In medias res: Loud, booming, clanging in an industrial factory. Bottles and other loose articles shake and nearly crash to the floor with each successive pounding, rattle of the building. A figure falls to a low crouch holding a drawn pistol while glancing about like a cornered animal. Two calm men enter the room and approach as one party makes the other aware of an exposed foot behind the partition. Suddenly, the lights go out…
The artistry of Fritz Lang’s direction makes this scene far more exciting than this description, not to mention more frightening; and this is merely the first of many such moments. Even before the action begins, the title suggests two obvious questions, which the film only partially answers—who is Mabuse and what is his testament?
Few Germans in 1933 would have trouble supplying a quick answer to the first question. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was an enormous popular movie in 1922. Lasting four-and-one-half hours (screened as two separate movies), it tells of a master criminal, gambler, stock manipulator, and debaser of currency. That last would have special meaning to its original audience because it was shot at the height of the hyperinflation, which instantly made Mabuse at the very least an allegorical type of the then current most evident social evil or, better, a symbol of the true nature of rampant evil in the world. Mabuse viewed from this angle, represents the pattern for how to perceive social destruction and societal falsification of reality, as well as providing something of a blueprint for intuiting its cause.
Here we must insert the obligatory aside about “conspiracy theories.” To dismiss entirely any thought of social conspiracy is tantamount to asserting that powerful people never, ever get together to discuss what they hope to accomplish, that some of these aims may violate basic morality, and that they never make any arrangements to carry out their desires. Stated this way, what the incredulous dismiss as “conspiracy theory” is little more than what the powerful would call “planning.” The self-evident fact that such blueprints are made (or did the Bolsheviks or French Revolutionaries spring from nowhere?) becomes obscured because of the sheer array of cocksure reductionist propaganda of modern media (controlled by those who tell everybody what everybody is supposed to “know”) acting as watchdog while barking reassurances; and, almost invariably when some naïve soul places all the blame on one group of any kind, especially a group of people or an organization that clearly lacks the required power, the ensuing ridicule often sounds far more strident than the poor soul making prognostications. Thus the conspiracy theorists and their critics. Those of us with a lick of sense rightly reject such conclusions even if the partially deluded chaps are often hold onto an ear or a tail like the blind men and the elephant.
Mabuse, then, is the embodiment of evil, a type of the Dark One. What then is his testament? At the end of the 1922 film, Mabuse goes mad. In the 1933 picture, we learn that he always sits up in bed and, in a catatonic state, scribbles writings and drawings which augur vast criminal schemes which even provides his rationale. His purpose as narrated by a voiceover bears close examination in cold print:
Humanity’s soul must be shaken to the very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crime. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to’ inspire fear and terror, because the only ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the empire of crime—a state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation. 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 come for the empire of crime.
Sounds to me like Sam Francis’ idea of anarcho-tyrrany.
The superficial story about Lang’s movie is that he completed Testament just in time for it to be the first film banned by the Nazis upon their ascendency to power, which is factually true. The movie does cut close to the bone and is easily read as being specifically anti-Nazi. In reality, Goebbels stated as the reason for prohibiting exhibition of the film that the German public did not need reminders of the evils of the Weimar Republic at that time. In the late 30s, however, a truncated version of Testament was release which leeaves the impression that the story is about that earlier unlamented regime; but how easy it is to project one’s own evils onto another.
Actually, the entire movie is about just such projections, one of the few fruits of Dr. Freud’s work that holds water. Only the police inspector, Herr Lohmann (a character who also appears in Lang’s previous film M). and who eventually unravels the ever expanding mysteries, fully escapes being part of what is not so much as vast conspiracy as a vast enigma. He penetrates layer after layer of puzzles only to find, what? The ravings of a madman? Surely, but which madman? Mabuse? Just at the moment the plans for a criminal empire are succeeding, we learn Mabuse is just another corpse wearing a toe tag.
