Fritz Lang's Criminal Masterminds

Fritz Lang was one of the most interesting film directors in Germany during the 1920s. His credits include the spectacular Die Nibelungen and the seminal science-fiction epic Metropolis: but his main interest was in exciting crime thrillers, with a mastermind at the centre of a complicated plot. In his early film Die Spinnen (Spiders) (1919) he was heavily influenced by the French thriller series such as Judex: with Dr. Mabuse - Der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse - The Gambler) (1922) he begain to establish his own style. The film still carries a certain fame: but Mabuse is a bit of an odd mastermind: although a master of disguise (a splendid chance for the actor - Rudolf Klein-Rogge - to show off) his master plan is to hypnotize rich people into losing to him at cards; and his gang consists of a handful of incompetent thugs.

Lang resurrected Mabuse for Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse in 1931 - the film which got banned by the Nazis - and (according to him) caused him to leave Germany in a hurry when they offered him a senior post in film propaganda. (It's a good story, which he told frequently: it's just that it's not true.)

With Spione (Spies) in 1928 (now available in a restored version on DVD), Lang created a well-constructed and exciting thriller. The evil Haghi (Klein-Rogge again) sits in a secret room in the bank he owns, at the centre of a large criminal conspiracy. Controlling his minions by telephones and message flashed on screens, he organizes the theft of secret diplomatic documents (though exactly why is never made clear). Willy Fritsch (better known for his 1930s frothy musicals) is a police undercover agent known only as no. 326: Gerda Mauris is the beautiful Russian woman Haghi sets to entrap him. She and no. 326 fall in love, and work to thwart Haghi's theft of a secret German-Japanese treaty (the publication of which would cause war).

This is the world of sub-miniature cameras, messages in fading ink, hidden microphones and secret radio transmitters, a train crash engineered to kill one man, a car chase, the heroine bound to a chair and in imminent danger of death, poison gas, a race against time to find a bomb; and a theatrical clown who is not what he seems. With this film, Lang set the standard for every spy thriller which followed, all the way to James Bond.

He invented one other enduring tradition: in his 1929 science-fiction film Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon) he showed a rocket launch so realistic that the Nazis tried to destroy every copy during World War II and the development of the V2: and invented (for purely dramatic reasons) the count-down to launch which has been a feature of every real-world rocket launch since then.

Posted: Tue - June 19, 2007 at 09:25 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM