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The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

by Glenn Erickson Jun 03, 2020

Fritz Lang’s final feature brings his career full circle to the core thriller concepts he pioneered back in 1922: superstitious human nature and sinister technological advances combine to make the 20th century an Age of Terror. Lang reboots his highly cinematic Weimar-era narrative tricks for a film that heralds the beginning of a brave new world where total surveillance and mind control are at the service of paranoid conspiracies. I could talk for hours about the directing/editing in this show — it’s so sophisticated, and yet so simple.


The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
Region B Blu-ray
Eureka Entertainment/Masters of Cinema
1960 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 103 min. / Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse / Street Date May 11, 2020 / £ 15.99
Starring: Dawn Addams, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, Wolfgang Preiss, Lupo Prezzo, Werner Peters, Andrea Checchi, Marielouise Nagel, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Howard Vernon, Nico Pepe, Jean-Jacques Delbo, Christiane Maybach.
Cinematography: Karl Löb
Film Editors: Walter Wischniewsky, Waltraut Wischniewsky
Production design: Erich Kettlehut
Original Music: Gerhard Becker
Written by Fritz Lang, Heinz Oskar Wuttig, Jan Fethke from characters by Norbert Jacques
Produced by Artur Brauner
Directed by
Fritz Lang

 

For Filmex 1980 Steven Nielson and I journeyed to the old Plitt Theaters in Century City to sit through four Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse features in one go, from about 11am to at least 7pm in the evening. The two parts of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Ein Bild der Zeit / A Picture of the Times; Inferno: Menschen der Zeit / Inferno: Men of the Times, 1922) weren’t as complete as they are now, and parts of the so-so 16mm print were tough sledding. The perfect 35mm print of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1932) was overwhelming — it applies and amplifies all the clever scene transitions and audio tricks from his brilliant “M”.

But The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die tausend augen des Dr Mabuse) jumps forward 28 years, past the Nazi Reich and into the world of a divided Germany and a Cold War fueled by nuclear standoff jitters. The original Mabuse may have been inspired by Sherlock Holmes’ ‘mad genius criminal’ Professor Moriarty, taking big-time villainy one step closer to the ‘super-villains’ that would serve as evildoers for comic books and escapist fantasies like James Bond. Mabuse’s original bag of crime tools — hypnosis, disguise, and remote control — have been augmented with sinister space-age technology. Writer Jan Fethke’s core idea for Thousand Eyes is an extrapolation of Hitler’s proposed scheme to wiretap every room in Berlin’s Hotel Adlon: the entire building was to have been wired for sound, permitting Gestapo intelligence to monitor everything said by foreign diplomats.

A never-ending conspiracy machine.

Thousand Eyes came before the Kennedy assassination made every ill-explained political event into a theoretical conspiracy. Film noir sometimes stresses the Langian, German notion of Fate. This fate is man-made, with unknown conspirators pulling the strings behind closed curtains. Doctor Mabuse is a one-man Intelligence Agency. His power is derived from manipulating information: collecting facts while deceiving his foes (and the public at large). Thousand Eyes’ unlikely central character is Cornelius, a spiritualist who gathers information and dispenses lies, while manipulating people with astrology and mental visions.

 

With his white eyes and crazy hair, Cornelius bears a passing resemblance to the ‘ghost image’ of the spirit of Dr. Mabuse as visualized in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. And Cornelius spouts a similar line of oracle-speak. What seems initially like a naive thematic throwback, isn’t old-fashioned at all: sixty years later, it’s clear that mass disinformation damages the social fabric with irrational beliefs and political lies.

The ‘conspiracy vision’ of Lang’s Thousand Eyes dovetails nicely with visionary ideas from two previous thrillers of the 1950s. In Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, the oracle of opportunistic crime Dr. Soberin tells us that the world is becoming more primitive, not less, that our irresponsible use of Atom weapons proves that we’re all thoughtless, immoral barbarians. Nigel Kneale’s rather conservative alien invasion thriller Quatermass 2 preaches that the bureaucracy of socialism is a perfect breeding ground for sinister conspiracies: with centralized authority, one need only control a few kingpins to conquer an entire nation. The malevolent genius of Thousand Eyes conspires to seize economic, political and military power, and take over control of the entire world.

The outlandish conspiracy launched by this film’s ‘Mabuse’ figure makes the machinations of a Bond villain seem like kid stuff. It follows the original Mabuse’s game plan of an ‘Empire of Crime,’ a kind of totalitarian super-gangsterism in which a broad web of key operatives, assassins and henchmen obey Mabuse’s orders without ever having met him, or even knowing who he is. But Lang and his writers address the world of 1960, not Germany’s Weimar Republic. The motivation of this new Mabuse is post-Hiroshima, post-existentialist. His goal reaches beyond riches and power.

