09 March, 2006


The threat of rain continues to hover, unfulfilled; today came clouds. And there is something in the air, the suggestion of horror. My past continues to shed itself ritualistically in the sloughing of dead skin from my arms, and I pass on campus a junior preacher warning his small crowd about the evils of the Church of Vodka and Burritos, which cares not for men's souls. His mentor stood by approvingly. Meanwhile my nephew looms on the threshold of existence.

Yesterday I labelled our foe as a "compassing Mabuse of words"; the reference was not idle. We have, in fact, been watching Fritz Lang's original Mabuse movies, Der Spieler (1922) and Das Testament (1933). The difference between the two is astonishing: where the first creeps inexorably for four silent hours towards its climax, fleshing out its anti-hero as a concrete übervillain with a line in telepathic hypnosis and a network of accomplices throughout Berlin, the second reduces the insane Mabuse to a cipher, literally as letters scratched in a window-pane, his voice channelled through Baum, the head-doctor of the asylum in which he is incarcerated, exerting a sinister power on all from afar. The first scene of Das Testament breaks noisily from the silence of Das Spieler: all dialogue is subsumed under a roar of machinery. Mabuse's silent spoken mantras in the first film give way in the second to reams and reams of written commands through which he manifests his influence. Baum (whose own name, 'Tree,' is almost an anagram of 'Mabuse') shows us at the beginning that his patient had been writing and writing with his hands on air, until supplied with a paper and pencil; at first his gestures produced meaningless scribbles, but these scribbles slowly congealed into words, and then intelligible sentences, outlining imaginary crimes in meticulous detail. The suggestion is not just Hitler scrawling his Kampf at Landsberg in 1925, as some have observed, but even the birth of language itself, a parodic inversion of that Enlightenment vision of the creation of language to cement social concord. Here words emanate only from the individual, and threaten to destroy society in apocalypse.

The ultimate appeal of Mabuse as criminal mastermind is his nihilism: it is explicitly stated that his goal is not personal wealth or gain, but total destruction of the world. Crime is a total entity for Mabuse, an expression of pure destruction, almost mystical: "When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime." But the spirit of total annihilation is discovered in both films to be self-annihilating, as the villain is defeated each time by personal demons, guilt. Compare Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1945) on Raskolnikov:
Crime produces a kind of "oneness with the universe" in leading to a sense of universal persecution whereby all that happens has direct reference to the criminal. There is no "impersonality" in the environment; everything is charged with possibilities. . . A sense of guilt may lead to crime as its representation; and by such translation, a sense of persecution that might otherwise verge upon the hallucinatory can be made thoroughly real and actual.
Everything in Mabuse's world is indeed charged with possibilities, and his persecution does become 'real and actual', effecting his capture at the end of Der Spieler; but here we see also the opposite process, as the real and actual Mabuse becomes hallucinatory in his hypnotic power. If crime for Burke is a sort of mystical communion with the universe, then so is gambling:
Experience itself becomes mystical when some accidental event happens to be "representative" of the individual, as when a sequence of circumstances follows exactly the pattern desired by him. Hence the mysticism of gambling, where it is hoped that one's "pure purpose" in the pursuit of money will be in perfect communion with the inexorable decrees of fate.
Mabuse himself is the ultimate 'gambler' (Spieler), cheating the stockmarket top-hats and swindling aristocrats of their riches over illicit poker rounds in the Berlin underworld. Except he isn't a gambler, and he has no need of hope—as he ensures by hypnosis that his pursuit of money is indeed "in perfect communion" with the decrees of fate. With his stares and mantras he dictates fate (fatum, 'that which is spoken'). Mabuse is therefore less the mystical initiate, and more the demonic God or Ahriman, creating the accidental event as "representative".

Finally, all of this plays into Mabuse's status in the first film as a respected doctor and psychoanalyst. Lang's Expressionist sensibility, as noted in his work on Dr. Caligari (although David Kalat advises caution with the Expressionist label), is of course intrigued by the phenomena of insanity and psychoanalysis, and Mabuse suggests the same scepticism about the 'authoritative discourse' of psychiatry in general that would be expressed later by Foucault et al. A thin line, we see, separates the fatherly psychoanalyst, fascinated by madness, and the raving maniac himself. In one powerful scene, the spectral Mabuse, incarnating himself in Baum, assumes the bulbous, distorted head of the African sculptures adorning Baum's office—the same sculptures called primitive in the popular mind, and linked intimately to the infantile, and to the delirious.


Richard said...

Yes, Lang is one of my favourite directors too. I always admire how his films use conventional genre structures to put forward more subversive ideas about crime, capital and society.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes... though in fact I think Der Spieler is so attenuated as to lose its sense of structure. The opening stockmarket sequence has no connection to the rest of the film, and there is a deadening repetition of Mabuse's hypnotic action throughout the remainder. Which is good! Das Testament is tighter and more conventional in structure. I haven't seen his American films, so I don't know if they continue in quality.