THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE
Fritz Lang's last film, a mesmerizing sci-fi thriller set in post-war Berlin,
has been painstakingly restored from the original 35mm negatives
and digitally remastered for this DVD presentation.
This article originally appeared in Film Comment in March 1973.
It is reprinted here by permission. This article may not be reprinted in whole or in part without permission.
The numbers in parentheses denote footnotes.
A premiere on 42nd Street six years after its initial release, dubbing so garbled you had to see it twice simply to understand what the actors were saying, no reviews, not even a listing in Cue--even if Fritz Lang’s The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse were no better than some of the enjoyable post-Lang Mabuse sequels, one would have had to like it. In fact, The 1000 Eyes is a superb film, dense, complex, exuberant, mysterious, fully worthy of its premiere setting, and deserving much more than the ignorant indifference that met its arrival.
I don’t how The 1000 Eyes compares with Lang’s Mabuse films of the Twenties and Thirties, but to my own experience, it seems to stand in a line of honorable but twisted descent from the Feuillade of Les Vampires both in the extraordinary beauty of its images and in the respect it grants to the potential for evil in all the objects and impulses of its world. From its audience, The 1000 Eyes asks both greater innocence and infinitely greater sophistication than most of us bring to the movies nowadays.
The title of the film is something of a misnomer. The sinister Dr. Mabuse is actually dead. He died in 1932, just when the above-ground competition in his line grew too tough in Germany. The present “Mabuse” is a postwar nonentity whose name we never do learn, carrying on in the old doctor’s tradition both from a desire to reduce the universe to chaos and as a memorial to Mabuse’s genius or insanity, he isn’t sure which. Another element in the film’s prehistory is the Hotel Luxor, where most of the action takes place. The Luxor was built by the Nazis in 1944 as a potential stopping place for foreign diplomats, and it was equipped by them with hidden television cameras in every public and private room. The cameras are the 1000 eyes, and “Mabuse” sees through them by means of four television screens in a secret soundproofed room hidden inside a fake boiler deep in the cellars of the hotel.
The false Mabuse, who directs a shadowy network of assistants, assassins, and technical experts, himself breaks into two impersonations--played, perhaps significantly, by different actors in the film. (ED. FOOTNOTE)
One impersonation is a white-haired seer named Cornelius. Cornelius feigns blindness by wearing white contact lenses under dark glasses and by using a seeing-eye dog and a cane. The other, much younger, is a psychiatrist named Jordan. Everything Mabuse (from here on I shall drop the quotation marks) does in the movie seems to stem from one of two motivations: to preserve the secret of his identity (in which he is successful; even after he unmasks himself at the end, he goes to his death without revealing his name), and to gain enough power to effect the aforementioned destruction of the universe. To this end he plans the entrapment of a young American industrialist named Travers (Peter Van Eyck) through marriage to a beautiful young woman named Marion (Dawn Addams). Marion is ostensibly Dr. Jordan’s patient, but actually she is controlled by Mabuse, who holds her in a deep hypnotic trance. Once married, Travers will be disposed of, Marion will inherit his vast nuclear power holdings, Marion will be disposed of, and Mabuse will have the necessary destructive means at his command.
None of this comes very close to happening. Travers’ crucial purchase of a British nuclear plant is stymied when the plant is destroyed in an accidental explosion. Marion goes Jordan’s hypnotic instruction one better by actually falling in love with Travers and finally giving away the secret of the Luxor and its devices. And Mabuse spends most of his time in the Cornelius role, communicating with the police, trading uncanny premonitions for tips about defections in his own ranks. The police are on to somebody like Mabuse from the start, and in time an Interpol agent penetrates Cornelius’ disguise and finally exposes him with the aid of his own seeing-eye dog. A number of mechanisms that Mabuse sets in motion have interest for their own sake, but few of them have much practical issue, and the typical feature of the Mabuse scheme is that, once it does get started, it tends to go seriously out of hand. In te heavily causal world that Fritz Lang’s precisely controlled camera discloses, this amounts to a sin against the nature of things as they are and are seen to be.
