Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Note on Pacing

This month has gone too quickly for me - I wish I had more time to spend on this film. It's been a while since I have tried to dig into a film in depth like this - it's gratifying... though with the opportunities for dissecting films afforded by modern technology, it can start to get out of hand... Anyway - before the month is up, I wanted to get at least one more post up, about one striking element of Lang's style in Mabuse - his manipulation of the pacing of the film. He works consistently with a kind of alternation, fast and slow - though always tending, both within sequences and in the film(s) as a whole, to speed things up as he goes. And he develops these contrasts both between shots and in shots - still shots alternate with bursts of action to create another layer of of the pattern.

And of course - he alternates between the two halves of the film. Part 1 starts with the kinetic train robbery and Mabuse's dazzling tour of the city, before slowing down for later scenes; Part 2 starts with most of the characters still - usually brooding, haunted, maybe drunk... And much of the early part of the second film retains that slower pace - slow action (lots of talk), slow movement, slow cutting... These are interspersed with action - and of course the the action comes more frequently as the film progresses... a pattern appearing in most of the segments of the film.

Take this sequence near the beginning of the second film: starting with Count Told visiting the state prosecutor, telling him his story (cheating at cards, his wife has left him), cutting to Mabuse's place and the aftermath of a drunken party, then to the Countess, Mabuse's prisoner - Mabuse visits her and threatens her - but Told calls Mabuse, seeking psychiatric help... The sequence I'm thinking of lasts about 5 minutes - but shows, in that five minutes, the variations in pacing, and general acceleration I mean. In fact - thanks to the magic of iMovie - we can see the cuts (you may have to click on it to see it clearly), see the shots getting shorter as the sequence progresses:

Basically - we start with a 35 second shot of Told and Von Wenk, followed by a 22 second shot of Told (including an inserted dialogue), then a series of somewhat shorter shots - 12 seconds, 3, 11 - of the countess waking up and Mabuse's party; then a 52 second shot of the party, 44 seconds of Told and Von Wenk (including dialogue, though always cutting back to the basic two shot), then a series of shots of Mabuse and the countess, many of them involving movement, as he chases her around the room - 7 seconds, 17 (more on this below), 3, 4 (Mabuse), a 6 second dialogue card, 4 (shot of the countess - which is exactly the same length and the preceding shot of Mabuse), 8, 2, 3, 2 - another dialogue card (3 seconds) - 6, then a 17 second shot of Mabuse coming to the phone...

That's the overall pattern of the sequence - starting long, with slow movement, no action, then growing faster, both cutting and movement, before slowing down as the next sequence begins. The same pattern occurs within the shots, during the direct confrontation between countess and Mabuse. She has been unconscious - she wakes up in his house, locked in a room. He comes in from his drunken bash, thinking to molest her, she fights him off, tries to escape... The centerpiece of this sequence is a 17 second shot that recapitulates the overall pacing of the sequence: starts slow, explodes into action, stops - then explodes again. Here it is:

It starts, as many shots do, with a very quick dissolve:

This reveals Mabuse leaning over the countess - they hold this pose for about 5 seconds:

Then the countess makes a break for it, and Mabuse grabs her:

They struggle - and come to a halt, and hold this position (a very tense, violent pose, actually, Mabuse basically pinning her there) for a few second:

...before she makes another break...

... which leads to the cut - to a blank door, and the countess bursting into the frame:

It's a powerful effect - the alternation of long and short shots, of slow, deliberate movements and gestures and quick, violent movements; integrated with the variations in shot scales - long shots and closer shots alternating, shots of big spaces and tight spaces; even the varying transitions - short dissolves, longer dissolves between shots, alternating with abrupt cuts; and the variations on how the cuts come - cuts to empty spaces that people jump into, say... Everything aimed at generating tension, and doing it...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mabuse contre Fantômas

A note on the "character" of Mabuse.

Who is Dr. Mabuse? This is a difficult question. Mabuse is the Great Unknown. It's impossible to define his character on its own. Mabuse always needs an opposition. His defining characteristic is his role as an antagonist; he only exists when there is someone trying to find him or defeat (which is distinct from thwart) him. Mabuse is just a name for a certain evil; he's a folk tale. So, in order to be able to write anything longer than a sentence about the character of Mabuse (not really a character at all--a something rather than a someone), we always need a comparison. Mabuse is always "this and not that," but never a particular characteristic that stands on its own--the only things we have with any certainty are his name and his villainy.

Fantômas, on the other hand, is always there; he escapes as often as Mabuse seemingly dies, and his actions stir society to find a solution (for this reason, perhaps, Juve and and Fandor are generic--they could be any policeman or any journalist, and are therefore closer to Mabuse in conception that Fantômas; it's maybe for this reason that they serve as Fantômas's antagonists in every film, whereas every Mabuse movie needs new heroes). There are a thousand Mabuses, but only one Fantômas.

