Richard Burt Duly Noted or Off the Record?


Notes on Lang’s Allegory of Death



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Notes on Lang’s Allegory of Death

In dividing Fury into two parts, Gunning proceeds, like Jameson, to link the “dead” Joe Wilson mimetically to the criminal masterminds of Lang’s earlier films such as Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse; Gunning similarly links the trial scenes in Fury to the “trail” held by the criminals at the end of M (1931). All of these masterminds are also masters of media, Gunning says, the difference in Joe’s case being that he can only receive radio broadcasts, not make them as both Mabuses do.21 A character-centered analysis of Lang’s films may usefully call attention to Lang’s recycling of certain themes, but to understand how deeply his German and Hollywood films challenges his films pose to European liberal democracy as much as they does to Hitler, we must first grasp how allegory is not mimetic but a mediatized process of transcription and transference in which apparent opposites such as life and death, the police and criminal organizations, not only become parallel but are rendered divisible. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse explores varied ways in which the law’s procedures for catching, convicting, and confining criminals by exposing one kind of guilt while concealing others, derailing justice as opposite terms innocence and guilt become inseparably crisscrossed by media, even if they remain distinguishable. As in the case of Fury, Lang is not interested in using the cinema to reform the law so that it functions better.

To be sure, Lang never simply collapses the police into criminals, as if the two were identical. Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) plans and directs a series of crimes telepathically and through writing and radio dictations from his cell in an insane asylum until he eventually takes over the asylum’s director, Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.). When one of Mabuse’s henchmen, Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessi), turns against him with the support of his girlfriend Lili (Wera Liessem), Mabuse tries and fails to kill them. With Kent’s help, Police inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernecke) gradually discover that Baum is Mabuse and end up putting Baum back into Mabuse’s cell in the insane asylum. Yet even the seemingly most allegorical scene in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse where Mabuse resembles Hitler is complicated by the way Mabuse has taken over Dr. Baum’s personality. The topical allegorical parallel between Mabuse and Hitler folds into a parallel between the Baum and Hitler, Baum being a puppet being mastered by Mabuse, who is nevertheless inside his puppet. These kinds of multiple analogies without a clear referent structure Lang’s films as well as accounts of Lang as a film director. For example David Kalat (2001) regards Lang and Mabuse as doubles: “Dr. Mabuse had not abandoned Fritz Lang, and in many ways it is as if the mad conspirator had traded identities with the film director” (92). Yet to read the “Mabuse as Hitler” scene in Lang’s film allegorically in these one-to-one ways is to ignore the way Lang’s allegorizes the secrecy of the law as the unreadability of Mabuse’s notes. Mabuse writes all the time, but much of what he writes is gibberish; Lohmann retraces the writings of Mabuse and others, and he also recalls police files from the archive to his office. Testament oscillates between kinds of secret writing, only some of which of which the law has some power over: criminal writing (secret, psychotic, opaque, or illegible marks on pages of paper immediately discarded) and crime scene writing (disclosed, neurotic, transparent writing assembled into police reports that are bound (literally tied up in knots) and that are housed in a police archive. Witnesses who might testify, including an undercover cop who has gone so deep under cover that Lohmann thinks he has gone rogue, are killed or helpless.

Allegory in Lang’s film is not mimetic, equating one term with another, but full of doubles and analogies that are not mirror images, or, we may say always funhouse mirrors the reflections of which are misrecognized by characters as accurate: an insane asylum and an academic lecture hall, hypnosis and transference, pages of writing and their projections on slide, a lecture hall and a movie theater, and so on. Lang’s M famously draws parallels between the police and organized crime, the latter doing the work of the law up to a point at the which the law intervenes to stop a crime in progress or about to be committed. Even in M, however, no verdict is rendered after the police stop the murder “trial” held by the criminal kangaroo court and take the suspect (whom we know to be guilty) off to jail. Testament intensifies a Langian logic of the law going into effect only when it law’s capacity to suspend the law is itself suspended—and suspended by the law, too. Rather than draw parallels between completely discrete sides, Lang allegorizes the secrecy of the law as the folding, unfolding and refolding of distinctions between seemingly opposed terms.

