Movie Review: “Ministry of Fear” (Fritz Lang, USA 1944)

I spent much of this film’s 87-minute run time trying to figure out what exactly Lang was trying to say, but the film’s final moment made it clear: the film is an allegory for the dangers of over-consumption of junk food. Stephen Neale’s entire ordeal begins with winning a cake at a charity event and only ends when he is able to destroy that cake without consuming it, saving himself from the consumption of its excess calories. He is left with a terror of cake that extends to his wedding, saving himself from a lifetime of sugar and fat.

The Nazis represent weight gain, always chasing after Neale as soon as he gets hold of a cake, aided in their arrival by the sugar that’s represented by the double-agent spies he meets along the way–the sweet deliciousness that carries the fat into his body. . . .

Okay, so that’s not true, but it could continue on for quite a while and make a fair amount of sense for a film as oddly pointless as this one.

Fritz Lang was a genius as a filmmaker. His greatest strength was his otherworldly sense of how to use light and shadow dramatically, which is why he was able to transition from his deep, politically-aware German dramas to American film noir so successfully. (And film noir had, after all, drawn much of its visual palette from early 20th century German filmmakers like–you guessed it–Fritz Lang.) However, he was susceptible to placing plot and narrative over purpose, a problem that mars even many of his better films. And Ministry of Fear is a place where that susceptibility got to him and then some.

The film tells the story of Stephen Neale, a Londoner released from an asylum where he had been placed after mercy killing his ill wife, as he stumbles into a Nazi spy conspiracy during the London blitz. Desperate to connect with people after his release, he wanders into a small charity fair where he wins a cake in a guess-the-weight contest on his way to a London-bound train. A man sits in the compartment with him, pretending to be blind, and then steals the cake and escapes, shooting back at Neale until he is destroyed by incoming Nazi bombs. From there, Neale tries to uncover why he was in that danger.

It’s a terribly convoluted plot that’s so full of twists and turns that even the most cursory plot summary I could possibly write took a full paragraph, and the narrative is as tightly constructed as any noir of the era, which is how the film was able to fit so much story into less than an hour and a half. Lang and screenwriter Seton I. Miller deserve credit for doing an excellent job with the narrative. However, the film’s biggest issue is that it is seemingly a story without a purpose, which is a cardinal sin to my method of looking at films.

The film could be said to be about the importance of trust in a world of distrust, as Neale’s willingness to believe in Carla is essentially what saves him. But then so much of the film works against that point that it really fails to make it. It seems more sensible to me to say that it really didn’t have a point and instead was a genre exercise–a mixture of film noir and spy thriller that rather presages the development of the paranoid thriller in the ’70s.

As far as genre exercises go, what makes this film stand out from most is Lang and cinematographer Henry Sharp’s visual sense–the dramatic shadows and shafts of bright light that so define film noir have rarely been used as well and as dynamically as they were here. It’s a beautiful film, and that goes a long way toward making up for its thematic weaknesses. However, even the visuals suffer from the lack of a point, as the look ends up only enhancing atmosphere and not a point, since there is no point for them to enhance.

Nobody really has much to do as far as acting, following the noir tradition of populating the world with two-dimensional archetypes. Ray Milland’s Stephen Neale is given a backstory that would seem to give him some depth but he’s given no room to show it. He is overjoyed to be around people, then scared, and he has no other or more complicated emotions. Well, except for the usual early Hollywood emotion of immediately falling in love with any pretty blonde who crosses his path. Everyone else is just a standard archetype–the femme fatale played by Hillary Brooke, the innocent love interest played by Marjorie Reynolds, etc. Luckily, no one is so incompetent as to stand out as incapable of even playing such a two-dimensional character, but it doesn’t give the room for anyone to stand out in a good way, either.

Overall, Ministry of Fear is decent as far as a simplistic genre exercise goes, but that isn’t all that far for such a pointless picture. It’s rather a shame to see something so empty from a director with so much talent, but it happens from time to time, especially in the days of the studio system. And of course, he would soon redeem himself with the excellent The Woman in the Window (USA 1944) and the even better Scarlet Street (USA 1945).

Movie Review: “Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse” (Fritz Lang, Germany 1933)

This was Fritz Lang’s final film in Germany before he escaped to France and eventually the United States, fleeing the encroaching Nazi regime. When the film was released, Joseph Goebbels called Lang into his office to inform Lang that this film was being banned but also was so impressed with the film and Lang in general that he offered Lang a position heading a film studio, but Lang (who would be identified as Jewish under the laws of Nazi rule) instead left the country. It seems that he had been worried about the oncoming regime for some time, and his worries about the Nazis may indeed have been the driving force behind his final message to his home country.

