Elsaesser, Thomas. “Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery.” Sight & Sound (January 2000): 18–24.

Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery

Thomas Elsaesser

from Sight & Sound January 2000

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Smeared as proto-Nazi or, in the case of Metropolis, looted for 80s music videos, Fritz Lang's German films have suffered from neglect. Here Thomas Elsaesser puts the case for the Dr Mabuse trilogy as a radical critique of surveillance culture.

As the Hitchcock industry roars ahead, it is fitting that his centenary celebrations should be followed by a major retrospective of Fritz Lang at London's National Film Theatre. When Hitchcock gave himself a serious film education at Ivor Montagu's avant-garde screenings at the Film Society in London in 1926 and 1927 Lang was an acknowledged influence. Although both directors subsequently ended up in Hollywood - Lang in 1933, Hitchcock in 1939 - there is little evidence they ever met. More likely, they eyed each other at a respectful distance - while Lang admired Rebecca, he also envied the younger man's success in the 50s when his own fortunes were flagging. Their paths might be said to have crossed only in Paris in the 60s when they became twin pillars of the Cahiers du cinema critics' ideal of "pure cinema". Since then, however, the decline of Lang's reputation has been almost as notable as the rise of Hitchcock's. A continuing interest in film noir, paranoia movies and the femme fatale keeps some of Lang's American films - Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the Door... (1948), The Big Heat (1953) and The Blue Gardenia (1953) - in repertoire. Meanwhile his German films have suffered from too much muffled deference, with the possible exception of Metropolis (1926) which somehow transcended its author to become - thanks to Giorgio Moroder, Freddy Mercury and Madonna - one of the most enduring cult classics of the 80s.

The case against German Lang has often been made, and nowhere more damagingly than in Siegfried Kracauer's 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler. According to Kracauer, Lang's cinema is replete with authoritarian figures projecting conservative-nationalist values. His overblown, mystic-mythical iconography is underpinned by fables offering proto-fascist solutions to economic and social crises. Human relations revolve around power, control and domination and the individual is a mere puppet of hostile forces, malevolent tyrants, master criminals or super-spies. Patrick McGilligan's biography Fritz Lang: the Nature of the Beast (1997) added to the charge sheet an obsession with kinky sex and homicidal violence. Sex and violence might open up inevitable parallels with Hitchcock, except that Lang's fixations totally lacked the Englishman's sardonic sense of humour or taste for the frivolous and the absurd. Lang's supreme gift for dramatic irony, on the other hand, has probably always been too cerebral for a genre-based film-maker to become popular, however prized it once was among cinephiles.

A Hapsburg decadent as much as Hitchcock was an Edwardian dandy, Lang had another major handicap throughout his 40 years' stay in California: with his monocle he looked the Prussian officer, his German accent grated on the actors who chafed under his barked commands and he showed a haughty disdain for those who tried his patience - a collection of personality traits Americans all too readily associated with their idea of the Führer, an image ironically derived in part from Lang's own anti-Nazi films Man Hunt (1941) and Ministry of Fear (1943). Lang did not manage a box-office success after The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street, and these were modest hits by other top directors' standards. To contrast Lang's and Hitchcock's salaries in the mid 40s is a salutary lesson in the Hollywood class system: Hitchcock, even when a contract director at Warner Bros, was making $250,000 per film whereas Lang's usual fee was $50,000, a pittance by studio standards and embarrassingly little compared with the leading actors in most of his films.

Additionally, there was only cautious commerce between Lang and his prominent Weimar contemporaries during their joint Californian exile. Frankfurt School cultural theorist T. W. Adorno and Lang had frequent contact, though mainly maintained by their spouses; with Bertolt Brecht communication was cordial until they fell out over their collaboration on Hangmen Also Die (1943). However, underneath their professional differences there ran a current of mutual esteem because alongside their disgust at Californian-style consumer-capitalism they also distrusted so-called human nature, which is to say they both rejected psychological realism. In Lang's films, even more than evil, it is artifice that triumphs: a fundamentally ironic strategy that earned him the reputation of an anti-humanist.

