Herrschaft des Verbrechens

I've always had a soft spot for the early work of Fritz Lang, partly perhaps because they were such standard fare in the film clubs of my youth. Never a season without Metropolis or M, it seems like.

Metropolis even had a commercial run in the theatres in the mid '80s with a spanking new and remarkably loud and fairly ghastly score by Giorgio Moroder. I'm still not quite over that experience, to be perfectly honest. But hope does spring eternal, or so they say.

Othet stout Lang favorites are the fascinating international spy thriller Spione (1928) and the massive historical fantasy Die Nibelungen (1924), in two parts, which draws on the same material as Wagner's Ring cycle (or the last two operas Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, to be specific), Das Nibelungenlied, though Fritz does the mediaeval epic more justice than did old Richard. The special effects are pretty spectacular. In their day they were almost beyond belief. I've only ever seen it on video so I probably can't imagine how spectacular the effects really are. But the intrepid Siegfried slaying the dragon works whatever the format.

Two of his early films I've never come across (well there are more, of course, but these two irk me no end): the very early adventure yarn in two parts Die Spinnen (1921) and the absolute science fiction classic Frau im Mond (1929) that defined the way space crafts and interstellar travel would look on film for decades to come. Even the Moon got its definitive look by Lang and wasn't redefined (prior to the landing, that is) until along came Stanley Kubrick almost exactly 40 years later.

Now that I come to think there are a couple of things that the Lang films that I like have in common. They were made in Germany (and hence in German) and, perhaps most importantly, written by Thea von Harbou. Harbou's name may ring no bells today but in the '20s and '30s she was a pretty big fish, a screenwriter, a succesful novelist, and she even directed a few films. Harbou and Lang were married for a while and the time of their marriage constituted the golden age in both their professional careers. They made quite an ideal team. The scripts were extremely well balanced dramaturgically and featured everything a good film needed: exciting locations, mysterious circumstances, riveting chases, exotic killings, a smattering of esoteric philosophy, extremely modern or even futuristic contraptions, and a solid plot that moves with fierce speed and is told mostly visually. Harbou provided the setting and the conceptual frame, Lang the innovative visual splendours. As a mix it was well-nigh perfect.

So perfect that it was sometimes hard to notice that the scripts didn't bear a closer inspection as they were essentially puerile nonsense. Metropolis, for instance, looks grand, bold, even intellectual, but makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It's just hokey. A lovely movie and deservedly a true classic but still nonsense. The images, however, live on.

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is the perfect Lang-Harbou collaboration. It's a crime story with supernatural elements and even vague but chilling political implications. The mad master criminal Mabuse (first seen in the 1922 movie Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler) has spent the last decade in an asylum, in a state of near catatonia, scribbling nonsense on sheets of paper all day. Yet his crime empire still functions. And seems to be led by him. How?

Now ordinary crime is no longer enough for Mabuse, he's striving for world domination by the means of Herrschaft des Verbrechens - The Rule of Crime. This he will achieve by chaos. He will wreak so much havoc, instill so much insecurity, reduce society to such a state of fear, anxiety and weakness, that people will welcome him as their leader and do anything he wills. For crime is the true strength of man and anything else is mere weakness. Anybody resisting will be eliminated: "Menschen die eine Gefahr für die Organization bedeuten sind ausnahmlos sofort zu vernichten." The militarily led organization has its own branch to take care of that: the assassination unit Abteilung 2-B.

It might possibly be worth to mention that the movie was made in 1933.

I'm not certain how deliberate and conscious the Nazi references are. To me they seem quite obvious and unambiguous. The criminals cannot but be seen as Nazis as they salute their omnipotent leader by bowing and clicking their heels. They have their Sektions and Abteilungs. The ruthless vocabulary is the same. Vernichtung - annihilation. The ideology of the mastery of crime, the superiority of violence, the supremacy of power - isn't that exactly what the Nazi Party craved and realized? What else was the rulership of the Party during those twelve bleak and abominable years than Herrschaft des Verbrechens? The Rule of Crime?

However, Harbou was quite the Nazi, eventually becoming a member of the Party (though she seems never to have been a racialist or an antisemite). And one does have to bear in mind that Lang was - very early on - well in cahoots with the Party: Die Nibelungens actually being a solid favourite in Nazi circles, indeed even something of a cult movie about the superiority and superhumanity of the Aryan race and its mythical and mystical past. How could it not warm a Nazi heart with blood and gore and brutal sword-fighting and the slaying of dragons and on top of that the Nazi of Nazis: Siegfried? I seem to recall it even having been the favourite movie of one Dr. Goebbels. Lang was well on his way of becoming the official movie director of Das Reich and would certainly have become it, and welcomed the position, had it not been for one unfortunate and rather embarrasing fact: he was Jewish. Even Dr. Goebbels couldn't overlook that slight piece of information in all eternity. So ultimately Lang had to flee the country.

Clearly Harbou and Lang didn't at first quite know what to make of the Nazis. Were they a bunch of thugs and criminals or the saviours of Germany? They were sensitive artists, they could see and sense things others couldn't. They seem also to have been ever so slightly opportunistic and ready to avert their eyes from the truth about Nazism and the banal horrors it entailed, were the Party willing to bestow favour upon them. And in fact the dynamic duo and their cinema would have been an invincible propagandistic tool for the Nazis, far superior than poor old Leni Riefenstahl, because they knew how to entertain, bewitch and lead the masses on. There is always a slight but unsound fascist undertone in any Harbou-Lang movie, a hypnotic element that disturbs one but also beckons. Can you find a more fascist piece of cinema than Metropolis?

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse didn't best please the Nazis. Goebbels was no fool. He saw what it was and didn't like it one bit. Dr. Mabuse's plans were almost exactly those of the Nazis, likewise his meas of realizing his plan. Goebbels delayed the premiere but didn't ban the movie.

Not much point, really. They already were in power.

There's a brilliant scene in the movie, by the way, where a handful of Mabuse's men get cornered in a flat with no way out. One of the criminals goes mental and declares that no one gets in or out - if anyone goes near the door they are going to get it. Better for everyone to die inside the flat than surrender. Again Vernichtung. The way he speaks, or rather shouts and barks in semihysteria, bears a striking resemblance to the way Hitler makes his speeches. In the end they can't keep the police out so the Adolfian crook ends his life by shooting himself. Eerie echoes of the bunker, I always think. 12 years before the fact. Does gives one quite the willies.

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse was the last movie Lang ever made in Germany. One day, after having received a warning, he took the train to Paris and didn't return. Thea von Harbou stayed on in Germany but had a pretty unspectacular career without Lang. On their own they were never much good. I shudder to think what villanous, dastardly, megalomaniac propaganda movies they might have made together in and for Nazi Germany had Lang's Jewishness been hushed up or overlooked

I'd also very much like to see them.

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