Today, the idea of the crazed serial killer becoming a figure of such cult fascination that others take up his cause after his incarceration or death is so commonplace that it’s laughably predictable, but in 1933, Lang and co-writer Thea van Harbou were doing something film audiences had not seen before. In Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Fritz Lang, Germany 1922), they had already introduced the character of Dr. Mabuse, an undeniably brilliant lunatic who turns his powerful mind to crime and hypnosis. His facility with hypnosis allows him to force others to commit his crimes according to his perfect plans until he is finally captured and locked away in an asylum. This film, a direct sequel, sees Mabuse still institutionalized but somehow apparently managing a criminal gang outside the walls of his confinement. Mabuse is silent but writes constantly, writing out specific criminal plans as well as a theory of a needed “empire of crime” that will so frighten the people that they will allow for the complete restructuring of government and society that he believes is necessary. The “mystery” of the film really begins when Mabuse dies early and yet his criminal syndicate continues, though the resolution of that mystery is far from surprising: his treating doctor (Dr. Baum) is actually leading the syndicate, having apparently been possessed either by Mabuse’s ideals or Mabuse’s spirit.

The connections between Mabuse’s “empire of crime” and the Third Reich seem quite obvious, so much so that it’s surprising that the regime did not either imprison or kill the director. This film seems made as a warning about the dangers of the incoming Nazi party as much as anything, and it certainly succeeds in explaining what it fears about them. The one problem is that it doesn’t stay on point about that throughout. As was often the case with films in this time period, it strays in order to include a silly love story that feels so shoehorned into place that one cannot help but wonder if Lang wanted to include it at all and to suggest the possibility of a supernatural reason for Dr. Baum’s actions—the latter transgression apparently being one that Lang regretted thereafter even though one could argue that the “possession” is merely symbolic of what happens in Baum’s mind.

Still, the film mostly presents itself as a taut thriller that loses its way here and there, often ratcheting up the tension admirably and probably surprising much more in its day than it does over 80 years later.

Lang and cinematographers Karoly Vass and Fritz Arno Wagner continue much of what Lang had already established in his legendary early work that would become the basis for the visual style of later film noir: low-key lighting with shafts of high-contrast light, long takes, the use of silence as a tool of tension, and constant changing of the lighting to fit the tone of the scene. Some of the visuals are a bit difficult in this film because it has simply degraded badly over time to the point that it often looks bad, but if we use a bit of imagination to think about what Lang must have been envisioning and indeed seen in 1933, it’s quite an excellent visual film. I must also note that the scene between Baum and the ghostly Mabuse, while Lang may have regretted it, is surprisingly effective visually—the ghost is hardly laughable and even his “possession” (if it may be so called) is a powerful image. It’s certainly lacking in realism compared to today’s special effects, but we’re talking about a ghost anyway, so who cares about realism? It’s an impressive achievement to get through such a scene without being laughable 80 years later.

The acting is incredibly uneven, with some performances so poor and dated that they have become laughable while others are excellent. Gustav Diessl, while he is given a rather annoying character in Thomas Kent, is absolutely incredible, so heartbreaking in his attempted romance with Lilli and desire not to engage in murder that it makes the audience want to root for him in spite of his criminality. Wera Liessem as the object of his affections is quite the opposite—beautiful but careening wildly between woodenness and the type of overacting that make people today laugh at early films. Otto Wernicke is excellent in a rather simple role as Kriminalkomissar Lohmann, the detective who unwinds this tale, coming across as a brilliant grouse in the mold of Sherlock Holmes in one of his worst moods but also evincing a strength of morality that Doyle would never have allowed such a logical character to contain. Rudolf Klein-Rogge is given a difficult task, playing a rather unbelievable character in Dr. Mabuse and playing him mostly silently and with little movement, but he does an excellent job with what he’s given, making Mabuse seem far more believable than he should be. Karl Meixner also has a difficult role, playing disgraced former police officer Hofmeister who is driven insane by discovering Mabuse and his plans, but is far less successful in his performance, coming across as simply over the top.

As is often the case with older films, Hans Erdmann and Walter Sieber’s score is extremely melodramatic and distracting. Lang used a lot of silence and a lot of talking scenes still do not have score, and that was definitely a good decision in this case. The opening scene, using the sound of machinery as the only sound and sort of a score that sets the tone for the film, is by far the most effective sound in the entire picture.

All told, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is a very good—if not perfect—film. It is a fitting end to the German career of one of the great directors in history and shows signs of his future as one of the great directors of American film noir. It may not be the easiest watch, since the plot, the music, and some of the performances have not aged well (and the stock apparently has not either) and it certainly isn’t up to the level of Metropolis (Germany 1927) or M (Germany 1931) in Lang’s canon, but it’s a rewarding watch that provides an interesting insight into how at least some people viewed the oncoming storm that was the Nazi party in Germany.