Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime

Michael Wood

As far as we know, Fritz Lang’s life of crime was confined to his films, although there was some gossip about the circumstances of his first wife’s convenient death. The familiar phrase has many uses and meanings, of course, and we might say the more the better. The lives we imagine for crime may help us to see in it and around it, and thinking about crime may help us to think about other matters. Still, we need a way of managing the profusion, and I am going to suggest three major meanings or reference points for the phrase.

First, there is the historical life of actual crime, wherever it takes place. Crime has a life of its own, though it may remain rather elusive to non-criminals. Second, there is the criminal life of the felons themselves, the subject of so much historical fiction and fictional history. And third, there is the life that crime lives in its representations: in print, on film, on the stage, in casual conversations, in metaphor, and in law courts and judgments. Needless to say, if we are not criminals or victims of criminals, this last life is the one we have easiest access to.

Many, perhaps most, representations of crime, whether the event is supposed to occur in fact or in fiction, give the impression of being about something else. Something instead of crime or something as well as crime. This impression doesn’t always arise, of course, but it is common enough to be worth exploring and this is a large part of what I want to do, with the aid of two films by Fritz Lang: The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The Big Heat (1953).

The car scene from Fritz Lang’s ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1933).
The car scene from Fritz Lang’s ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1933).

Lang was born in Vienna in 1890 and died in Beverly Hills in 1976. He made 17 films in Germany before leaving in 1933, one film in France in 1934, and 24 films in the US between 1936 and 1956. He directed his three last films in Germany. But even tyrannical directors need a lot of help, and I take ‘Fritz Lang’ to mean not only a historical person but also whatever controlling spirit we intuit behind the films as we watch them. That spirit is mainly Lang’s, but not only his. We could say the same of any acclaimed auteur. Writers, actors, cameramen, editors: not many directors do without them, and they need to be remembered. Tom Gunning’s book The Films of Fritz Lang (2000) has an excellent page on just this topic.

There are influences too. When in The Testament of Dr Mabuse we see a collection of small-time criminals hanging around waiting for instructions, we think we may have seen them before, indeed that we have been caught up in this whole atmosphere before. We have been, or some people were, in The Threepenny Opera, first staged in Berlin in 1928 and filmed in 1931. Asked if Brecht influenced him, Lang said: ‘Of course he did. Nobody who tried to come to grips with the time could escape his influence.’

With the idea of a controlling spirit we have already entered the double territory of this piece, the realms of Dr Mabuse and the American mafia. Very different realms of course, the second as obvious as the first is mysterious. How can two criminal worlds be so different? They belong to different countries, and different times, but is that an answer? Yes, although not much of one. We can get closer to the differences. And the similarities.

The figure of Dr Mabuse makes a powerful claim for the life of crime, since he can perish and still live – like a monarchy rather than an individual king or queen. In Lang’s film we see him dead, but the doctor who is his passionate admirer takes over. He not only continues Mabuse’s criminal enterprises but finally, after a few more murders, some spectacular fireworks at a chemical factory and an elaborate car chase, goes mad and is locked away in his own hospital, where Mabuse had been a patient. The doctor’s name is Baum and has never been anything else, but when he finds someone in the room he is to occupy as a patient he introduces himself with great formality and dignity as a legend rather than a person. ‘I am Mabuse,’ he says. ‘Dr Mabuse’. The detective who has tracked Baum down, faced with the now stark madness of the criminal, says to the informant who has been helping him: ‘Come, my boy. There is nothing more here for a mere police inspector to do.’

The film begins with an amazing scene in a small room full of boxes and bottles. There is a fantastic racket on the soundtrack, the thumping of some kind of machinery, so invasive that we can hardly look at what’s on the screen. This was Lang’s second sound film, and it is in many ways about sound. What’s happening in the scene is that a man who turns out to be an ex-police officer has discovered the headquarters of a money-printing operation, but is then caught himself by the criminals and taken off to an unnamed place (it turns out to be Baum’s hospital), where he is driven mad. All he can do is sing an old song in a frightened voice. Somewhere along the way, though, he manages to scratch a name on a windowpane, and his old boss, Inspector Lohmann, is able to find the place and, with difficulty, decipher the name: Mabuse. This recalls an old police file to the inspector (and an old movie to the audience, since Lang made a film called Dr Mabuse the Gambler in 1922), and Lohmann visits the hospital where Mabuse is confined. The mad doctor – the first mad doctor – hasn’t been anywhere and isn’t going anywhere. But his case is a favourite lecture subject of Dr Baum’s, and we see him waxing eloquent about Mabuse’s insanity and genius.

Then we learn something new. Mabuse has started scribbling on paper: incoherent squiggles that turn into signs and faces and then into words, and finally into elaborate, subtle masterplans for one clever crime after another. A colleague stops by Baum’s office to borrow a book. Baum isn’t there; the man looks around, and accidentally knocks some papers off the desk. As he gathers them from the floor – they are the extensive writings of the patient Mabuse – he reads a sentence or two and finds in them an exact account of a crime, a jewellery heist, he has just read about in the newspaper. He doesn’t know what this means, but thinks he should tell the police.

He doesn’t make it to the police station, and the scene of his death is a much cited moment in film history; Lang himself copied it in his late work The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). The man’s car stops at a traffic light. Other cars pull up beside it and around it; in one of them is a person we know to be an assassin. The cars are facing us, seen from a high angle. There is a long wait, the drivers get impatient, and they all, including Baum’s colleague, start banging on their car horns. The assassin shoots, and the light changes. The cars start to move. All but one, that is. Now we see the cars from the back, from the same high angle. The solitary car looks like a hearse that has turned into a coffin. A policeman who comes to rebuke the slack driver finds a dead man slumped over the steering wheel and sees a crack in the rear side window. As he opens the car door, a newspaper falls out and we read the headline about the jewel robbery. The film cuts to the jewels themselves, on a table waiting to be evaluated. The importance of the scene in the plot is that it marks the moment when theory and practice collide – or are seen to have been colliding. The brilliant schemes we have been led to believe existed only in the imagination of madness are, it turns out, already materially in place, avidly practised in the supposedly sane world.

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