On Film: Fritz Lang's proto-terrorist | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Film: Fritz Lang's proto-terrorist 

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Did Fritz Lang introduce a character to world cinema who prefigured the rise of Osama bin Laden? The two parts of Lang's tinted, silent Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler premiered in Berlin in 1922. The title character is a nefarious psychiatrist, hypnotist, and master of disguise who preys upon decadent aristocrats in posh gambling dens. He dispatches his minions in clockwork schemes to topple the stock market, plant bombs, and deliver poisons, and eludes the authorities at every turn. Dubbed "the Great Unknown" by his pursuers, the protean thug proclaims upon his eventual comeuppance, "Only now shall the world learn who I am--I! Mabuse! A giant--a titan who jumbles up laws and gods like withered leaves!!"

"Lang was acutely aware throughout the 1920s of the vulnerability of the German people to an irrational hero and demagogue who you can't but help look at as a predecessor of Hitler," says Sara Hall, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "One of the simultaneously most appealing and frustrating elements of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is that it becomes so obvious so early in the film who the criminal is. And so it sort of inhibits your identification with the detective. Lang almost forces the audience to identify with the criminal, which is a real turning on its head of what the police were doing at the time."

Amateur sleuthing was a pop-cultural pastime in Weimar Berlin. In 1919 a local newspaper promised a 2,000-mark reward to the first reader to spot its star writer on the street, as if he were a crook at large. A police commissioner urged the readership to play along with "Augen auf!"--eyes open!--promoting surveillance as every citizen's duty in the unsettled postwar years. From 1925 to '28 the Berlin police staged contests to teach the public how to detect suspects in their midst. For each game the police hired three faux fugitives, handed out "wanted" flyers bearing their photos, and offered a 1,000-mark prize to anyone who fingered them.

Because the Treaty of Versailles had disarmed the police, one Berlin officer proposed an alternative weapon to keep the peace. He argued that "the camera can replace the gun in intimidating the public," Hall says. "Just knowing that they're being surveilled will prevent them from misbehaving." Hall sees this "network of policing glances" and the "urban spectatorship" it shaped as curiously cinematic--and relevant to Lang's films. The director attended the Great International Police Exhibition in 1926 to discover how detectives used film and photography as investigative tools, and used his research in his thriller M the same year.

When Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1973, New York Times critic Nora Sayres found a political parallel to Lang's paranoia: "the valid modern terror of being manipulated flickers across the screen as freshly as Watergate." When Hall screened the film in September for her class on Weimar cinema, she saw Lang's villain through another lens: that of 21st-century terrorism. "Mabuse is a political criminal," she says. "He's an economic criminal. But he's also a terrorist in terms of creating urban disaster. He uses trains, telephones, and telegraphs--all the most modern forms of technology at the time--to create destruction in the city. The film demonstrates that technology is not the salvation of urban society. It was actually very hard to watch because of that similarity."

In her forthcoming book, Citizen's Arrest: Weimar Culture and the Police, Hall casts Dr. Mabuse as an insidiously subversive cipher. "He is culturally unintelligible, unreadable, and incalculable and so represents all that is destructive to industrial capitalism and the culture that drives and supports it."

"You get seduced into enjoying the kind of chaos Mabuse creates," she says. "He's so hypnotic and he's this one man who can control all these people. He can force them to commit suicide and can make them go out and destroy other peoples' lives without a second thought."

As part of the series "From Mabuse to Metropolis: Restored Silent Classics by Fritz Lang," Sara Hall will introduce Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler: Part I on Saturday, December 1, at 3 PM. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler: Part II screens Sunday, December 2 at 3 PM, after which Hall will give a talk. This series of 35-millimeter prints from European archives is presented in cooperation with Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes Chicago, with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin. Screenings are at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; call 312-846-2800 for more information.

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