So: Mabuse and Fantômas. Both originated in popular novels and then found their way into silent serials, returned in the early sound era and then in the 1960s. Lang started a small Mabuse craze with his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and it continued through the decade with a series of spin-offs, the best of which were directed by the krimi expert Harald Reinl. Fantômas had been in a few films in the early 1930s and late 1940s (his absence during the Occupation is conspicuous), but he returned in full force in the 1960s in a trio of brightly-colored capers starring Jean Marais. Both characters are popularly associated with the major directors (Feuillade and Lang) who originated them, and both have been reinterpreted by later, equally distinctive filmmakers (Pál Fejös's Fantômas talkie, Claude Chabrol's 1990 remake of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Dr. M). Historically, they're no so different. But history's just a footnote. Fantômas is vindictive while Mabuse is vengeful. The specificity of Fantômas means that his presence has weight (there's always a surprise when we discover that someone is really Fantômas in disguise), while Mabuse's shifting identity and clairvoyance means that his presence is always assumed. While Fantômas is a villain, Mabuse is an evil.

Monday, April 20, 2009

1, 2, 4, 8, 16...

Despite my rather slow output of posts about Mabuse, the fact is, there are endless things to say about it. I mentioned style in a comment to Peter's post - the way it seems to blend older types of film styles - tableau staging, slow pace, exaggerated poses and so on (many of the things raised by David Bordwell in his writings on 1910s cinema) - with the faster, analytical editing of classical cinema... Having watched the film a couple times, in fact, I have to say Lang's blending of these styles - especially, his control of the pacing, of everything in the film - the speed of the action, the actor's movements, the editing - is absolutely extraordinary. There's a post there, that I hope I get to before the month is up... And building on that eclecticism - one of the daunting elements of the Mabuse films is how much is in them - realism and expressionism; serial crime stories and modern, self-contained stories; technology and magic; entertainment and art films; tight story telling and broad, documentation of the world as it is... So much.

For now though, I want to take a look at one element of the film's world - the use of doubles and parallels, in characters, situations, and so on. The double is one of the great themes of German films - it's obviously not limited to German art, but it's probably not an accident that we use the German word for a doppelganger. Doubles and Faust figures - which is a variation on the double: the devil who grants power and wishes in exchange for the soul... The two combined in Student of Prague, one of the foundational German films - with a Mephistophilis figure taking the student's reflection as his price....

Mabuse is also something of a Faust story, though with Mabuse playing all the parts... But it also contains, within it, a fairly elaborate system of parallels among its characters. Mabuse himself has a double in state prosecutor Von Wenk - the film alternates between them, they are matched adversaries - Von Wenk dons disguises, like Mabuse, trying to move, undercover, through the underworld... Around them, the other major characters are arranged in pairs, sometimes loose, but usually fairly explicit. Cara Carozza, the dancer, loved (once) by Mabuse and now by Hull the playboy, is echoed in the figure of the Countess Told, caught between Von Wenk and Mabuse, replacing Carozza in Mabuse's love (or lust, or desire, or whatever it is); both women end up prisoners, and the countess identifies with Carozza... Hull the playboy, meanwhile, is doubled by the Count - both are rivals with Mabuse for a woman; both are ruined at cards by Mabuse's hypnosis; both draw Von Wenk into the story, and lead him closer to Mabuse. Both die, at Mabuse's orders, but both deaths contribute to Mabuse's own fall.

Meanwhile, the film itself is a double - released in two halves (like Kill Bill, or Che!), with scenes and situations repeated between the two films (sometimes within one half of the film). Scenes, games, situations, shots, are all repeated, replayed, with variations. Here, it will be easier to show than tell:

Here for example, are two shots, one from the first half, one from the second, of the Countess Told: in the first, she is at a gambling den, where she watches, uninvolved, curious - in the second, she is a prisoner of Mabuse, held in a room by herself.... She is unconscious in this shot, and helpless - a prisoner (itself a parallel, at that point in the film, to Carozza, who is being held prisoner by Von Wenk...). The shots are almost mirrors of one another - she's in a similar position, facing the opposite direction - with the color schemes almost reversed (dark covers, white covers - or look at how her dark dress in the second shot rhymes with the white feathers in the first one):

Or another parallel - both Mabuse and Told haunted by ghosts. Told is ruined by Mabuse hypnotizing him to cheat at cards - he sinks into madness and drink, seeing visions, pursued around his house -

only to end up forced to play cards with his own ghost:

A situation Mabuse repeats, almost exactly. Pursued by ghosts -

Forced to play cards by ghosts - who accuse him of cheating - as Told's ghosts accused him... (and notice the screen directions of all these shots: Told on the right, looking left, as he's pursued, then on the left, facing the ghosts during the card game; and Mabuse on the left during the pursuit, on the right for the card game...)