The question of things as they are or are seen to be leads inevitably to the double projection of Mabuse himself. Between Jordan and Cornelius, scientist and seer, Mabuse seems to encompassed polar ways of knowing the world.(1) But in large measure Cornelius-Mabuse has no practical function except to render Jordan-Mabuse vulnerable. It is Cornelius and his elaborate disguise that the police see through (though they might not if he didn’t keep putting himself in their way), it is Cornelius’ dog that exposes his secret identity first to the audience and then to the Interpol agent, and it is to Cornelius that the film repeatedly cuts when the name “Mabuse” is mentioned. To the extent that he is more than the psychiatrist’s antithesis, Cornelius seems largely to be an exuberant ploy thrown up by the unassuming and serviceable Jordan. Ostensibly, Mabuse’s enemy is the fat, good-natured police inspector Kraus [sic]. Kraus does epitomize oridinary man (although he has a few mysteries of his own, such as his relation to the girl-friend of a reporter murdered as Mabuse’s first victim in the film), and the mere difficulty he has in energetically getting around makes him, I suppose, a repository for the ineptitude of us all. But as an operator and a power he is simply not in Mabuse’s league. Cornelius is in that league, as well as being everything that Jordan is not, and he perhaps suggests a fantasy equivalent for all the anonymous Mabuse’s grandiose scheming.
Jordan is an underground man. Somewhere he is supposed to have a sanitorium, but so far as we see he operates only from the depths of the Hotel Luxor. Cornelius, when he is not actually having premonitions, is usually talking about them on the telephone or in personal consultation. His consultation room is above ground, well lit in the daytime, and in the dark, illuminated by many lights outlining the figures of the zodiac on his walls. Mabuse-Jordan says he wants to destroy the universe; Mabuse-Cornelius sits in the middle of a metaphor for it. Consequently Jordan plots disaster; Cornelius repeatedly forsees disaster, and we actually see him avert two fatalities. (Of course, it must be assumed that he planned them both, but I am more concerned here with Cornelius as manifestation rather than as a function in Mabuse’s grand schemes.) But at the same time, Jordan, in his role as efficient practitioner, suggests the power of his profession and offers help. Cornelius, for all his abilities, must play at being essentially helpless, and to this end collects about him--in his cane, his glasses, his dog--the accouterments of affliction and dependency.
In his article on the film, Jean Douchet sees Mabuse (incorrectly identified as the son of the true Dr. Mabuse in the version that played in France) as an example of the struggle of the individual against circumstance that lang has stated to be basic to his films and that was the motto of Lang the artist in Godard’s Contempt.(2) By this reading, Mabuse’s own desire to take over the universe for his own ends is opposed by a representative of submission to universal order (Inspector Kraus) and is doomed to failure because such a take-over implies a degree of durable control inconsistent with the relentless temporality of the world as Lang sees it. Douchet’s most persuasive arguments center on a description of the film’s inexorably efficient and hermetic progress scene by scene, and a consideration of Jordan’s attempt to penetrate that organization even to controlling space-time through the “four dimensions” of his four television screens.(3)
It is worth remarking that the closer Mabuse gets to realizing his goal, the more desperate he becomes. On the one hand he seems to have more and more of the world in view, but on the other hand he must direct more and more personal energy merely to looking at it. His organization begins strong but ends weak. Subordinates are killed to prevent defections, or simply because they may know too much, and what begins as a vast network of men and devices becomes at the end one man seeing everything (but like most us, powerless before a television screen) and a hired assassin hiding his eyes behind dark tinted glasses. As his organization shrinks, Mabuse must become more and more pervasive, but his function shifts in the process. The great evil-doer with fifteen unsolved murders of powerful guests at the Hotel Luxor to his credit is at last the passive observer of other people’s actions. The master of illusion becomes the dupe of his own technique as soon as he stops producing the show.
