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Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, Part Two

In the first part of this essay, I discussed the first few films in Kino’s essential new Blu-ray set, Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, with the director’s first few films: adventure serial The Spiders, tragic melodrama Harakiri (1919), eerie Bergfilm The Wandering Shadow (1920), and infidelity and blackmail-themed melodrama, Four Around the Woman. I’m continuing my exploration in part two with some of Lang’s most important early titles: Destiny (1921), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), and Die Nibelungen (1924-1925). By this time, Lang had begun to collaborate regularly with his then-wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote all of his films from this period. These titles mark quite a development from his first few silent films. Despite their varying genres and subject matter, Destiny, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Die Nibelungen are all quite epic in scale, involving elaborate set pieces, scores of cast members, innovative technical effects and camera work, and a sense of style that dwarfed the of the majority of his peers.

In addition to their visual power, these films taking on sweeping themes that explore various facets of human nature: love, despair, crime, madness, power, fate, and revenge, coinciding with a period when German culture and politics were undergoing profound changes. They are all obvious precursors to the epics that are perhaps his most well-known German films: Metropolis (1927) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). While Destiny is generally about the struggle between Death and a young woman, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler focuses on the exploits of the titular criminal mastermind, and Die Nibelungen is largely about the hero Siegfried, none of these are small, personal films and their swarming casts hint at the kind of urban hysteria to come in M (1931). All are essential titles in Lang’s filmography and it is impossible to truly understand the development of Western cinema in the 20th century without experiencing the wonder caught on celluloid here.

Destiny, or The Weary Death or The Tired Death, as the German title can be literally translated, is a strange sort of film that doesn’t have many modern parallels. On one hand, it’s a fantasy epic: a young woman (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Lil Dagover) attempts to kill herself when Death (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler’s Bernhard Goetzke) takes her lover (Walter Janssen). He wagers her that if she can save one of three doomed men, he will return her lover to her. As in The Spiders, the film moves throughout a number of exotic locales, this time also propelling its protagonist throughout time and space: to Persia during the Islamic Golden Age, to Venice during the Renaissance, and to China. These elements may be off putting to modern viewers, but the flagrant exoticism is a staple of early crime and adventure serials (and would continue on into the ‘30s and ‘40s thanks to figures like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu).

On the other hand, it’s not a conventional fantasy film by any means. It’s stripped of the saccharine sentimentality that defines so much of this genre’s output, and has a strange, downbeat quality more akin to Romantic German literature than to anything released by Disney. The town where the framing story is set exists out of space and time and if this can be seen as a fairytale, it’s in the traditional sense, before the Brothers Grimm set about synthesizing and sanitizing the folklore of their country. There is a distinctly Gothic tone, several key sequences occur in graveyards, and the film’s most visually distinctive set piece involves a cathedral full of candles meant to represent human souls. E.T.A. Hoffmann seems a more likely influence here than either of the Brothers Grimm, though this use of an anthropomorphic Death popped up throughout some of their collected tales like “Godfather Death” or “Death’s Messengers.” The film’s primary concern is certainly mortality, even though this Death seems worn down and exhausted.

Two key themes of Lang and Harbou’s work from this period are central to Destiny: suicide and a central romance with a tragic or ambiguous conclusion. These were also present in earlier films like Harakiri and The Wandering Shadow, but they take on loftier proportions with Death as the central antagonist and the main conflict spread throughout multiple stories. Often, as in The Spiders, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Spies, and Woman on the Moon, Lang’s lovers are separated both by a web-like conspiracy and by an individual antagonist. Destiny seems particularly cruel, because the woman is ultimately forced to choose morality over love: Death challenges not only what she will personally sacrifice for her lover, but also how far she is willing to go. When she refuses to trade the life of an innocent child and sacrifices herself instead, Death takes pity and reunites the lovers in an eerie otherworld. It’s difficult to imagine such an ending in a contemporary Hollywood film—though I can’t help but think it inspired Lucio Fulci’s ambiguous netherworld endings in his ‘80s gore films like The Beyond and City of the Living Dead.