 

A no-spoiler non-synopsis.

The storyline of the gloriously pulpy Thousand Eyes is so complicated, I’ll just sketch some of its prime elements. A secret U.S. weapon has been stolen. A German reporter who gets too close to that crime is murdered. Businessmen and diplomats that recently stopped over at Berlin’s Hotel Luxor have died under mysterious circumstances. The ostentatious blind clairvoyant Cornelius (Lupo Prezzo) confounds Police Inspector Kras (Gert Fröbe of Goldfinger) by predicting various unrelated crimes. American millionaire businessman Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck of The Wages of Fear) negotiates the purchase of the ‘Arar Atom Works’ in his suite at the Luxor, and rescues the beautiful Marion Menil (top-billed Dawn Addams of The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll) from a suicide attempt. Kras investigates the attempted suicide but also grows suspicious of Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters of The Counterfeit Traitor), a nosy insurance agent who asks too many questions of too many guests at the Luxor. Marion grows closer to the protective Henry, but fears her dangerously jealous, club-footed estranged husband Roberto (Reinhard Kolldehoff of Playtime and Soldier of Orange). Her doctor, Professor Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss of The Train) is close by to help prevent another suicide attempt. Luxor Hotel detective Berg (Andrea Checchi of Black Sunday) tempts Henry Travers with a strange way to spy on Marion’s private suite. And lurking in the shadows is the sinister No. 12 (Howard Vernon of Alphaville), a killer with rare access to the ‘real’ Dr. Mabuse.

 

One would need a chalkboard to sketch out the maze of false relationships and double-disguises in Thousand Eyes; the who-knew-what-and-when connections are as complicated as the time travel puzzles in Zemeckis and Gale’s Back to the Future Trilogy. Much of the action circles around Gert Fröbe, a policeman who only seems effective: his investigation learns nothing and gives away information that leads to the death of a possible witness. Almost nobody else in the show is what they at first seem. Lady-in-distress Dawn Addams is a key figure, because her loving connection with Henry Travers is the only thing that might throw a wrench into Mabuse’s overarching conspiracy.

Fritz Lang’s unique storytelling style.

Fritz Lang’s ultra-precise direction changes the way scenes connect. Ordinarily, prosaic shots establish a new location and characters when a scene changes. Lang perfected his Associative transition technique back in ‘M.’ He jumps directly to a new locale without a fade or a dissolve or an establishing shot. Instead, audio is used to cue the scene change. The mention of a person or thing cues a cut to a person saying or doing something somewhere else. Almost every scene change in the first half of Thousand Eyes is motivated by an audio cue. “M” went even further, overlapping audio or having a different character continue a speech in progress. Those cuts are still some of the most exciting additions to cinematic grammar ever made.

The technique means more work for a viewer reading subtitles. Paying attention to the cutting while reading subtitles makes Thousand Eyes difficult for some to follow. A lot of information is being transmitted in those transitions. Modern audiences are accustomed to following much faster cutting — it’s the layering of new information that throws some people. Although I don’t like the film’s English language track, it might be the best way for a non- German speaker to first see the movie… there’s less to process.

 

A heritage of mysterioso Langian thriller inventions.

If you know Fritz Lang at all, you will notice how Thousand Eyes integrates his crime-oriented American films with the ‘Fate Sagas’ of his earlier German silents. The spooky seance and Cornelius’s predictions of doom lay the foundation for the re-introduction of Dr Mabuse, whose name has become a half-forgotten legend. The 1932 Mabuse’s trench-coated operatives prefigured sinister, untouchable Gestapo agents, but most of Mabuse 1960’s minions operate completely in disguise. Almost every character with dialogue is not what they seem. Other elements evoke Lang’s American period, such as the vulgar, opportunistic press reaction to Marion’s suicide attempt. The wholly original character Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig appears invented to provide a home-grown German hero. The little man’s openly crass and greedy behavior is a great disguise for his real intentions.

More radical pulp elements are introduced right from the outset, when the story seems to be about a stolen experimental weapon. When the wild-eyed No. 12 whips out what looks like a Buck Rogers ray gun, we momentarily wonder if we’re watching a Batman TV show. It turns out to be a fairly credible prototype for a silent firearm that leaves no visible wound.

Fritz Lang never fell behind the times. His technical trickery  is as sharp as ever. Most movie scenes showing TV sets in operation were once accomplished by pasting film footage into blank TV screens with an optical matte … and usually looked pretty obvious. John Frankenheimer showed how television can be used for evil in his 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Banks of TV monitors magnify the lies of a Joe McCarthy- like demagogue on live television. Frankenheimer simply filmed normal TV screens. Two years earlier, Lang engineered four rear-projection setups in a row to show the four monitors in Mabuse’s Hitler-like bunker. This must have been a major technical challenge.