Mabuse, though, is different from the rest. He may be part of the system of doubles and parallels, but he is outside it somewhat as well. The simplest reason is that he is his own double - he keeps replacing himself. And here, as in some aspects of the structure of the film, the doubling principal becomes a serial principal - he is not a double so much as a series. And a series that, as the film goes on, and especially as we move to the sequels (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and onwards), becomes a mechanically reproduced series - first through words, but then through machines (loudspeakers and recordings) and so on. Copies of copies of copies, disembodied, dissipating into words, sounds, images... copies without originals... pages scattered on the floor.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I'm trying to not get hypnotized by Dr. Mabuse

Once again, an incredibly interesting and exciting selection this month. Thank you Weepingsam. This film falls right in the cracks of my film history knowledge. And, once again, the FotMC has presented me with a film that I might never have gotten into on my own. Now, if it only wasn't this overwhelming!

To be honest, I was having trouble even following it in the beginning. I was not prepared for the way the story was playing out. I ended up putting on the commentary by David Kalat (I have the IMAGE DVDrelease. The KINO edition doesn't have this commentary but it is a much better restoration. Ironicly, the image is signicantly worse on the IMAGE release). He has a few strange moments in the way he presents information at times, but overall it is a tremdously insiteful and entertaining track. And, most importantly, it put me in the proper mindframe to take in the movie in a benificial way. So I am going to have another go at it. It is still an potentially overwhelming film. There are a lot of ways to approach this one.

I wanted to post this because I am seeing that the posts aren't happening yet and we're in the last third of the month. Maybe others had the trouble with it that I had. Maybe not. But I felt the need to express my experience with the film(s) so far. Yes, this is a difficult 4 1/2 hour silent work, but it is not only important, but extremely exciting too, and I am very happy that it was selected.

I hope to have more to say before the month is out.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mabuse and his World

Hello again. I hope I can get a couple posts up this weekend, to get into Mabuse.... I will start with the basics. I'm afraid this is likely to be a rather dry and schoolish post, but I want to lay out some parameters first - I'll try to move on to aesthetics in upcoming posts. What is this film? A very long, almost 5 hours, story of Mabuse the Gambler, master criminal. It owes a clear debt to serial thrillers, from Lang’s own Spiders to Feuillade’s films - the length, the type of story, the structure (it’s still organized in 20 minute chunks, basically) - though stitched together more carefully, and designed throughout as a single, unified work. It’s a fantastic looking film, Lang’s eye already well developed, and German studio technology was humming along as well. Stylistically, it is an interesting hybrid - it carries on some of the older, tableau style sets and shots of 1910s films, alongside some very crisp editing, and a strong sense of pacing, space, the emotional weight of style. The contrast between tableau style shots and the more “modern” dynamics of editing and staging seem quite intentional: Lang seems uses the different sense of time and space for expressive effects. I will return to that - his alternation of pacing (of action, editing and so on) is a fascinating effect.

The film proclaims itself a “Picture of our time” and part 2, a "Play of People of our Time.” It is a product of its time - 1922, the inflation, when German currency was spinning out of control. It's made fairly early in the worst period of inflation - a dollar was worth around 300 marks in early 1922 - 7500 marks in late 1922 - 4.2 trillion marks in November 1923. But Mabuse, especially in the stock market scheme that opens the film, represents the kind of speculation and manipulation that contributed to that disaster. It's a record of the society of the early 20s in Germany - the chaos and violence, the decadence, the sense of despair and inertia in Germany, the cynicism that came out of WWI. It's also a record of a moment in modernity - it's a record of Berlin as one of the key cities of the modern world. Berlin was a newer city than it might seem - doubling in size between 1910 and the 20s (from 2 to 4 million people*) - and technologically new. It is a world of trains and phones and newspapers and movies, of information and movement, and this is all front and center in Mabuse.

Let me get to Mabuse the character: Mabuse, the "Spieler" - the player. In German too, the two meanings work, play to gamble, play to act - Mabuse the actor, then. Lang wastes no time establishing that parallel, beginning the film with shots of Mabuse going through cards with head shots, equating his disguises with the game. Mabuse is an odd kind of gambler - he doesn’t leave much to chance. His criminal schemes depend on careful and precise manipulation of time, space, objects, information - look at the dazzling opening sequence, a train robbery timed to the second, involving a mugging, dropping a package off a bridge from a moving train into the back seat of a moving car that passes a telephone pole at a precise time, with Mabuse following along at home, with his watch, able to know to the second when his phone will ring. And that opening theft itself is the beginning of an elaborate scheme to manipulate the stock market - which does not depend on the stolen information, but on manipulating the information about the theft. As a gambler, it’s the same - he doesn’t leave anything to the turn of the card - he doesn’t even cheat: he hypnotizes his opponents so they misplay their hands to lose. And he does it with the gaze - a deadly stare into their eyes - or the back of their head, if that's convenient - or by playing with things, a pair of Chinese glasses, say... but always, with the eyes...