Looking-glass worlds

The frosty climate of suspicion among the Hollywood émigré community aggravated by frequent humiliations from the studio heads must have pained Lang. Yet his self-protective misanthropy did little to remind Hollywood how prominent he had been in post-1918 Europe. After Der Müde Tod/Destiny (1921) and Dr Mabuse der Spieler/Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) each new film was major international news, and each set itself steep challenges, stylistic as well as technical. Destiny showed off some jaw-dropping special effects (the US rights were bought by Douglas Fairbanks, in order to copy the trick photography with impunity for his Thief of Bagdad, or so the story goes). Die Nibelungen (1924) made a magnificent two-part disaster movie out of the nation's favourite boy's-own epic. Metropolis was the most expensive film made in Germany for decades to come. Spione/Spies (1928) and Frau im Mond/The Woman in the Moon (1929) were blockbusters with advertising campaigns as canny as anything seen today; M (1931), cashing in on Weimar culture's morbid fascination with serial killers, became one of the masterpieces of early sound cinema, probing the psychology of the crowd as well as the darker side of the urban flaneur thanks to Peter Lorre's unforgettable portrayal of the cunning child-murderer Beckert. Lang's last film before leaving for Hollywood, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), was banned by the Nazis and had to have its premiere in Vienna.

The case for German Lang can be made other than by recalling a technical wizard with an upper-class conservative social agenda. Metropolis, an art-director's Aladdin's cave to steal from, has

always kept the architect in Lang up front. Spies strikes one for its acerbic look at conspiracies: criminal ones at the ostensible plot level, but given how much Haghi the master spy is made to resemble Lenin one wonders whether a political parallel was not also intended. The Woman in the Moon, despite an all too leaden-footed intrigue about professional jealousy, insipid romance and the quest for gold, manages to incorporate very advanced ideas about jet propulsion and rockets; Lang also claimed to have invented the countdown when trying to figure out how to create a sense of suspense around the launch. His approach to storytelling in that film is that of an engineer: the pieces, pre-formed by pulp fiction and sensationalist cliché, are fitted together with the utmost precision according to a quite beautiful abstract design.

Equally prescient is Lang's ambivalent attitude to surveillance and the cinema's complicity in the militarisation of perception. Die Spinnen/ The Spiders (1919), Destiny and Die Nibelungen are complex vision machines full of proto- and pseudo-cinematic apparatuses. In Destiny death plays magic lanternist to the hapless bride. The adventure serial The Spiders displays its folding mirrors, peepholes and spyglasses as the tools-of-trade of femme fatale Lio-Sha, who doubles as metteuse-en-scène. Here Lang makes himself the ironic archivist of the pleasures and dangers of assisted sight. In the epic family saga Die Nibelungen Alberich, the guardian of the Nibelungen treasure, plays the projectionist of deferred desire, taunting Siegfried with images of fabulous wealth cast on the smooth stone wall of Alberich's underworld cave. Siegfried, the proverbial Simple Simon, succumbs to the spell of this phantasmagoria, stretching out his hands to grasp at the images. The contemporary audience would have enjoyed the way Siegfried unwittingly mimics the proverbial country bumpkin of early cinema, too unsophisticated to realise these are mere representations. Yet Siegfried is a quick learner: in the event, he wins by deviousness and deception. It is as if Lang had decided to let the whole tragedy hinge on a trick taken straight out of Georges Mèlièès' box of movie magic, but played out on a stage that foreshadows the looking-glass worlds of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and John Le Carré's Cold War double crosses.

To see, to know, to believe: this is the triad whose contending claims on perception and reason the radical sceptic in Lang plays off against each other. Technologically, in that the trick effects of the early films dazzle us with sights the mind knows are impossible, thrilling us with cognitive dissonance that would have made today's digital images a welcome addition to the Ufa imagineers' arsenal. Politically, in that Lang's German films know everything about advertising and how to build a brand-name image but at the same time let us look inside the mechanisms of power and persuasion that make such manufacturing possible.

Lang has often been regarded as the director of appearances that prove to be deceptive, but this presumes to judge these appearances by a standard of reality largely absent from the films. The difficult delights of his work lie in the fact that, strictly speaking, there never seems to be a solid ground from which the realm of appearances might be asserted to be true or false. So thoroughly do Lang's nested narratives and representations suspend unmediated access to the real that each viewer is obliged either to fantasise or metaphorise a meaning into the images and to decide on the frame of reference. One of Lang's keenest critics of the 80s Klaus Kreimeier sees in his German films a vortex of vertigo- and paranoia-inducing images that always cite other images, while behind them loom "chaos, abyss, hell, death": terms, however, that accumulate in their negative connotations a 'positive' referent - the Nazi regime. Kreimeier then subjects Lang's early adventure yarns of hidden treasures to a Marxist analysis of the world economy and its crises in the late 20s, against which the director emerges as a political somnambulist, nostalgic for archaic, pre-capitalist notions of money as gold and capital as the hidden hoard.

