To understand the world, watch a thriller

James Oliver

James Oliver says that popular entertainments contain more of the real world than they care to admit

23 September 2018 11:36

No matter how much smart-arses might wish that it were otherwise, the essence of cinema is escapism and has been since the days when moving pictures were just a circus sideshow. ‘Escapism’ doesn’t just mean entertainment. It means freedom from the mundane and the painful – leave that stuff to the art houses, and enjoy a brief respite from the real world.

But the real world is a tenacious thing, and keeps finding its way into popular films. Not always obviously, not always deliberately, but there nonetheless. In 1916, for instance, the French public were thrilling to Les Vampires, a ten-part serial directed by Louis Feuillade about a criminal gang and the efforts of law ‘n’ order to put an end to their antics. In episode 8, Feuillade pulled the rug from under them: chief bad-guy Satanus starts to assault the public more directly. He blows up a ship to free one of his colleagues and, more shockingly, fires a rocket into a restaurant.

If this sounds quaint today, it was rather more troubling for audiences mere miles from the Western front, when men were being torn apart by ever more sophisticated munitions. Yet while such things loomed large in the popular imagination, they found little expression in the newsreels or state-sanctioned propaganda; a fiction it might be, but Les Vampires dealt with the issues of the day with a blunt truth absent from the official versions.

It’s been that way ever since: serious-minded films that tackle contentious subjects directly are often less revealing than lurid pulp entertainments that address the same theme with metaphor and abstraction.

The real world is a tenacious thing, and keeps finding its way into popular films.

In Europe, the most fertile examples can be found in the thriller. Consider the strange case of Dr. Mabuse. Psychiatrist by day, master criminal by night, he first appeared on screen in 1921. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler was directed by a young chap called Fritz Lang, who took the ideas more tentatively ventured by Feuillade and blasted them across the screen. This is post-war Berlin, a broken city awash with decadence and decay. While most are impoverished, a few – the idle rich and sundry profiteers – have done very well for themselves, and it’s those whom the cunning Dr. M. and his gang prey upon, manipulating the stock exchanges and more besides.

All this was ripped from the headlines: these were the years of both hyperinflation and the supposed Berlin Babylon. If it was Lang’s genius that made it both a hit and an enduring classic – it’s four hours long but paced like a bullet – it also lives up to the subtitle of the first part: ‘A Portrait of Our Time’. It’s worth wondering if at least part of the attraction for the impoverished masses who flocked to see it was seeing Mabuse rip off the wealthy whom, in real life, were considered as despicable as the good Doctor is on screen.

Mabuse ends the film in an asylum, paving the way for an even greater sequel that would come twelve years later, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. In the years between, Lang had become just about the most ambitious filmmaker in the world, building the future (1927’s Metropolis) and sending men to the moon (1929’s Frau im Mond). But Germany had changed too…

In later years, Lang claimed he actually put ‘Nazi slogans’ into the mouths of his characters, but this is an exaggeration (rule of thumb: don’t believe Fritz Lang’s tall tales). Even so, the villainous Mabuse and Hitler would have found much to agree on: both believed society needed to be destroyed before it could be rebuilt. Since Lang’s co-writer, and then wife, Thea von Harbou went on to become an enthusiastic Nazi, we might wonder how intentional these parallels actually were. But since when has ‘intention’ mattered? Das Testament des Dr Mabuse captures that moment when gangsters gained power. When the lunatics took over the asylum.

Trailer for Fritz Lang’s ‘Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse’ (1933)

Lang left Germany soon after the Nazi ascent (he had a tall tale about that, too…), going to Hollywood and adapting his style to a very different film culture; the American system has always been better at policing disruptive influences. When American thrillers of the studio era do explore anxiety and unease it is usually in an even more oblique way than their European counterparts – most famously in film noir.