Ultimately Mabuse can be little more than voyeur; while he had the means, his technique was to appeal to the voyeur in his principal victim. The involvement of Travers with Marion is very carefully worked out, and the man is put in a position of fantasy power over the girl. Travers first seens Marion (as do we) standing terrified on a ledge of the hotel as if about to jump. He coaxes her in from the ledge, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan, tells him a little of her history and then remarks that he, Travers, seems to have won extraordinary influence over her subconscious will. Travers takes the bait and falls into a trap very much to his own taste and style.
Travers learns that Marion is bound to a vile husband who will not stop torturing her and will not let her go. She is privately selling her jewelry so that she will have enough money to live by herself, and when Travers learns this he buys back the jewelry and offers her help. The husband and the jewelry-selling are arranged for Travers’ benefit. But they are minor beside the special temptation offered him in the form of a one-way mirror opening into Marion’s hotel bedroom. One of Mabuse’s aids, a particularly unctuous hotel employee, leads Travers to the room next to Marion’s, opens a closet door, and reveals the private window to those intimate secrets girls usually share only with their mirrors--all the while expressing the most feeling sympathy for what he knows must be Travers’ concern. On the other side of the mirror Marion appears, wearing panties and clutching her bra to her breasts, and she asks the maid for a little help in fastening a snap. While the hotel employee makes comments about what a truly marvelous device they have in front of them, Travers stands in the semi-dark and sweats. Marion receives a gift of flowers that Travers had sent and arranges them in a vase, before she sinks to the floor in an appealingly leggy attitude of despair. Only then does Travers remember himself enough to proclaim the whole show disgusting and demand that it be ended. The hotel man promises to lock the room, give Travers the key, and say nothing about the matter. But that night, Travers returns alone to his mirror in time to see Marion’s husband enter the room, smash the vase of flowers under his club foot, and threaten to carve up her lovely person with a knife. The threat is enough to send Travers crashing through the mirror to shoot the husband (with a conveniently dropped pistol loaded with blanks) and stand by while Marion calls Dr. Jordan for help. Jordan’s accessibility, and the fact that Marion calls him on a hotel extension, finally raises Travers’ suspicions.
The journey Travers makes to the room with the one-way mirror is the second of four sequences revealed on Mabuse’s television screens. The first, and most startling, had been a single image of Marion and Travers sitting out a dance in the hotel ballroom. Its effect had been the result partially of a third party’s unexpected intrusion on an intimate moment and partially of an unwonted constriction imposed upon a camera movement that began as a track back from the couple to a broader, more open view. That view is suddenly fixed by the outline of a television screen and the interrupted by a momentary failure in transmission and the passing of a hand toward a dial. The fourth and last television sequence is a police search through Travers’ rooms after Mabuse already has Travers and Marion prisoners in his underground cell.
The progression from one to another of these sequences is marked by an increase in the power of Mabuse’s personal technology. From one screen recording a single moment in a stationary shot, to a few screens recording an action in sequence, to four screens catching a single action from several points of view all at once--Mabuse has managed to get a more and more nearly total view of things under his surveillance. But what a paltry triumph! After the initial demonstration of the screens (which is a coup de theatre for Lang, not Mabuse), none of the television images moves us or even suggests that there is anything crucial going on. The more Mabuse sees, the more trivial is that which he manages to see. The effect is increasingly to distance him from what is really happening before his 1000 eyes. The pathos of Mabuse’s position is like the pathos of every mad impotent movie genius who cannot hope to possess the girl anesthetized on his diabolical operating table, or embrace the world whose future bubbles ominously in his laboratory retorts. But it is stranger and sadder for the false Mabuse because he has never tried to make himself a presence before giving up and trying to make himself a god.