Lang may be the first director to exploit the multi-screen possibilities of security cameras. When characters enter a room in the Luxor, we see two monitors at once. The two views were filmed at the same time — the motions match. In 1960 this must have looked like futuristic sci-fi. How many times have we seen static ‘security’ cameras pan and tilt to follow action, or even display impossible edits?  The ‘thousand eyes’ in Lang’s Hotel Luxor never lie.

The Luxor’s big secret is revealed during Henry and Marion’s dinner scene — only to us, the audience. The picture suddenly becomes a little washed out, and we think that something may be wrong with the print. But then the camera backs up to reveal that the lovers are being remotely observed on a closed-circuit TV tube. This is a revolutionary piece of film. Its science-fiction significance is cinematic, political and personal. The lovers remain unaware that they are being monitored. Will privacy become extinct?  Do you think that Fritz Lang would have predicted a future with surveillance cameras on every street corner?

 

The most influential film ever… that few people even knew about.

Even with its foretelling of 101 espionage and ‘sinister surveillance’ ideas, did The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse have a chance to influence films of the 1960s?  It had a reasonable release in Europe, but it wasn’t really shown in the U.S. until 1966, under a different title, to capitalize on ‘Goldfinger’ Gert Fröbe’s presence. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that genre critics discovered Thousand Eyes and began shouting that Lang’s last film was a masterpiece, not a botch job.

By that time, we were getting ready for conspiracy movies like The Parallax View and The Day of the Condor, movies that operate in paranoid ‘Langian Mabuse-space.’ Fritz Lang had read the tea leaves years before: life is not a dream, and it is not a bowl of cherries. Aided by futuristic technology, it’s becoming one big freedom-limiting conspiracy.

Perhaps the real lesson of Thousand Eyes is that we’re living in a Mabuse-Lite world. Our reality is at least partly manipulated, for political gain and business profit. The TV and digital information platforms that promised to inform and educate us haven’t made us free or vanquished ignorance. If the information channels overflow with lies we end up less informed than ever, and susceptible to Mabuse-like political manipulation. The notion of using technology to fool, browbeat and terrorize people is greater than ever.

 

A directing-editing style in dynamic harmony.

In his audio commentary, David Kalat argues that the editing in Thousand Eyes is more radical than that of the vaunted French New Wave. I agree entirely. The innovation is not the ‘Associative Transition’ constructions I described above, as Lang introduced those in 1931. Lang’s action editorial in the final confrontation looks conventional at first. The elements of suspense are spatial, architectural. Cops assemble at the Luxor, not realizing that many of the people around them, even some of the hotel staff, are stealth Mabuse operatives. No one camera angle connects the action in the lobby, the doorway, and the parking lot, yet Lang’s direction is never confusing. Partly through closed-circuit TV images, we are aware of the locations of at least ten key characters, and we know crucial things that the good characters don’t. Inspector Kras unknowingly walks right by No. 12 in the parking lot: what kind of trap is Kras walking into?

The ‘simplifier’ Alfred Hitchcock tended to avoid complex action. Even the chaos of The Birds is broken down into isolated actions. Lang uses his cinema grammar to express ‘organized chaos:’ many things happening at once. His graphic clarity allows him to eliminate the unnecessary ‘setup’ cutaways we’re accustomed to seeing. Two moments really break the rules. A squad of cops runs for the door of the Luxor Hotel and are shot from offscreen. Lang doesn’t show us who is shooting. In fact, our involvement increases when the cops start to run: we think ‘But isn’t No. 12 right there in the parking lot with his machine gun?’ We anticipate the shooting on our own,  and no cutaway does our work for us, spelling it out.

A gunfight ensues in the basement bunker, and Lang again keeps us on our toes by skipping the expected (boring) coverage shots. When the vault door opens Lang doesn’t show us Henry and Marion inside — yet we remember that they must still be in there. Henry acts at just the right moment, and Lang shows him barely long enough to see him fire his gun. We see no reaction shot of Marion, and not even a shot confirming that Henry has hit his target. Lang instead rushes forward with the concluding chase scene. Without the unnecessary continuity cutaways, the action is razor sharp and precise — and crystal clear.

 

Note that these are not showoff editorial fast cuts, just a manipulation of standard continuity. Each shot is held long enough for us to completely take it in, yet the action seems fast because each brings essential new information for us to absorb. There is no fat in the narrative or the performances. By contrast, the meaningless action cutting in the Jason Bourne movies is all ‘editorial effect’ to purposely disorient the audience. To make ordinary fights and chases seem more visceral, we are bombarded with deafening sound effects and random angles thrown into a blender.

All of the narrative complexities are resolved in this last action scene, right after Mabuse has explained his philosophy, and Marion has confessed. The characters’ real identities are revealed in the middle of furious action, and most of them are last seen in action. Only two of our heroes are given a ‘farewell’ scene before the title ‘Ende’ appears. A bit of music over black allows us to catch our breath.

