Inferno, and if he didn’t exactly see how the real one would play out, he understood its volatile breeding grounds and that the temperature for combustion was near flash point. The director would go on to make two more Mabuse films in his career –– each memorable in its own fashion –– but neither would carry the multileveled relationship of meaning to entertainment that Der Spieler does.
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Directed by Fedor Ozep and Boris Barnet, the three-part serial has its pulpy origins in a novel of the same name by Russian author Marietta Shaginian, who used a pseudonym, Jim Dollar, to add yet another dash of mockery to her treatment of American capitalism. Unlike Lang’s film, Miss Mend, which at nearly five hours is even longer than Der Spieler, is a wild ride that can’t quite manage to take itself seriously. In fact, for all intents and purposes, it’s a comedy.
Once this serial was released to the public, were apologies to the Central Committee demanded of the filmmakers, or fines leveed, or something worse? You wonder, because Miss Mend, like any feature film produced in the Soviet Union in those days, was heavily funded by the government, who expected, in return, a straight-faced, well-delineated amount of political massaging inserted into the product. While Eisenstein and others managed to make art films that surmounted the propaganda carried within them, Ozep and Barnet apparently rejected the idea that a film must operate as a humorless ideological delivery system.
As pure entertainment, the serial fires on all cylinders, but there’s a sneaky, satirical mindset operating throughout. It’s easy to imagine Ozep and Barnet as a couple of young wisenheimers willing to risk a little censure; a few years later they would have been gambling against a stay in the Gulag.5
The film’s Mabuse, the bespeckled, buzzard-like Chiche, is something of a biochemist and has fashioned a form of plague that kills its victims within minutes. His plan is to insert ampules containing plague spores into ceramic “insulators,” which would be placed at intervals along the electric wires running through a Russian metropolis, like Chiche’s first target, Leningrad; when a certain frequency is reached within the wire, it explodes the ampule and releases the spores into the population at large. His motive for such terror is more precise, explicable, and melodramatic than Mabuse’s: a vitriolic hatred of Bolsheviks, one fully underwritten by a caucus of American captains of industry, who want the Reds eradicated from the face of the earth.
The brief documentary included in Flicker Alley’s set mentions the fact that, originally, the screenwriters had wanted Chiche to be a loner terrorist, until they were strongly encouraged by their government sponsors to include a group of capitalist backers. Such a detail heightens what makes this film fascinating beyond its considerable ability to entertain. Produced in the “utopian” era before Stalin began to exert control over all media, Miss Mend still needed to kowtow to the authorities. Whatever demands were made, however, they did not deflect the filmmakers from their breezy way with the Soviet ideological struggle.
Indeed, the film’s anti-American, anti-capitalist stance seems more or less a convenient plot armature, like Bond going up against agents of SMERSH. That the filmmakers made a vehicle for mass entertainment that simultaneously –– with a good deal of sophisticated wit –– mimicked and parodied American models dumbfounded Russian critics even as it delighted Russian audiences, who yearned for Hollywood slapstick films and adventure serials in the twenties, much as they would yearn for the music of the Beatles later in the century. With Miss Mend, Ozep and Barnet delivered the goods, and then some.
Glan’s performance as a woman of strong character and powerful feelings sets Vivian Mend up as something of the straight (wo)man to the film’s long run of hyped-up, preposterous action sequences. These take advantage of trains, automobiles, ships at sea, men on foot undercranked and running, and beautifully choreographed fistfights.
It’s provocative, though, that the first action set piece, the face-off between strikers and workers at Stern’s factory, begins with a feel for documentarian realism and at the same time with, seemingly, the strongest Socialist propagandist stance in the entire serial, making you think the film might be a seriously intended message from Moscow after all. As gunfire opens on the unarmed workers, you remember the history of bloody strikes in the U.S., when, back in the day, industrialists were allowed and justified in calling in the National Guard to quell them, resulting in bloodbaths like the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Unlike almost everything else in Miss Mend, the Soviet filmmakers aren’t making this stuff up, and it’s revelatory to see how what would have been viewed as pinko propaganda in the U.S. of the 1920s has us now on the other side of the ideological fence, with labor unions firmly established, not as Commie plots but as American institutions, and with Eisenhower’s fear of the military-industrial complex now part of our free-floating, societal anxiety.
The filmmakers also do an acerbic take on racism in America. When police arrive at a speakeasy to inspect the aftermath of a violent bar fight, they find just one fatality. “No big deal,” says one cop to the other, “he’s black.” A few reels later, the comic foil of the newspaper trio (Igor Ilyinski), stranded without pants on a docked ship, wraps his shirt around his midsection like a loin cloth (or diaper), blackens his half-naked body with machine oil, and gets himself home by parading through the city streets as a nutty minstrel-show performer –– a more acceptable sight to U.S. citizenry than a pants-less white guy.
Chasing Chiche all the way to Leningrad, Miss Mend and her buddies leave behind an America — Russian locations being used after all –– that doesn’t look quite right, a kind of bizarro America, in spite of all the automobiles clogging the streets. The sign at the entrance of Stern’s cork factory reads “Rocfeller and Co. [sic]” Why not Stern and Co.? But that’s okay, we get the point. Miss Mend lives with her nephew in a few cramped rooms that nonetheless are contained in a palatial apartment building surely left over from the days of the Czar.
