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.

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