How does one express being overwhelmed by a film that a great many viewers might not see as that much of a big deal?  I’ve read reviews that touch upon what’s great about Thousand Eyes, but none that really sums up its significance. So much about Thousand Eyes interests me, I need to remind myself that ‘writing every last thing I can think of’ isn’t the same thing as a good review, or a good essay. I’ve covered a few points, and to go much further would mean writing a book.

I came out of my first screening of The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse with my head buzzing. On paper, I scribbled out a diagram with words, circles and arrows connecting all the pulp themes I could think of from escapist genre films, from silent American action serials to anarchistic Feuillade serials to gangster movies and film noir. A parallel line traced comic book pulp thrills from Feuillade to Batman and forward. With the introduction of the existential atom threat, everything transforms into cosmic sci-fi fatalism. Gangster Cody Jarrett subconsciously craves a personal apocalypse, but so do giant monsters and a number of James Bond arch-villains. Now, as often as not, the whole world is at stake. In Thousand Eyes a villain finally comes right out and says what he really wants to do: prove himself more powerful than man and God by destroying everything.

Thousand Eyes is as much ‘a picture of the times’ as was the first Dr. Mabuse film. It spells out where pulp fiction had been and also in what direction our Age of Terror was heading. This missing link of high-jeopardy suspense fills in a great many gaps in ‘disconnected’ genre thrills.


 

Eureka Entertainment/Masters of Cinema’s Region B Blu-ray of The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is the long-hoped for improved copy of this ‘essential obscurity.’ Back in 2000, author and Mabuse enthusiast David Kalat’s company All Day released a DVD that gave us our first look at the film in its original German. This new Region B disc has a clean image throughout, and excellent audio both in German and the English dub. Just to avert disappointment, let me remind readers that Region B discs won’t play in domestic (American) Blu-ray players. Perhaps some smart label will finally grab the Artur Brauner films for Region A.

Masters of Cinema’s overall extras are all worthwhile. Interviewer Uwe Huber asks all the right questions of actor Wolfgang Preiss. Physically frail but alert and sharp, Preiss explains that portraying diabolical villains was a nice break from being typed as Nazi officers. Philip Kemp’s essay in the forty-page insert booklet is quite good, although I was disappointed that David Cairns’ contribution was just an amusing footnote. Part of a chapter from Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang book is present.

David Kalat’s expert, assured commentary appears to have been recorded for an earlier European DVD (?). Kalat points out many ‘serendipities’ that connect this movie to earlier Lang films, like the voyeuristic one-way mirror and the car-to-car assassination scene. In no instance does Lang just copy himself. Kalat also tells us that Thousand Eyes cost little compared to producer Artur Brauner’s earlier Lang effort The Tiger of Eschnapur / The Indian Tomb, but I wouldn’t call it a budget affair. The multiple rear projections engineered for Mabuse’s Luxor surveillance control panel are more advanced than similar effects in much bigger movies. A good comparison are the rocket launch TV monitors in Dr. No.

 

The original ending seen on this disc is slightly different, and more hopeful than the one from the old All Day DVD. That alternate take finish is included as an extra. Kalat doesn’t know why the endings differ.

Kalat considers the English track equal to the German one, but I disagree. Although the sync is excellent the English dubbing is just weak, with the same standard voices we hear on Italian sword & sandal pix. I remember the Filmex audience laughing at the dubbing, even as they knew the movie was as artistic as anything by Antonioni or Ingmar Bergman.

The simplified English script is occasionally awkward as well. Back in 1980, the audience laughed when the English dubbing referred to Mabuse’s dumpy getaway car as a ‘black limousine.’ It’s a 1952 Peugeot sedan, but to us Americans it looks like a broken-down Detroit product ready for the scrap heap. Couldn’t Artur Brauner locate an extra Mercedes for the chase scene?  *

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent German and English-language audio tracks
Supplements: audio commentary by David Kalat; 2002 interview with Wolfgang Preiss; Alternate ending, reversible sleeve artwork; insert booklet with essay by Philip Kemp; vintage reprints of writing by Lang; an essay by David Cairns; notes by Lotte Eisner on Lang’s final, unrealised projects.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 30, 2020
(6281eyes)

*  Did Billy Wilder see The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in West Berlin while making his comedy One, Two, Three and note Mabuse’s dumpy getaway car?  His comic Russians boast that they’ve manufactured a great Soviet car by copying an old American model. The joke pays off in the silly car chase through East Germany:

James Cagney:   “What’s that car following us, Fritz?”
Chauffeur Fritz:   “It looks like a 1937 Nash.”
Cagney:   “Step on it!”

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.