While it’s undeniably important, Destiny is not necessarily the best place to start with Lang’s silent films if you’re unfamiliar with his work or the conventions of the time period. It’s a somber, though not hopeless work, and it’s a bit strange to think of a married couple (Lang and Harbou) creating so many films with unfulfilling romances at their center. At least the young woman and her lover in Destiny are allowed to reunite in some isolated afterworld, unlike the couple of Woman on the Moon, who are literally stranded on the moon, while other partnerships in his silent films are plagued by suicide, mistaken identity, mind control, murder, and various other tragic endings. With that said, Destiny is a thing of wonder and beauty and is worth fully absorbing, particularly across multiple viewings. One of my complaints with the earlier discs in this set is that all the films lacked any special features. That’s rectified here, as the disc is duplicated from the earlier Blu-ray Kino released last year: it includes an informative commentary track from Tim Lucas, which will definitely help shed some light on the film’s history, as well as a featurette about the restoration, and a trailer. And the restoration is gorgeous, so make sure to watch this on the biggest screen available to you.

I’m always hard pressed to pick favorites in general, but if I had to choose from among Lang’s silent films, it would definitely be Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, his nearly four and a half hour long opus about crime, surveillance, and madness. Based on the novels by Norbert Jacques, who was writing them at the time (his Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was the first of these and had just been published in 1921), this was the first of Lang’s three films about Dr. Mabuse, followed by 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which was banned by the Nazis, and 1960’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which was to be Lang’s final film. It is difficult to concisely discuss the scope and impact of this film. More accurately described as a crime serial, rather than a direct feature film, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, essentially follows the exploits of Mabuse (the transcendent Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a master criminal, gambler, magician, and psychiatrist; a jack of all trades whose sole impetus is the control and domination of those around him. Known only by the police as the “Great Unknown,” Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke of Destiny) gets wind of him when Mabuse tries to disrupt the stock market.

The first segment, Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit (The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time), introduces Mabuse’s bid for power in the criminal underworld and Wenk’s growing awareness of him. After manipulating the stock market with the theft of an important document, he hypnotizes an industrialist’s young heir and cheats the man out of a considerable amount of money at the card table. He instructs his young mistress, the dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nisson), to seduce the young man and keep him within Mabuse’s grasp. As Wenk moves closer to Mabuse, the doctor targets him in an underground gambling den, and the two men soon struggle over the mutual object of their affection: the very much married Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker), a woman bored to the point of existential crisis who flirts with Mabuse’s world because of her obsession with thrill-seeking. The second half of The Great Gambler really emphasizes the importance of these two female characters, who become increasingly central in the narrative. The enchanting, yet obviously doomed Cara Carozza becomes hysterical as she is arrested, but refuses to inform on Mabuse because of her unrequited love for him. His own men—cocaine addicts, counterfeiters, and assassins among them—are quietly horrified when he first leaves her to rot in prison and then later sends her a vial of poison.

The Countess becomes the loose focus of the second entry in the serial, Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit (Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age), as her character takes on new dimensions. She casts aside the bored playgirl persona after Wenk tries to get her to make Cara Carozza talk. She is both moved and disturbed by Carozza’s single-minded love for Mabuse, then still only known to those in his inner circle. It is revealed that she does love her husband, who is also tragically targeted by Mabuse; he is hypnotizes and ruined. He seeks out Dr. Mabuse, the psychiatrist, to treat his depression, but is driven to madness, while the Countess is held prisoner by Mabuse, who hopes desperately to win her affections. While Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, can’t quite be said to be a love story, it does sort of ultimately become a dangerous triangle between Mabuse, the Countess, and Wenck.

The inflamed passions in part two also lead to more obvious signs of madness, including depression, hysteria, and hallucinations. There are some spectacular sequences featuring Mabuse the psychiatrist, Mabuse the stage magician, Mabuse the cunning villian playing cat and mouse with Wenck, and so on. The film’s themes of surveillance, paranoia, and mind control are decades ahead of their time and some of these stylistic choices and visual themes would recur throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, particularly in thrillers and crime films, much as Mabuse himself would live on in a series of loosely connected sequels such as those directed by Harald Reinl, Jess Franco, and Claude Chabrol. The ideas of a “hostile will” (Mabuse’s) and mass psychosis are treated at face value and it’s difficult not to read the film as a portent of things to come in German society, particularly the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Citizens and law enforcement alike are enthralled, act against their will, and are pushed to acts of violence by Mabuse, who is able to take on new identities seemingly at will and across a wide strata of society. Ultimately he is driven mad, tormented by the ghosts of his victims who appear as hallucinations while he’s holed up in his counterfeiter’s lair.