The real adversary to Dr. Mabuse is not Kraus, the daylight defender of law and order, nor Billenbeck [sic], the Interpol man disguised as an insurance agent (though, by his use of disguise and his patient observation of the intricacies of Mabuse’s hotel, Billenbeck comes close to matching wits with Mabuse--and it is he who makes all the significant discoveries). The real adversary is poor Travers, played by Peter Van Eyck with the stolidity and middle-aged youthfulness that made Dana Andrews so perverse a hero of the American Lang films of the Fifties. In spite of having all the money and half the industrial capacity in the world, and a private male secretary to boot, Travers ultimately needs his love to keep him warm. And warm him up she does. A crucial distinction between Travers and Mabuse is that when presented with what looks like similar temptations, Travers has the good luck to succumb. Both men are power manipulators and both are voyeurs. However, between Travers and his one-way mirror and Mabuse at the dials of his television screens, there is a world of moral difference to choose. The choice must be for Travers, the homme moyen sensuel, who would have his woman, even if “having” begins degradingly as merely looking.
When Travers breaks through the mirror to save the love he has been visually devouring, he makes a bid for freedom. He moves from behind a wall of frustrated desire to direct involvement, from seeing to doing, from a complicity in passive control to a lively response in a specific dangerous situation. About Travers’ gesture two points should be noted. First, that he wins his freedom of action and begins to break the spell surrounding Marion by submitting totally and mindlessly to Mabuse’s game; the mirror was always meant to be broken through and Travers was meant to perform the act that would join him with Marion in a brief but heady romantic future. Second, that Travers’ act has the crucial look of spontaneity for the first time in a film that is full of surprises each of which is surprising in that it reveals a careful and malevolent plan behind a succession of seemingly gratuitous incidents. But if Travers’ breakthrough is part of Mabuse’s game, it is not part of Travers’ game. While Mabuse has moved toward looking with ever more cunning use of electronic aids, Travers has moved from looking to wanting, and from wanting to taking.
All the world of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is cursed. In part, by a continuation of the old curse that was not really broken in 1945; in part, by a universal resignation, a willingness merely to look at so many scenes of disorder caused by the faceless terror.(4) The ultimate shock is that the faceless terror is as cursed as everybody else, with nothing really to do in his underground room except look at the imminence of his own destruction and then go up into the sunlight and, after routine dodges, suffer it. For all he has made happen, and for all his technical expertise and ingeniousness, Mabuse has failed radically in perceiving any message beyond the medium. Half blind, half invisible, he doesn’t sense that there are other relations possible that depend upon not merely settling for a sophisticated point of view.
The act of seeing in the later films of Fritz Lang--an act that includes the bemused gaze of a middle-aged man caught by the portrait of a beautiful woman in an art gallery window (The Woman in the Window, 1944), or the intent squint of a hunter centering his human prey in the sights of a powerful rifle (Man Hunt, 1941)--involves for the protagonist a decision not merely to look but rather to enter into the scene his imaginative concentration has in part called into being. Such a decision is a submission to fate, which is also a submission to willful desire and an invitation to act. At the very least, it is a way of getting into trouble. But since trouble is the nature of our lives, and since our century has shown wonderful ingenuity in surpassing the wildest fantasies of Lang’s evil geniuses, getting into trouble has at least a certain relevance to living to recommend it. Mistaken in our impulses and acts, misled by our desires and our fears, we seem to have lost our way in a maze. But Lang’s camera needs only the slightest movement--a short, straight track--to reveal that we are actually caught in a web, a universal conspiracy precisely directed toward insane ends. Uncertainty is what we know of our environment, and in assurance there is neither comfort nor even truth. The night and fog that envelop so many of Lang’s films had probably better not lift. The better way out is not out into the daylight, but inward into that deeper darkness where Travers, as if by intensity of voyeurism, wills his way through to his love, enters the realm of her magic sleep and, by blindly joining for a while in the rhythms of her dreaming, finds through dreaming a way to life.
A Note on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
After I finished this article I was able to see The Testament of Dr. Mabuse(1932), dubbed and slightly cut. I can therefore say that The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse compares very favorably with at least one of the earlier Mabuse films. The Testament has its own glories, but over the years Lang seems to have refined his style and deepened his understanding of what his master criminal is up to. The plot of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, its celebrated set-pieces, its anti-Nazism, and the history of its suppression by the Hitler government are too well known to need any recounting. Its particular beauties--such scenes as the crazy white-haired Mabuse silently and furiously writing the testament in his hospital bed as page after page of notes falls gently to the floor beside him, or the landscape shown in negative back projection during Dr. Baum’s desperate night ride to escape from Inspector Lohmann and the police--need the experience of the film itself to be appreciated. One of the themes of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is madness, and madness sometimes appears as a curiously lovely state of obsession and unusual vision. It is difficult to associate Mabuse’s testament with its real-life analogue, Mein Kampf.
