There are countless ways for a movie to become personally “special.” My interest in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang’s late incarnation of the super-villain he created in the 1920s, is that I would like to remake it. Not just see it remade, but do it myself. I don’t think it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, it’s an immensely entertaining one, in a quirky, perverse way. It is just that the story intersects with many of my interests and obsessions. (It also doesn’t hurt that I look a little like the villain.)
Made in 1960, Thousand Eyes largely takes place in a luxury hotel (obsession number one) built by the SS (numbers two and three, Nazism and architecture) where guests are under constant surveillance by a hidden video monitoring system (number four, film, video and voyeurism). This perfect set-up for a blackmail ring is just the beginning of a very complicated plot. In fact, Mabuse’s reasons are so complicated that they are never entirely cogent, but it’s a wonderfully kinky situation ripe for further—ahem, exploration?
Lang purportedly created the Mabuse character originally as a Hitler surrogate. Aside from their megalomania, I’ve never been able to detect the similarity. That understated political satire does, however, give Thousand Eyes a certain acrid, cynical tone. Lang was no Brechtian, but like the playwright’s work, the film’s sardonic wit owes part of its effect to a recognition of how politics can infiltrate everything, everywhere. The point is not examined in any depth, but remains forcefully implicit. (For example, one character suggests the Hotel Luxor is jinxed because of who built it. Would you stay in a hotel built by the SS?)
The “story” is difficult to summarize. A journalist is killed at the beginning for no apparent reason, although we eventually learn Mabuse was behind the murder. Shortly thereafter, a beauty is ready to jump from her hotel room, but is persuaded not to do so by a rich American businessman. Mabuse is involved in that too. I shouldn’t neglect the blind psychic who warns everyone what is about to happen before it does, and the jovial insurance salesman who turns out to be a cop. A German shepherd figures somehow in the action, and did I mention the bomb that goes off in police headquarters? It all makes sense in a kind of Nefarious Mastermind kind of way, but Lang’s calmly assured filmmaking makes us accept all of it as if it were reason itself.
My major criticism of the film is that the architecture of the hotel strangely lacks the Nazi “feel.” In fact, it looks rather schematic. Imagine the showy opulence of Albert Speer’s Reich Chancellery, prismatically fragmented into dozens of images by the ubiquitous cameras throughout. Ah yes, that’s more like it. Who needs a coherent story when you can wallow in voluptuous, photogenic rot? Our decadent ruling class should feel right at home.