Once the film docks in the real Russia, a number of astonishing set-pieces take hold, the strangest –– in that it seems intentionally hilarious –– being a breakout of plague aboard a transatlantic steamer. Spread by the photojournalist accidentally breaking one of Chiche’s ampules of death, this disease has no gestation period: within minutes, the corridors and dining chambers become filled with panicked passengers, who stop literally dead in their tracks and pile up like cordwood. It’s the only slapstick treatment of deadly illness I’m aware of.
Chiche has also been tailed by his erstwhile girlfriend, Elizabeth Stern, who, in her desperate longing for the evil biochemist, recalls Mabuse’s Cara Carozza. Also duped by Chiche is Arthur Stern, who, in a wickedly implausible example of dramatic irony, is known to Miss Mend only as “Engineer Johnson,” even as her newspaper cohorts have tagged him as a key player in the terrorist plot and look for him furiously in Leningrad. Vivian remains clueless of Stern’s identity well into Russia and the third installment, in which she actually comes upon him on a country road. Arthur, who’s escaped from a long slugfest with Barnet, is having car trouble, and Vivian simply walks up and says hi. She’s surprised to see him in Russia, as he is to see her. They make plans to meet in town for dinner. It’s like something out of a romantic comedy, except our heroine’s confusion here is over a man who wants to kill millions of people with little plague bombs. Remarkably, once again, this is somehow funny.
Once Vivian is apprised of the nasty fact that her nice young man is part of the evil plan also responsible for a death that haunts her personally, attempted murder, abduction, near rape all lead to a race to the rescue, occasioning the most rapid-fire editing this side of D. W. Griffith. It’s the handsome Barnet who speeds to save Vivian from the fate worse than death; rapidly accelerating cuts to a motion-blurred landscape express his automobile’s frantic pace. It’s anybody’s guess whether this feverish sequence is gentle mockery of the racing automobile finale in Griffith’s Modern Story in Intolerance (1916), but I’d like to think so.
Finally, there’s yet another race, this time to apprehend Chiche before his deadly plan, timed for an exact hour of the day, goes into motion. Vivian and her boys may arrive too late, but, without totally giving it away, Chiche’s capture has much to do with the stolid reliability of the Soviet police. It’s easy to view this turn of plot as a concession to government pressure to have the USSR look efficient in law and order department, and perhaps it was a compromise, but the filmmakers handle it beautifully, making it a deflation of audience expectation that, like much of the film, is subversively funny. And, anyway, the captured Chiche must still meet his end, and the film delivers a cruel and visually exciting death, which, like Mabuse, the bad man brings on himself.
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Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler arrives in region 2 as one-third of a three-disc box set from Masters of Cinema containing all three of the Fritz Lang Mabuse films; Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) and Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) are each on separate discs. Der Spieler uses the same restoration of the film done by Friedrich Wilhelm-Stilung that Kino released in region 1 in 2006, yet the Masters of Cinema edition looks noticeably better, sharper and with a deeper range of darks. The disc carries the same astringent but effective score by Aljoscha Zimmermann, who expounds on his accomplishment at perhaps too great a length on a documentary included on the disc. Other short features give important background to Mabuse’s originator, Nobert Jacques, and to how the film’s motifs relate to German silent cinema. David Kalat’s commentary, an invaluable primer on the complexities of Der Spieler, is here too. Testament of Dr. Mabuse has seen a region 1 Criterion Collection release, and the Masters of Cinema edition is an exact match to it, with an amazing amount of detail present; the soundtrack, so important to this early German talkie, is crisp and clear here, as it is on the Criterion. A disc of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse was available in the U.S. on an Image Entertainment release, which is long out of print; I’ve never seen it, but by all reports it had looked wretched. The Masters of Cinema disc looks quite nice.
For the most part, Miss Mend looks fantastic in Flicker Alley’s two-disc edition; it’s remarkably well preserved. Robert Israel’s score, using a modest chamber ensemble –– not a large orchestra as the case wrapper proclaims –– is a tremendous asset to this release, partnering the film’s often hectic visuals with finesse. Quiet moments are supported with the same acumen and taste, but as I watched a romantic scene near the end of the serial, I wondered if the use of the Brahms piano Intermezzo no.2, op.118 to accompany it was a lapse in judgment: the piece is redolent more of grief and loss than moonlight and roses. But Israel knows what he’s doing; the music’s emotional splendor sweeps the film toward a lovely conclusion –– and I’m sure Brahms doesn’t mind.
- For details on these releases, see the end of this article. [↩]
- Mabuse scholar Michael Farin views the Doctor as Norbert Jacques’ embodiment of the era’s typical grab-what-you-can bourgeois taking advantage of the slippery push-pull economic conditions of the German depression. [↩]
- As victim of uncontrollable feelings toward an unyielding and predatory force –– one that feels nearly primordial in its power to bend the will of others –– Carozza and her passion for Mabuse prefigures, in a reversal of class positions, the Countess Geschwitz and her tragic lesbian fixation on the prostitute/showgirl Lulu in Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box. [↩]
- Some commentators believe that Nobert meant the name Mabuse as a pun on the French “m’abuse,” which would translate as “abuse me” and would underline the Doctor’s self-destructiveness, a symbol of Weimar culture’s own need to destroy itself. [↩]
- What did Stalin think of Miss Mend? [↩]