An eerie glimpse of Weimar society on the brink of economic collapse and about to succumb to fascist terror, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is best viewed as a series of episodes rather than one, long cohesive film. It’s a brilliant work, one that is best absorbed with a knowledge of German history, but also one that works equally well without. It takes on particularly chilling undertones when watched by contemporary viewers suffering through a similar time of political chaos where there is something disturbingly unreal (“fake”) about the daily news, uses of technology, and so on. Kino presents this tour de force across two discs, which thankfully include a documentary, “The Story Behind Dr. Mabuse,” which looks at the history of both the film and the titular character.

A perfect follow up to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and quite nearly its equal, is Lang’s two-part fantasy epic, Die Nibelungen. Though this title is less seen and less celebrated, it’s no less influential: it’s hard to imagine the rash of ‘80s sword and sorcery films or something on a grander scale like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy not borrowing, in some way, from Lang’s mythic masterpiece. The story is split into two parts: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. Unlike Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Die Nibelungen is actually two neatly divided tales. The first follows Siegfried (Paul Richter), on his path to becoming a hero. He learns how to forge a sword, wins several magical trophies that enhance his power, and bests a dragon. Upon bathing in its blood, he becomes nearly invincible. And, hearing about the treasures of Burgundy, becomes determined to journey there and win the hand of its princess, Kriemhild (Margarete Schon). Part of his payment is that he must help her brother, the king, to woo Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), a warrior queen.

The film’s tragedy—Siegfried’s eventual betrayal and death at the end of this first film—hinges on the central themes of pride, jealousy, deception, and failed honor. One after another, the characters betray each other: the king doesn’t win Brunhild of his own accord, but Siegfried uses magic to appear as the king and best Brunhild in battle, and then again on her wedding night so that she will submit to the king. The king and his vassal kill Siegfried, because they are jealous of his power, just as Kriemhild taunts Brunhild because she perceives herself to be inferior to the other queen. Ultimately no one wins: Brunhild is taken from the king when she commits suicide after Siegfried’s death and Kriemhild becomes obsession with revenge.

The sequel, Kriemhild’s Revenge, is fairly self-explanatory: she tries to manipulate her family against Gunther, her brother the king, and Hagen, his vassal and Siegfried’s actual murderer, who stabbed him in the back. She gives away the family fortune, tries to win the people to her cause, and even agrees to a marriage proposal with another king in the desperate hope that he will support her cause. Ultimately, she causes war between the two kingdoms and even sets her family palace on fire, orders the death of her brother, and commits murder herself. Though thematically and stylistically quite different from Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Die Nibelungen can also be read as a commentary on German life in the ‘20s and, more broadly, German culture. Based on one of the few recorded German epic myths, it is, again, hard not to read this as a foreshadowing of the Nazi obsession with idealized German culture (the Nibelungen treasure itself), and especially with violence and war justified by lofty moral aims, i.e. heroic violence.

This breathtakingly beautiful film, even more dazzling than Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler or the slightly later Metropolis, is suffused with gloom, setting apart from cheerier later myth-inspired fantasy films that generally always seem to have happy endings. And Lang and Harbou’s use of female villains and protagonists takes on larger than life proportions here, as Kriemhild transforms from a statuesque, if somewhat innocent bride into a bloodthirsty murderess determined to slaughter her own family and raze their kingdom to the ground. Fortunately Kino’s presentation of the film, which spans two discs and looks glorious on Blu-ray, includes a documentary, “The Legacy of the Nibelungen,” which provides some much needed context for this sadly neglected triumph.

In the last and final part of this essay, I’ll examine the final four films in the set: Lang’s dystopian epic, Metropolis, his loose follow up to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Spies, his sprawling sci-fi film Woman in the Moon, and the rarely seen Poe adaptation he scripted (but did not direct), The Plague of Florence.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She’s the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang’s M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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