This lifts Lang out of the narrow proto-fascist groove. But what legitimates the gesture that invokes these historical foils, in order then to critique Lang's reactionary ideology? In Lang there are always several worlds set in contrast, supporting each other only in so far as they comment on each other. For instance, what strikes one about The Spiders is how far each episode contrasts the contemporary world of the motor car with the exotic locations of the South American Incas, where aeroplanes pluck the hero from a horse in the pampas or a Chinese opium den is equipped with modern means of telecommunication. Such contrasting worlds comment on each other ironically, each pastiching the other by an act of repetition: the same stories, the same conflicts, the same futility, each time merely in a different fancy dress. Dr Mabuse - the first of Lang's trilogy of films completed in 1960 - introduces us to several worlds that already look false even before they become real, or rather where the clever fake is that which is most real about reality.

Master of disguises

Dr Mabuse was Lang's breakthrough film in Germany, as well as an early example of a marketing ploy in which the serialised novel and the film became each other's mutual selling points. Announcing itself in its title as a "portrait of its time" (part one: The Gambler) and "of its men and women" (part two: The Inferno) it was loosely based on motifs from Norbert Jacques' tabloid opus, peppered up with topical material by Lang and his then wife, the successful novelist and Germany's top screenwriter Thea von Harbou. The four-hour film starts at a furious pace, with a meticulously timed train robbery leading to a stock-exchange fraud. It then concentrates on Mabuse hypnotising a young American industrialist into running up large debts at gambling, after which the master criminal wins the favours of an aristocratic lady, drives her husband to suicide and eventually kidnaps her. Time and again outwitting the public prosecutor by a mixture of brutality, practical jokes and agent provocateur demagoguery, Mabuse is finally cornered in his secret hideout and either goes mad or feigns insanity when he is finally captured.

The film is said originally to have had a pre-credits sequence depicting street battles from the 1919 Spartacist socialist uprising in Berlin, the assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau and other scenes of disorder masterminded by Mabuse ("Who is responsible for all this? - Me" was apparently the first intertitle). Although this opening is now lost or was never made, the various scams Mabuse is involved in (industrial espionage, stock-exchange fraud, forged banknotes) as well as the felonies he perpetrates (he runs a lab manufacturing cocaine, his gang controls gambling and prostitution and plots assassinations) all vividly point to the immediate post-World War I era, especially to Germany's raging hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924 and its black-market economy that pauperised the middle classes while creating a new urban subculture of war profiteers, Mafia-like racketeer organisations and vigilante units recruited from the growing army of the unemployed. The political references were not lost on contemporary reviewers or the censors, and even today Mabuse's several disguises seem taken out of a catalogue of Weimar types familiar from the drawings of Otto Dix and George Grosz: stockbroker in a top hat, derelict drunk in a housing tenement, Jewish peddler at the street corner, bearded rentier in a flashy limousine, industrialist with monocle and moustache, pimp, psychiatrist, hypnotist and opium-smoking Tsi-Nan-Fu in a gambling den.

Mabuse was taken to be modelled on Hugo Stinnes, a steel magnate who from humble beginnings amassed a fortune and occupied a key position in the post-World War I rearmament industries (illegal, according to the Treaty of Versailles). But Mabuse also doubles as a Houdini-like vaudeville artist, passes himself off as a soul doctor from Vienna and even has a dash of the Bolshevik agitator in the Karl Radek mould. The final showdown was modelled on the famous shoot-out between the police and the 'Fort Chavrol' bankrobbers from a barricaded house in the Parisian banlieue in 1921. In short, Lang's "portrait of its time" gathers up a fair number of contemporary references.