In the end, he is as much a director as he is an actor or gambler - he operates by telling people where to go, what to do, making them do it if they don't want to; everything is timed and precise, he leaves nothing to chance. His schemes are played out in the film as vignettes - where his manipulation of the people, things, spaces, is mimicked by Lang's manipulation of the same - that opening sequence, say, times everything just as carefully as he does, and leaves even less to chance - since its edited together.. and since Lang gets to use trick shots.

But this ties back to Lang's interest in the world of his time - in the ways modernity has changed space and time. Mabuse manipulates space and time, and uses the technology of space and time (trains and cars and clocks and telephones, all the ways people move and communicate differently now), to run his schemes. He's a media creature, and a manipulator of the media, as he manipulates the game. He depends on the game continuing, on the stock market continuing, on the trains running on time. When people are late, or leave early, or kick up a fuss over losing, he is thwarted...

That is one aspect of the character - there are more. Readings of Mabuse the character add another significance to the ideas of Mabuse as man of a thousand faces - he has many precedents and parallels in German film and culture. (I hope to return to this in another post, as well.) I commented on my blog, a month or so ago, about the similarities between Mabuse and Faust - that relates to the question of modernity, I think, though also, obviously, that of power and evil. Mabuse is a Faust figure who serves as his own Mephistophiles. For Siegfried Kracauer, Mabuse was one of a series of tyrant figures in Weimar cinema - representing power and chaos, together... Kracauer linked him to Nosferatu - another tyrant, with hypnotic powers, a creature of shadows (though not of disguises, unlike Dracula and Mabuse) - another creature of 1922 Germany. And the questions about identity raised by Mabuse are extended out from him - he has 1000 faces - he also has his very own doppelganger/stalker, in State Prosecutor Von Wenk. The doubling of characters and situations in the film (which after all has two parts) is an essay in itself...

* I know this from Anton Kaes - this essay specifically, though I think he mentions it in other contexts as well... "Leaving Home: Film, Migration, and the Urban Experience." New German Critique no. 74 (Spring/Summer 1998): 179-192.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Permit me to Introduce Myself - Dr. Mabuse

Happy April Fool's day, Film of the Month Club readers! I bring you this month's film - Fritz Lang's Mabuse the Gambler - a great film, and a great character, to whom Lang returned twice more in his career.

I apologize for picking a 4 1/2 hour silent film for this month's discussion (though things move along nicely over those 4 1/2 hours) - I admit I am choosing it for a number of selfish reasons. One is, I am currently taking a class on German cinema, with Eric Rentschler, and so am already immersed in German films. I've been watching them, reading about them, thinking about them, can piggy back blogging onto that, which given my inherent laziness, has value. But more than that, the class has brought home to me just how shallow my knowledge of German films is - and how shallow my knowledge of Fritz Lang is. I may have seen M many times, and Metropolis quite often - but not much else. And finally seeing Mabuse, a month or so ago, left me most definitely wanting more. It's a marvelous film - a portrait of its time, a superb document of the beginnings of modernity, one that reflects a definite critical intelligence about modernity. Lang's continuing interest in the media, in information and technology and information technology, in the operations of the modern city, in the notion of the manipulation of information to manipulate people, is all present in this film in a very potent way. And they are all issues that are relevant today - media, stock market manipulation, technology - it's a portrait of our time...There's too much to say about it - it is good then to linger on it awhile.

So then.... It is important (to me) that I have only seen it once (as of tonight) - it's a chance to explore something relatively new. My plan, then, is this: I hope to post one or two pieces on the film itself, probably taking off from things that came up in the class. (And that I alluded to on my blog at the time.) The remarks above can probably indicate my interest in the film as a historical document - both as a historical object, and as a critical work in itself. History and formalism (for lack of a better word) are my passions - and this film scratches both those itches. After that - I also hope I can track down Lang's other Mabuse films - while that's not necessarily the purpose of this blog, I certainly hope to use this as an incentive to look at Lang as a director, Mabuse as a character, and so on. I suppose this too is a result of the context - I came to this film in the context of the history of German film: so tracing that history is a big part of what I want to do here.

And finally - I hope others will jump in as well. It's a big film - there's plenty of room for everyone. I look forward to any coming discussions.