Even as audience, we are not precisely certain whether the horror is supernatural and that Mabuse posthumously possesses another’s body or whether that possession is merely the ravings of someone who has taken Mabuse’s faux Nietzschean fevers to heart. Nor does it really matter. Nor is it accidental that both villains, although equally exposed as not being the ultimate source of the terror, are psychiatrists. The doctors of the mind, those who were to rival only the clergy in announcing their intentions to help the psyches of others, are the most warped of all. Given the hegemony of Freudian pseudo-science at that time, one cannot but speculate whether the Viennese humbug and the very real ills he wrought are among the sword thrusts of Lang and his screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou.
Although I have no desire to google the word “film” with the phrase “man behind the curtain,” I would bet that the first page or two of results would almost all refer to The Wizard of Oz (speaking of humbugs—the wizard himself that is). Nor have I any idea if Toto’s snapping at the heels of the wizard was part of the book. Perhaps a reader with a better memory than mine can inform us; but I like to think Frank Morgan’s bumbling was a comic allusion to the Lang movie where all the terrorists take their orders from “the man behind the curtain,” an unseen menace perceived as a shadow apparently holding a microphone and demanding his henchmen execute plots of destruction and death. Pay quite close attention to this man behind the curtain.
Evil is arbitrary, random, and irrational in Lang’s world. Although almost never mentioned, Lang was raised a Catholic and returned to the faith toward the end of his life. The missing piece in any jigsaw of Lang criticism is his absorbed Catholic morality that mixes with his decidedly Germanic accent. For most of his life he was a non-practicing Catholic and rather a womanizer, even once having been shot by his producer over an affair with the latter’s wife. Not pretty. I only know about his late conversion because the Jesuit who was on my dissertation committee told me so and was, in Lang’s last days, his confessor. He informed me that in theological conversation, Lang’s idea of heaven was just a tad short of Valhalla.
No matter what Lang’s shortcomings, his understanding of the nature of evil was profound. In film after film, he depicts social evil as an underground criminal organization, usually run as a bureaucracy. We never quite get to the source. The culprits are akin to the old Quaker Oats boxes upon which is a picture of a figure holding up a box, upon which is the picture of a figure holding up a box, upon which is a picture… Corruption is not only illusionary, it slowly shrinks into nothing real. An absence. Isn’t evil often theologically defined as the absence of good? Isn’t the abuse of intellect and will insanity, by definition?
Much of the plot, it should be noted, recalls Saturday morning serials. Testament even includes a clever escape from certain death in a room closed and securely locked. The stuff of pulp fiction. Come back next week. In America, such fare largely consists of cheaply made thrills offered for children or the undemanding, and most often undemanding children. Such was not the case in Europe. Louis Feuillade’s serials, especially Fantomas, Les Vampires, and Judex—which were all about criminal conspiracies—hold up remarkably well on any level, so long as the plot devices are not examined too closely. Lang added metaphysical depth to the genre as early as his intended series of features in 1919 (only two were made before funds ran out). Serial-like elements permeate almost all Lang’s German movies. By 1933, he had refined these techniques so that he could produced something truly chilling.
The more the news informs us of terror bombing, the more we hear of rioting and looting by youth mobs who have no real motivation, the more we fear because with good reason we may imagine something forbidding may lurk around the next corner, the more relevant is this film. Herr Lohmann is clever, but a bit clownish when all is said and done because circumstances hamstring him. He is an honest copy, but officials may be part of the problem. What if the cause of our ills, at least as allegory, is some raving lunatic who is also a diabolist? Sound crazy? Pay close attention to the man behind the curtain.
Yet there is the still, small voice of hope as there must be if we are not to despair. Good people still fight the evil. One of the criminals rejoins decent humanity to fight the evil along with his intended bride. Evil is never defeated, but must be faced in the dark. Chesterton’s great lines from The Ballad of the White Horse may serve us as guide:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?
[An abridged version of this article will appear in a forthcoming issue of Gilbert Magazine.]