Film: The evil eyes have it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A season of Fritz Lang films, some never shown before in this country, starts tonight. Chris Darke examines the work of a master of paranoia and revenge.

Did Fritz Lang create the original Bond villain? A connection between the German auteur and Ian Fleming's super-villains seems unlikely, but there are intriguing connections: Lang made You Only Live Once in 1937, and in 1964 Fleming upped the ante with You Only Live Twice. In Lang's 1960 film The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, Gert Frobe played a Berlin police chief; four years later Frobe appeared as Goldfinger. The clinching affinity comes in the shape of Lang's master-criminal, Dr Mabuse, a character turned cinematic archetype, even if present-day Bond baddies are more kitsch than menace.

Dr Mabuse book-ended Lang's career. During his first German phase, between 1919 and 1933, Lang made the two-part Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and revisited the character in the 1933 film The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Later still, Lang reincarnated Mabuse in Cold War-era Berlin in The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse. Just as there were numerous incarnations of Mabuse, there were several Langs: the Expressionist visionary of Metropolis (about whom Hitler was reputed to have enthused: "Here is the man who will give us great Nazi films!") became the Hollywood exile. Lang's American films were pared-down, genre-hopping studies of paranoia and revenge and were seen as inferior to the films of his Weimar heyday.

By the time Lang had returned to Germany in 1960, the critical reappraisal of his American period was underway, galvanised by the young French critics of Cahiers du cinema. Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard and Rivette saw in Lang their ideal, the director whose stark mise-en-scene increased in eloquence to produce masterpieces such as Fury (1936) and The Big Heat (1953).

Mabuse, in all his guises, was a fantasy bred both of Expressionist psychology and political realities. The twisted interior life that boiled over into madness and hypnotic possession that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari announced as echt Expressionism fused with the nascent Nazi movement of the Thirties to produce The Testament of Dr Mabuse. In this film, Lang had his criminal ubermensch possess the director of the asylum in which Mabuse has been incarcerated, plunging Germany into "an abyss of terror". The film was ready for release in 1933, the year of Hitler's assumption of dictatorial powers. Josef Goebbels banned Lang's latest Mabuse but offered him the position as head of the Nazi film industry. In his own account, Lang tells of sitting through the meeting sweating copiously and watching the clock, asking for twenty four hours to decide then fleeing to Paris. In his recent and punctiliously revisionist biography of Lang, The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan attempts to shred Lang's account. McGilligan queries dates and the extent of Lang's concerns over his partly Jewish ancestry and appears to ascribe Lang's precipitate departure to "hurt male pride", following the director's divorce.

When The Testament of Dr Mabuse was released in the States in 1943, Lang wrote that "out of the Mabuses came the Heydrichs, the Himmlers and the Hitlers. This film was made to show Hitler's process of terrorism". In America, his films would become beady-eyed examinations of individuals facing moral corruption, mob law and the media. After a sojourn in India between 1958 and 1959, Lang returned to Berlin for The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, where Lang's criminal becomes the ultimate counter-spy, his Hotel Luxor a warren of two-way mirrors and surveillance cameras. In it he he proved the adage that the paranoid is "the man in possession of all the facts".

First screenings at the ICA tonight.