Noir is an imprecise term and one applied far too liberally (probably because it sounds cooler than ‘crime flick’). It was coined, obviously enough, by French critics who noticed a new pessimism in American films of the mid- to late-1940s. For all the great optimism of this time, some were still reckoning with the war; its physical toll alone included a whole generation with PTSD, guys who might identify with anti-heroes and cynicism.

Some of the best noir was made by Fritz Lang (Exhibit A, from 1945: Scarlet Street). But he never enjoyed the same prestige in the US as he had back home (in Germany, he innovated; in America, he subverted). And so, at the end of his career, he headed back.

The cinema landscape in Germany was very different now. The most popular films were cheesy thrillers taken from books by British crime writer Edgar Wallace. Although forgotten in the UK, Wallace had been something of a touchstone for Germans since Goebbels had banned his work, lending it a samizdat quality unfathomable to anyone who reads them in their native language.

The film adaptions – the krimis – ran through the 1960s, becoming ever more laughable to Teutonic cinephiles. But the very first, made in 1959, is worth some attention. This is Der Frosch mit der Maske (‘The Frog in the Mask’). As ever, there is a criminal gang (led by ‘The Frog’), but this one has a dress code and its own symbol. Its success is revealing: throughout the 1950s, Germans had consoled themselves that they couldn’t really be held responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich since they were its first victims, terrorised by a criminal gang just like the people victimised by ‘The Frog’. (Suggestively, ‘The Frog’ even kills someone with poison gas, a then-rare allusion to a subject Germany was not yet willing to address.)

Trailer for Harald Reinl’s ‘Der Frosch mit der Maske’ (1959)

Lang’s vision was typically less reassuring. For his final film, in 1960, he returned to Mabuse again. Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’) is set in a hotel where our favourite villain is up to his old tricks again. By this time, Lang firmly believed his own spin that ‘Mabuse = The Nazis’, so Mabuse’s use of Nazi infrastructure (they built the hotel) is revealing: for all the cosmetic changes and ‘economic miracles’, problems have only been concealed rather than addressed. For a country desperate to atone and to be rehabilitated, what more terrifying theme could there be?

Lang retired thereafter, and so didn’t have to worry about how to adapt his vision to the Sixties. It seems strange to say the decade of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of Vietnam and racist violence was a more optimistic time, but to look at sixties thrillers is to find none of the unease of earlier decades. The James Bond series recast the Cold War as a lark, refusing even to demonise the USSR (it was all SPECTRE’s doing), and even more downbeat films, such as The IPCRESS File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965) are downbeat only by comparison.

Optimism can only defy gravity for so long, however, and soon enough the awful truth dawned, at which point the world went to pieces. Things got so bad that the best representations of the anguished Western psyche are to be found in straight-up horror films such as Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) or The House of Whipcord (Pete Walker, 1974).

Things got so bad that the best representations of the anguished, post-war Western psyche are to be found in straight-up horror films.

It hardly needs to be mentioned that we’re living through utterly bleak times again, and we have been since the 11 September 2001. It’s another purple patch for horror, but don’t think the thriller has fallen quiet: consider Tom Cruise and his Missions: Impossible. The most recent instalment (Fallout) sees Cruise battling a group of self-described anarchists, intent on upending order and society. It’s likely that the filmmakers wanted something that was far away from real-world issues (who wants to be reminded of Islamist outrages when you’ve forked over your hard-earned to see The Cruiser do his thang?). But, ironically, they’ve spotlighted an issue that’s only too relevant, for ‘disruption’ – either for profit (Silicon Valley) or the LOLs (Steve Bannon) – is shaping the world as never before.

Whether or not the makers of Mission Impossible: Fallout knew they were making a political film is irrelevant; those themes are unquestionably there. As I said, the real world doesn’t ask to be invited before it intrudes. The thriller is far from the only popular form into which it trespasses – future generations are going to have great fun correlating the current vogue for superhero movies with the state of the world (yeah, basically only gods can save us) – but it is the most constant. In its own way, that’s some small comfort: if the world goes to hell, then at least we get some decent movies out of it.

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