Lang’s manner of allegorical un/folding and unfolded may be glimpsed best at a number of points in the film that have to do with notes. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse gradually brings into relief links between Professor Baum’s lecture notes and the notes of his criminal double, Dr. Mabuse, notes that are an assemblage / compilation of his automatic writing / dictations / audio transmissions (heard only by characters in the film). Mabuse’s notes produced by outside the law (he writes them in a insane asylum) and shown to medical, not law students.  Yet Mabuse is reducible to the criminal in the insane asylum who bears his name. Mabuse has no single location. Lang departs from his earlier 1923 silent version Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler by not immediately revealing the criminal mastermind behind all the crime.22  Instead, Mabuse and Baum are doubled up, made into a relay of recordings, note taking, note assemblage, and so on. Since we see Baum in the lecture hall and Mabuse in the cell (they are spatially located in these ways), the editing and use of sound (or silence), we cannot determine who is sending the commands, Mabuse or Baum, and at what point Baum is taken over by Mabuse or takes over Mabuse.  In other words, the film creates a series of narrative folds that make it impossible for us to locate an origin, a cause of crime, in a single person.

Whereas notes are always legible and written on bound notebooks in All the President’s Men, they are initially illegible and scattered in Testament, picked up from the floor of Mabuse’s cell. Dr. Mabuse’s “testament” turns out to be a collection of his “Aufzeichnungen,” or “notes.”23 The cover page has been typed, given a title and dates assigned, but one cannot determine who typed the notes or bound them. When Baum’s colleague Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos) accidentally stumbles across them while looking for a book to reading while waiting in Dr. Baum’s office, Mabuse’s writings are shown in close up with a typed cover page entitled “notes.” Dr. Kramm also refers to them as “Mabuse’s notes” when asking Baum “who else knows about ” them. More pointedly, Dr. Baum, possessed by Mabuse, explicitly renames the “testament” as “notes” when speaking about the genius of Mabuse to Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in the morgue over Mabuse’s corpse: “Of course, not testament in the ordinary sense of the word,” Baum says to Lohmann, “just some of his notes.” At all points, then, the notes are divided: we have only some of Mabuse’s notes, not all of them, not one of them.

As Testament proceeds, Mabuse’s notes not only become more and more legible as such but also explicitly cinematic. Baum’s lecture on Mabuse is accompanied by slides of Mabuse’s writings, and is preceded by a shot with Baum shuffling two lecture notes on the desk in front of him. As Baum tells the students Mabuse’s case history and the lights darken, we see them all in unison sit up straight in their seats, stop writing, and start listening. The camera then cuts from them to what they have been looking at, namely, a slide of Mabuse. The darkened lecture hall is like a cinema, as some critics have noted, but for Lang cinema crucially comes into being through writing and then projects images-- of writing.24 The greater cinematic import attached to the writings is established in the very next scene when we see Mabuse in the act of writing and numerous pages of his writings for the first time followed by the film’s first use of trick photography (a ghost or hallucination produced by superimposed footage). Baum’s assistant’s collection of Mabuse’s writings from the floor calls up a phantom double of Mabuse, preceded by the phantom’s shadow, an extracinematic double of a cinematic double, as it were.

Once the assistant gathers the pages of writing and they are named as “notes” in a later scene, Mabuse’s power becomes dialectically more detectable as it becomes stronger and runs ahead of any attempt to put a stop to the crimes his notes transmit. Dr. Kramm literally stumbles across the notes in Baum’s office and proceeds to pick them up on the floor after accidentally knocking them off the desk. In this scene, we see them still unbound but with a cover page entitled “notes” for the first time. Since the scattered pages are unnumbered, Kramm has to work as an editor to reassemble them in the correct order. As Kramm begins to make sense of what he initially regarded as “junk,” he recalls a newspaper story about a jewelry robbery he has apparently read earlier that day and matches the notes to the newspaper, realizing that the notes appear to be the robbery plans, which Kramm compares to a blueprint. As Kramm reads the notes after he reassembles them by hand, the cause and effect links between the notes and crimes committed in the film become clearer. Although Kramm detects Mabuse’s hand, Mabuse detects his detection, so to speak, and this scene is immediately followed by audio orders to have Kramm killed and then, in the following scene, his murder.