It was after World War II that Dr Mabuse in the eyes of the critics took on a less topical and more overtly metaphoric mien. As indicated, Kracauer ties virtually every significant trend in his diagnostic psychogram of Weimar veering towards totalitarian madness to one of Lang's films: "[Dr Mabuse] succeeds in making of Mabuse an omnipresent threat that cannot be localised, and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime - that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody may be the tyrant's ear or arm." Lang later argued back, pointing out that if he had predicted the rise of Hitler in his films, then Kracauer was pinning the blame for the bad news on the messenger.

Evidently the film's immense popularity at the time and subsequent status as a classic testify to a surplus of meaning, best readable perhaps across the designation of Mabuse as "der Spieler", meaning the gambler but also the dissembler or pretender. Highlighting both playfulness and risk, a refusal of identity and a slippage of reference, the epithet announces the question of what kind of agency Mabuse embodies as he 'stands behind' events as well as 'fronting' a conspiratorial gang bent on mayhem and mischief. One could call Mabuse a disguise artist, dissimulating both identity and agency, and suggest that he belongs to a rather large family of such creatures in Weimar cinema, whose kinship, but also generic diversity (Caligari and Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen's Hagen and Spies' Haghi, Tartuffe and Mephisto), allow some conclusions about the self-analysis of cinema during the Weimar period. Mimicry as metaphor, metaphor as mimicry. If Lang's German films are inventories of styles and if he provided much of the wallpaper for Weimar Germany's national or avant-garde ambitions, he also showed how flimsy it was. Take expressionism, the style intended to create an internationally valid brand name for German cinema in the early 20s - as Mabuse himself says: "Expressionism! - it's a game of make-believe! But why not? Everything today is make-believe." Mabuse both implicates and distances himself, in a gesture that joins mimicry and parody, a mottled person for a mottled ground.

There are many such moments in Dr Mabuse. One would be the scene of Mabuse at the stock exchange in which he destabilises both stock prices and currencies by selectively planting information gleaned from the treaty captured during the train robbery. The scene ends with the superimposition of Mabuse's face on the emptied stock exchange, gradually surging from the background like a watermark on a banknote held against the light, as if Lang had tilted the world we have just witnessed and something else had become visible: not the truth, but the recto of a verso. What is left is a kind of hieroglyphic world, barely readable, strange, but consisting of all but the most familiar elements.

A film-maker's mask

Given these meta-levels of meaning, Dr Mabuse is a prime candidate for an allegorical approach: the different kinds of mises-en-abymes suggest links between Mabuse as metteur-en-scène and the metteur-en-scène of Dr Mabuse, enfolding the director in the schemes of his arch-villain and power-broker. Dr Mabuse would then be a cautionary tale addressed to Lang himself about the ambiguous role of the film-maker as master of the machinery of public power fantasies. This is certainly how Lang saw the cinema and photography in several of his American films, from Fury (1936) to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

But Mabuse's reliance on vision and disguise is contradictory, not only because he is finally hoist by his own petard. Mabuse's hard stare resembles a totemic mask, designed to terrify those who look at it. However, the stare is not an expression of power but yet another form of the disguise of power. Often Mabuse dons disguises that make him blend with the urban fabric, becoming a Jewish peddler or a drunken working-class husband berating his wife. At other times his disguise wants to draw attention to itself, as when he plays the buffoon, his clownishness focusing as well as dispersing the onlookers' notice. In such cases one has a kind of Mabuse-Medusa, explicitly in the scenes where he faces down von Wenk at the gambling table and hypnotises him as Dr Weltmann. But as a kind of ritual mask, the rigid face with the piercing eyes can also be a form of disguise that hides the bearer from himself.

In its anthropological sense a mask is designed to ward off evil spirits - it is the bearer's gesture of defence - whereas a disguise that operates as camouflage is the currency the bearer tries to acquire in order to enter into circulation. Disguise in Dr Mabuse thus functions in a double system: it absorbs the look of the other in the form of mimicry and camouflage and wards off the look of the other in the form of the mask. Instead of foregrounding the act of looking, as is so often claimed, Lang's cinema captures looking in a set of devices that lend human sight the illusion of new forms of mastery at the same time as they mock its presumptions.

