(On Cable TV, January 2019) If you’re a visual kind of person, let me offer you a metaphor for movie history that looks a lot like a Science Fiction megapolis with layers and layers of levels built upon each other. Current movies are at the surface where the sun shines and people live, but everything is built upon a foundation and as you go deeper underground, racing back toward the bedrock that is the invention of cinema, you start discovering foundational layers that once were very important even if they may not be readily accessible these days. That’s largely how I feel about writer/director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, an unwieldy, overlong and slightly exasperating film that nonetheless puts together many prototypical elements of modern super-villain movies. Put simply, this is a film about a criminal mastermind who, thanks to his exceptional skills at disguises and psychology and a team of collaborators, can hypnotize or coerce other people in doing what he wants … and what he wants is usually money or chaos. You can clearly see the origins of modern supervillains here, especially as the film makes a conscious effort to set the story in Germany’s complex post-war industrial society—and as is often the case with 1920s–1930s German cinema, it’s hard to avoid the chill of knowing what’s coming next for the country. Visually, there’s also quite a bit of foundational work to be seen here. In Lang’s hands, the film shows a glimpse of what would become the German impressionistic style, through some primitive special effects and moody directing. Good performances, car chases and explosions round off a film that often does feel far more modern than its true age. But there’s a price for all of this, and that price is time. Coming from the silent movie era where storytelling techniques were still being developed, audiences weren’t all as cinematically literate and there was little expectation of efficiency, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler lasts a staggering 268 minutes—or roughly four hours and a half. It’s not just the objective length (modern miniseries regularly exceed that), as much as the feeling that it’s very, unbearably long. Thanks to title cards and lack of concision, everything literally takes at least twice as long as a similar film made today. My patience was sorely tested: I can’t swear that my attention was constant throughout the film. I can’t even swear that I did not press the skip-forward-30-seconds button (without loss of comprehension) a few times. And while I certainly recognize this first Mabuse film as an essential part of cinema history, I’m certainly not recommending it for casual viewing. Unless you have something like five hours to spare.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) There’s a good case to be made that Metropolis was one of the first (if not the first) attempt to cohesively portray a future and, as such, earns the crown of being the first feature-length science-fiction film of note. Yes, I know about Méliès’s Un Voyage Dans la Lune—but it’s a short, and it’s strictly focused on one specific idea, whereas Metropolis shows us an entire future, restrained to a town but filled with texture and details. The vision shown here by Fritz Lang is ambitious and expansive—you see some of these shots and can almost hear Lang pining for CGI. It’s a film that tackles a thicket of issues from mechanization of labour to human/robot romance, adding to the sense that we’re watching something more than just a simple adventure story set in the future. For modern viewers, it’s impossible to deny the frisson of concern given by some of the film’s sequences, knowing what we know about where 1927 Germany was headed a decade later. (Of particular note here is the all-Caucasian vision of the elites in the film. Try not to squirm when you see the role played by the film’s darker-skinned actors.) Still, Metropolis itself remains a masterpiece even ninety years later: Imaginative, influential, and still a yardstick for good science fiction.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s easy to dismiss early cinema as somehow less than what is now possible. I suspect that much of this easy dismissal comes from the examples set during the Hays Code, which stunted the emotional development of American cinema for decades. But there are plenty of examples of movies (either pre-Code or non-American production) that show that even early cinema could be as hard-hitting, mature and disturbing as anything else since then. A good case in point would be Fritz Lang’s M, an upsetting crime drama set in Berlin during which a serial killer of children is hunted by both the police and organized crime. Peter Lorre plays the killer, in a performance that is instantly repellent, then pitiful as he finds himself targeted for summary execution by crime syndicates none too happy about his actions and the ensuing police crackdown. A true noir film in which the black-and-white images belie the gray morality of its characters, M remains a captivating piece of work even today. Deftly using primal fears to move its audience (up to a fourth-wall-breaking final shot), M is a well-controlled achievement that certainly gets reactions. The use of sound, not even five years after the introduction of the technology, is quite effective — “In the Halls of the Mountain Kings” is used as a meaningful leitmotif, and even in German, the film does quite a lot with the voices of its actors. It is a bit long, perhaps slightly inefficient in the ways it moves its characters in the middle third, but the overall dreadful atmosphere of the film is striking, and the nightmarish quality of the last sequence makes up for most shortcomings. There is an added dimension to the film for modern audiences knowing that the society depicted here was already in fully Nazification. All of that, and more, combine to make M essential viewing today, not just as a piece of movie history.