Friday, August 03, 2012

Movie Musings: Opening Sequence to The Testament of Doctor Mabuse

How about if we spend this post taking a look at one of my favorite film opening sequences of all time? Opening sequences are a lot of fun to look at and can set the stage for a great film.  Some other favorites:  1) Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2) The Matrix, 3) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 4) Star Wars, and 5) A History of Violence.

About the Film

The Testament of Doctor Mabuse is a 1933 German film directed by Fritz Lang and was the penultimate film I watched during my Weimar Cinema film survey.

The film was scheduled for release in March 1933.  Hitler acquired power in January and appointed Joseph Goebbels the Reich Minister of Propaganda.  Goebbels viewed the film and banned it, stating the film "showed an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence." (Wikipedia)

The story is the police inspect a series of crimes that fit the m.o. of Doctor Mabuse, a criminal mastermind who is in a catatonic state in a mental hospital.  Trouble is, he's in solitary confinement so they don't know how he's able to communicate with the criminals to carry out the nefarious deeds. Inspector Karl Lohmann, who was also the inspector in Lang's brilliant film M, must wind his way through insane asylums and the criminal underworld before finding out the disturbing truth behind the crimes.

The first time I saw it I was struck by how timely this film was. 9/11 was still fresh in my mind and this film is not only about the difference between criminal violence and violence for the sake of inflicting fear and subjugating people for a specific purpose (terrorism), it's also about how the ideology behind such acts can be kept alive and, therefore, continue on even if the originator of that ideology is no longer part of the equation.  Powerful stuff.

The Opening Sequence

Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), who isn't even the main character in this film, is trying to get out of a dangerous situation:  He's been found out and is trying to exit the building without being seen. There's no speaking in this part; the only sounds are the very loud, regular percussive sounds of printing presses making counterfeit money.  We don't see the machines at all.

I love the way he moves through space with a kind of deliberate grace that belies his scruffy appearance. There's a slow-fast rhythm and echos in his posture that tie the sequence together which are  further enhanced by the regular pounding of the unseen machines. The camera moves into the room, taking care to move slowly enough so we can see the objects shaking from the vibrations of the presses, runs smack into the wall then shifts suddenly to the floor where we see him hiding behind the large wooden box (1st picture). After some men come into the room, notice he's there, then leave, he slowly comes out from behind the wooden box (2d picture), walks deliberately to the door (LOVE his slumped posture! 3d picture), quickly turns and leans against the door in one motion to listen (4th picture), pauses for some refreshment before quickly opening the door and pausing in case someone is standing there (5th picture), then looks to his right, steps forward to look to the left around the door, walks out, turns around to face us, then leans very slowly over the side of the banister (6th picture).  Contrast his slightly slumped posture in the third image with the upright, foot forward, shoulders back posture in the fifth image, and the leaning against the door in the fourth image with the leaning over the banister in the last image.

I'm a big fan of parallels and enjoy using them in my writing as well.  This opening sequence shows the movement parallels that Hofmeister goes through, all without saying a word.

You can watch the entire sequence here.  It's over four minutes long.

The DVD and the Images

I have the two-disc set from Criterion which is marvelous.  The film has been beautifully restored as you can see from the images above.  The commentary is outstanding and the documentaries are excellent.  I created the images above by taking screenshots and then painstakingly arranging them in my Notebook program.  I then took another screenshot of the entire sequence and uploaded it here.

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