Mabuse’s notes next appear in what I call the film’s transference scene, where Mabuse, his powers are at their height, appears as his phantom double and takes possession of Baum. I call this a transference rather than a possession or haunting because it strikes me as a deeply psychoanalytic moment in the film. Even more than the scene in Lang’s Spies (1928) where a letter is copied at a post office from the imprint the writer made in the support he wrote it on, Lang’s attention to the transcription of notes as transference and telepathy recalls Freud’s oft-cited “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” and his less familiar essays on telepathy.25 Lang seizes on the two meanings Freud assigned the transference. Initially, transference meant the displacement of unconscious materials and affect to representation; subsequently, transference meant the therapeutic process in which a patient identifies with the analyst or someone else and recollects and reen/acts out the patient’s traumas in therapy.26 Lang puts both meanings into play into this scene but shows how they cannot be harmonized. In Lang’s (anti-) therapeutic Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the medium of (anti-)transference and (non)transportation (one goes forward only to go nowhere) is enabled by misdirection and mismatches between various media, and more or less explicitly thematized as a (going off) track or trajectory (destiny or coincidence), a flipping (out) of a liberal character into a fascist or the reverse, through different analogues to recoding media, whether electronic or print, in each of his films. Lang thereby replays and plays out a tension in Freud’s theoretical metapsychological theory that led him to view his own work as seeing the clearly unclear.27

In this scene, Lang renders cinematically what I earlier called the production of secrecy and referent effects in my discussion of Vismann’s account of files. As a superimposed phantom, Mabuse is both transparent and opaque. Whereas in All the President’s Men, we saw Bernstein move from giving his notes to Woodward, them summarizing and dictating them from memory, in this almost totally silent scene of telepathic transference to assign dictation and writing to a single person because the scene lacks any clear causal logic. Merely by reading the notes, Baum, almost as if he were already unconsciously Mabuse, seems to call up Mabuse’s phantom and activate the transference of (un)consiousness. During the transfer, Mabuse pauses behind Baum and moves a set of pages from the top of one stack of notes over to the one in front of Baum.28

But just what is Baum reading? The notes in this transference sequence differ from their appearance in earlier sequences in more explicitly connecting their potency to their assemblage and integration, on the one hand, while making their potency lie in their hieroglyphic in the form of handwritten, historiated letters. The typed title page of the notes is now seen first, looking like the page Kramm saw but with new dates, establishing the notes Baum is now reading as the most recent installment and perhaps a development of Mabuse’s earlier notes that Kramm read in Baum’s office. The first close-up shot of the notes shows a word and image and partially links them together so that the letters become something like hieroglyphs. Above the word “gas” is a gas mask, and the eyes in the gas mask, two “O”s, do double duty as zeros that appear to be part of a number, 1,000,000. Similarly, something like the word “Mord” is part of a drawing of a gas mask, with the “O” serving as the mouth. But the letter serving as the nose appears not as an “m” but as either a “u” or “w.” One has to read the nonsense word “U/Word” as the word “Mord” by projecting ”U/Word” forward, so to speak, and taking the U/W as a literal double U-turn (from U or W back to M) as the consequence of people breathing poison gas. After turning several pages, the introduction of sound marks a new stage in the notes’ integration as Baum pauses at what is effectively the title page of the notes, “Herrschaft des Verbrechens,” or “Empire of Crime,” and reads the words aloud for the first and only time,. Furthermore, the title page is illustrated, much like the first page of the notes we saw moments earlier on Baum’s desk.