A relay of roles links the spectator, the film, the main protagonist, his disguises and other characters as his dupes - and over this relay presides the director, invisible metteur-en-scène of all these roles and impostures. Yet the "ultimate metaphor" of which Raymond Bellour once spoke would here be Mabuse as metteur-en-scène of a world he intends to control, capped by the film-maker Lang ensnaring his audience the more firmly by first arming and then dismantling his hero: demonstrating how it is done, while letting complicity trouble the irony. Disguise artist, Übermensch and phallic Übervater here implicate and complement each other, with the director wearing Mabuse as his own mask, or rather as the stand-in for an all-seeing eye.

Is Lang's cinema, then, the "ultimate metaphor" because it can speak about the cinema as a locus of power and thus, through the cinema, warn about cinema? It is an idea which, as Bellour has also observed, joins the three Mabuse films: "The Mabuse series is, within classical cinema, the most important reflection on the cinema ever produced by a director (to the point that, with their 40-year span, the films could be said to mark the beginning and end of the classical period). The three films... deal with the central power of vision and diffusion, defined by the three major phases of the development of cinema: the cinema as such (silent cinema), sound cinema, and cinema confronting video and television." (CinémAction 47, 1988)

In this respect Lang's Mabuse films are indeed essays on the social symbolic represented by the new technologies of surveillance as dissembling machines at once fascinating and frightening. The first Dr Mabuse makes the homology between Mabuse as metteur-en-scéne of vision and the cinematic spectacle (at one point the audience witnesses a film-within-the-film which shows a desert caravan riding right through the auditorium). The social dimension emerges in The Testament of Dr Mabuse: at the very beginning of the sound-film period Lang singles out the human voice via loudspeaker and gramophone to demonstrate how readily it lends itself to the manipulation of presence (a dummy Mabuse, wired up to perform sinister deeds of simulated authority, issues commands and bellows instructions, intimidating his gang into believing him to be the more powerful for being heard but not seen). Finally in The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) it is through the array of television screens, video monitors and other surveillance devices that Lang presses home the notion of a looking-glass world in which sight is not only the sense most easily deceived, but also the one most easily seduced.

The all-seeing eye

At another level the three films figure out what this implies for the political function of cinema as an instrument of social control. And here it also seems as if the direct look is not a look at all, at least not in the sense that it gives access to power. For instance, the opening scene of Dr Mabuse has Mabuse facing the audience in an imaginary dressing-table mirror which is, of course, also the screen. So like all the other looks that circulate, Mabuse's own does not finally seem to belong to him, but is 'propped' on some other structure. Yet since Mabuse accedes to power via the look and eventually loses power via the look, these must be two kinds of look: the unmediated, imaginary one and the mediated, symbolic one. His downfall is, classically, the consequence of his rise in that he makes a tragic mistake: the further he rises the more the look he relies on reveals its underside, namely of being a look borrowed from the technologies of vision.

These technologies of vision, however, are blind. The empty look, the frozen stare, the Medusa's gaze - Lang progressively descends into some very cold regions of visuality in which apparently no one is in control and yet everyone struggles for control over others, which suggests that the question of cinema's vision machines poses itself differently: no longer is the look to be thought of as a metaphoric extension of power, but in fact power is that which interrupts the exchange of looks, by which human beings signal their recognition of each other. The cinema, taken to its (techno)logical conclusion, is for Lang the ultimate metaphor not of social control through the power of the look, but proof of the end of this metaphor: the all-seeing eye of surveillance finally sees nothing at all.

One comes back to the apparent contradiction between Dr Mabuse as a "portrait of its time" and Lang's cinema as the "ultimate metaphor". It resolves itself if we see Mabuse as a metaphor not of political power - Nazi or otherwise - but of a rebellion against power, in the idiom of imposture, the mask and the disguise, with Lang rescuing his cinema from its all-seeing blindness by aligning it with different modes of "enlightened false consciousness" (Peter Sloterdijk's term for Weimar Germany's different forms of open duplicity). In this sense the original Dr Mabuse is a 'pastiche' of (expressionist) revolt, mimicking the make-believe dandy stance of Weimar intellectuals, politicians and artists towards their 'yes-but' democracy. Yet by wanting to stay ahead of the game, the mastermind overreaches himself: Mephistophelean spirit of the metropolis, he descends into the fast-moving traffic in souls and goods, soon lost in a new kind of social agency. Performative yet impersonal, it moulds a space out of sight-lines and architectural prospects, stencilling command-and-control figures out of its technologically assisted theatricality. No wonder postmodern pop likes Lang, always poised to strike the pose.