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Interspersed among the documents are images from the films, beautifully reproduced on a scale that makes the book endlessly pleasurable to leaf through: a hieratic scene of Margarethe Sch÷n as Kriemhild keeping vigil with her maidens over the tomb of Siegfried; Peter Lorre as the child murderer studying his face in the mirror; an anonymous assassin taking aim through a limousine window; an enraged woman, part of the lynch mob in Fury (1936), hurling a flaming kerosene-soaked rag; the adulterous lovers Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame embracing in a train compartment framed by bare walls in Human Desire, a shot whose minimalism is as oppressive in its tensions as the elaborate decorative patterns of Die Nibelungen (1924).

In such images we come to grips with the main paradox of Lang's work: that his films at their most pulpish seem real, and at their most real seem pulpish. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was treated in 1922 as an authentic depiction of the present moment: "a concentrate of all the excessive stimulation, decadence, sensation and speculation which have befallen us over the past few years"; M was controversial for drawing on a serial murder case still in the courts; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned by the Nazis as "a veritable textbook on how to prepare and commit terrorist acts." Two decades later, The Big Heat came under attack from the administrators of the Production Code for its "portrayal of crimes and corruption in a large American city, in which it is shown that the Mayor, Chief of Police, and City Council are all under complete domination of a master criminal." (It was Franšois Truffaut who pointed out at the time that no such film could possibly have been made in France in 1953.) Yet no director was more capable of creating an atmosphere of deliberate fakeness, hollowness, somnambulistic otherness.

Lang's films test the limits of what can be conveyed cinematically. How could a body of work so explicitˇto the point of humorlessnessˇin its development of signs remain so mysteriously opaque? The more they show us, the more they seal their essential muteness. We keep looking because we still don't know what we are being shown. Nor, perhaps, did Lang. We find him, in the '60s, beguiling himself with slam-bang detective novels by John Creasey (Terror by Day, Death from Below, Give Me Murder) while contemplating the news as if it were one of his own movies: "The very justified Negro revolution, then earthquakes, countless murders, etc., well, all the ingredients of a F.L. film." In old age he acknowledges his astonishment at "the instinctive assurance with which I made my films." The most detailed of dossiers can only circle around an activity as concentrated and implacable as it was obscure in its ends.

Geoffrey O'Brien is the author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (Norton, 1993). His latest book is The Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading (Counterpoint, 2000).

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