This time, however, the notes make more sense. Now the word “Mord” (murder) appears spelled correctly in the lower left. At the center of the page is a drawing of a large hand with a stop watch on it, and a time bomb in the upper right seems to double as a radio transmitter repeatedly sending out the word “crime.” After the transference of Mabuse into Baum is complete, we see that another significant development has occurred: the notes that Mabuse’s phantom has placed in front of Baum are bound. Marking yet a further stage in the assemblage of Mabuse’s writings, the bound notes show the letters of four nouns doubling as drawings of what the words mean. Some of the letters become historiated: the “t”s, looking like capital letters, in “attentate” (“assault,” in English) are also crosses; the words “railroad train” are part of a drawing of a railroad train; a gas tank is drawn in the large “O” of “Gasometer”; and several letters in “chemical factory” double as the smokestacks of a drawing of a chemical plant.29

When viewed near the end of the film for the final time, Mabuse’s notes become fully cinematic. As Lohmann finds the notes on the desk and reads them aloud, the shots dissolves into an image of flames. The film then cuts to a close up of the notes with Lohmann reading them aloud, the shot dissolves into a shot of the chemical plant now on fire, the attack having succeeded. Whether the notes are read aloud, as Kramm and Lohmann do, or are read silently, as Baum mostly does, does not matter. Even when the notes are deciphered and decoded, they may be sequenced only putting them just before the law, inaccessible to the law itself. Reading about crime becomes almost criminal.

Like the transference scene when Baum reads the notes aloud and calls up the phantom of Mabuse, so Lohmann’s reading of the notes calls up the chemical plant explosion. The film footage of the chemical plant ablaze refers both inwardly to Lohmann’s subjective visualization of what he is reading and outwardly to what is happening at the very moment he is reading. In catching up to Mabuse by “seeing” his notes, Lohmann also puts himself before Mabuse, as if responding unconsciously, like Baum may have been, to Mabuse’s orders.

The film’s non-mimetic allegory destabilizes its narrative structure: the movement away from the opacity of the written notes to their cinematic transparency and immediacy when Lohmann through superimposition, signaled as well by the much shorter time Lohamann takes to read the notes than Kramm did, also involves a recursive movement back toward opacity. Even when Lohmann finds the notes while searching Baum’s office, he twice refers to them as “something else,” a supplement not visible at first. This recursion and opacity appears at all stages in which we see the notes being assembled, ordered, and bound as they become increasingly more cinematic. Baum’s assistant picks up the notes from the cell floor in which Mabuse is imprisoned and Dr. Kramm knocks them on the floor and then picks them up again. Baum’s lecture on Mabuse more explicitly narrates a progression in the clarity and readability of Mabuse’s writing: the writing begins as apparently meaningless gestures that are then interpreted as pantomime writing that are then recorded on paper as automatic writing that is first regarded as nonsensical and then gradually makes meaningful.

However, Baum’s lecture has a recursiveness at odds with the way Mabuse’s writings become progressively more legible and readable each time they appear on screen. Looking over his notes, Baum says he will recount a “Vorgeschichte” of Mabuse. The Criterion DVD translates “Vorgeschichte” as history in the subtitles, but the film makes a pun on the German word. Most obviously, Baum means “case history.” Yet “Vorgeschichte” also means “prehistory.” In addition to Mabuse’s case history, Baum is telling the backstory, summarizing, in effect, the plot of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler for viewers who haven’t seen it or refreshing the plot for those who did see the film but who don’t remember it well. By “recount,” Baum means not merely tell, then, but retell. This is a story he has told before: “Look, here he goes again,” a male student says to a woman student, just after Baum begins to lecture. Baum’s two notes are doubled in Baum’s slides of Mabuse’s writing, shown either in two pages or in one page with two columns.