The most famous sequence in The Testament is repeated in The 1000 Eyes. A Mabuse victim is assassinated in his automobile while waiting for a traffic light. The light changes, and all the other automobiles start up and swing around the stalled car. When a policeman approaches, he discovers the body of the driver slumped over the wheel. This sequence begins The 1000 Eyes, where it is treated essentially as a study of the replacement of objects in space. The victim’s car waits for the light; the assassin’s car pulls up beside it and takes its place on the screen. We see the assassin preparing and aiming his weapon in the back seat of his car. The light changes and the assassin’s car drives off, leaving the victim’s car motionless in its place. The analogous sequence in The Testament occurs in the middle of the film, where it is merely another instance of the efficiency of the Mabuse organization. Everything important after the shooting is seen from directly overhead; automobiles stream around the motionless car, and the screen is filled not with any one object but with clouds of exhaust. The whole thing is darkly atmospheric, highly patterned, and visually stunning--to the extent that even the suffocating exhaust fumes look like composition.
Where The 1000 Eyes observes images and movement, The Testament develops patterns. Mabuse’s very name enters the film visually, as a police technician makes it appear from some lines scratched on a window pane by a man insane with terror. The wildly exfoliating designs on Mabuse’s manuscript (in the dubbed version of the film these are in English, but I assume they bear some resemblance to the pages in the German version) are balanced by a precisely detailed city map in Lohmann’s office. At one point we see slides showing a history of the testament in which mad Mabuse is presented as having begun by writing idiot scrawls. Gradually the scrawls become recognizable words, then sentences, then whole pages in a coherent but diabolical master plan for destroying the world. At the very end, the psychiatrist Dr. Baum, who is Mabuse’s voice and surrogate, is reduced to madness himself, and he sits in Mabuse’s old cell tearing those pages to shreds.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse uncovers schemes; The 1000 Eyes sense connections. The traps that abound in the earlier film are most often the products of architecture, city planning, industrial design. The traps that lie hidden in the later film are usually revealed only to exceptional perception--nothing is there unless you are alert and suspicious enough to see it. Mabuse’s underground room in The Testament is an empty sound chamber with real brick walls; the trapped young lovers have to blast a hole to escape from it. The underground room in The 1000 Eyes is a real nerve-center with a sham exterior. The young lovers whom Mabuse leaves there to die escape easily enough through an opened door, and nothing really is caught except in shifting images on television screens. Plan has become process, and everything, even the end of the world, is relative.
Editor's Note: Here Mr. Greenspun is making a minor but interesting error. In fact, actor Wolfgang Preiss plays both roles, but was billed as "Lupo Prezzo" for his role as Jordan in order to conceal the dual-identity from the audience. It is a testament to Preiss' acting, and the effective make-up used, that a critical viewer like Greenspun can be fooled. --David Kalat
1. Jean Douchet discusses the problem of knowledge in The 1000 Eyes in a typically brilliant review of the film in Cahiers du Cinema #122.
2. “...c’est le combat de l’individu contre les circumstances, l’éternel problème des Grecs anciens, du combat contre les dieux, le combat de Prométhée.”
Lang, quoted in Luc Mollet, Fritz Lang (Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1963), page 123.
3. Douchet’s analysis is schematically impressive but humanly uninteresting, and it leads him to view the film as an impressive but inhuman study in schematics.
4. It is worth remembering that there is a lot of disorder to look at in The 1000 Eyes. One of the film’s more striking sequences has the camera tracking along a table at a police board meeting as gory photographs of Mabuse’s fifteen previous victims pass from one cigar-smoking official to another.