Baum’s lecture also performs a passage from opacity and empty gesture to transparency. Before Baum begins to lecture, he looks over two pages of his lecture notes, neither of which we see in close up. Upon review, the scene looks less proto-cinematic than pre-cinematic: we don’t see close ups of Baum’s lecture notes, and we see in the slides Baum projects not a film made from a script but of the “script” (text and handwriting) that precedes film, namely, script that is readable and unreadable, that combines letters of words with lines of a drawing. As we saw earlier, Kramm’s decoding of the notes in Baum’s office is similarly recursive.
Lang makes this recursive movement in the film both more and less legible as the film proceeds. A movement away from legibility visible back toward illegibility in the process of reading Mabuse’s unbound and bound notes occurs as Baum turns the pages of Mabuse’s notes during the transference scene. The camera cuts away twice from the notes just before Baum finishes turning a page. These encrypted pages, if seen while the film is put on pause, reveal what paranoiacs would call the film’s “subliminal” messages, the kind of thing encrypted in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) in the form of footage inserted so briefly that it is visible only when the film is viewed in slow motion. On the first, partially visible, encrypted page, “Tot,” or dead,” appears on the side of a drawing of a coffin with a cross on top of it. On the second encrypted page, a skull (echoing those seen in Baum’s office during this sequence) with lightning flashes coming out of its mouth stands at the top center of the page flanked by the words “suggestion” and “hypnosis.” The German word “Tot” and the skull name and personify death, linking allegorically the notes to the extacinematic; the turning of the pages marks the threshold between the cinematic and extracinematic. Lang also links the notes both to cinema and the extracinematic in the shot of this second page of encrypted notes by showing the new set of bound pages on top of the unbound notes, part of which are seen in the right part of the screen image. The contiguity of the encrypted bound notes and partly visible unbound notes constitutes yet another example, then, of the way the film loops back and forth between Mabuse’s unbound, illegible notes and bound legible notes.

In addition to being performed in ways that are both clear yet encrypted to the point of being almost totally invisible as projected film, this double movement is literalized in a close up of a page of the bound notes in the transference scene. The notes on this page are a palimpsest of two different texts, the first apparently written either with a lighter pencil or with a dark pencil that has been partially erased, the second written with a darker pencil over the first. The page as palimpsest qua overwriting is also visually registered by the way the underlining of some of the words written more darkly double as lines through some of the fainter words earlier.30 Though the notes written in dark pencil are fully legible, they are at the same time haunted by the partly visible, partly crossed out notes written in lighter pencil or partially erased. In yet another moment of recursion, the later dissolve from Lohmann reading the notes to the factory on fire repeats these overwritten notes: the dissolve “crosses out” one image by superimposing another on it.31

After having drawn numerous parallels between Lomanns’ retracings of writings and Mabuse’s “writings” such that the law reaches its limits, Testament ends by suspending the law when Lohmann stands outside of Baum / Mabuse’s cell, repeatedly saying “there’s nothing left here for a police inspector to do, nothing more to do.” When carried out, the law’s mission is in effect a transmission in remission, a truce but not an auto-immunization against further outbreaks, or breakouts, of crime. Pointedly, Mabuse rips up his writings; they are redivided, not destroyed. Thus, Mabuse’s notes may again be reassembled and reactivated in the future. And as the film ends with a fade to black, we hear the sound of paper still being torn by Mabuse as the door shuts, leaving us inside with the insane criminal Baum / Mabuse. The ticking sounds we hear after the film ends suggest as much by recalling the ticking of the bomb that almost killed the reformed criminal Thomas Kent and his girlfriend Lili. In the dark, at the end of the film, Mabuse reappears through the sound of a ticking time bomb will explode again; it’s just a matter cinematic of time. (Lang made a third version of the film in 1960, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse). Again, a differentiation within Lang’s film—sound without image--marks its enigmatic allegory of secrecy of the law achieved though the most ordinary of cinematic special effects such as superimposition: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, like Fury, offers a judgment that does not judge, a law without force, and a force without law.

But what are we saying when we say that a character in fiction forever takes a secret with him? And that the possibility of this secret is readable without the secret ever being accessible? That the readability of the text is structured by the unreadability of the secret, that is, by the inaccessibility of a certain intentional meaning or a wanting-to-say in the conscious of the characters and a fortiori in that of the author who remains, in this regard, analogous to that of the reader? . . . The interest of “Counterfeit Money,” like any analogous text in general, comes form the enigma constructed out of this crypt which gives to read that which will remain eternally unreadable, absolutely indecipherable, even refusing itself to any promise of deciphering or hermeneutic.

--Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, (152)
Technology and death itself are inscribed in Condor’s opening sequence.

--Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic (13)






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