The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

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Among the weekend’s viewing was the third and final film in Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). This was also Lang’s final feature, made after his return to Germany in the late 1950s, and another film of his that for many years I knew only as an impossible-to-find title. I’d read about the Mabuse series in Lotte Eisner’s study of Lang’s career even before the name and character was co-opted by Propaganda for their first single in 1984, but the only films of Lang’s that ever used to appear on TV were the Hollywood features or, if you were lucky, a poor print of Metropolis. Mabuse was a source of fascination for the way the character connected the beginning and ends of the director’s career, as well as being a German take on the Moriarty-like super-criminal. The first film in the series, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), condenses the corruption of Weimar Germany into a potent physical icon, while the sequel, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), reflects the fevered moment when real super-criminals were taking control of the nation. The Nazis were sufficiently discomforted by Testament to ban it shortly after its release.

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Cornelius the psychic with insurance salesman Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig and police inspector Kras.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse appeared just as new super-villains were emerging to oppose James Bond and his imitators. One of Bond’s early adversaries, Auric Goldfinger, was portrayed on screen by Gert Fröbe who appears here on the opposite side of the law as homicide inspector Kras. Fröbe’s tenacious policeman is one of the few fixed points in a plot filled with twists and deceptive identities. Assassinations and double-crosses are a staple of this type of thriller but Lang also gives us an early example of electronic surveillance in a contemporary setting, together with a séance that harks back to a similar scene in the first Mabuse film. The séance is an unusual touch in a story otherwise devoid of similar moments, prompted by the film’s most mysterious character, Cornelius the blind psychic. With an appearance reminiscent of the late Karl Lagerfeld, Cornelius is an overt throwback to Lang’s pre-war films, many of which hinted at the mystical or supernatural even when such hints seemed unnecessary; Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis (played by the original screen Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is a mechanical genius who just happens to live in a house more suited to an alchemist, with a huge inverted pentagram on one of its walls. The sinister motives of Cornelius aren’t so baldly stated but his consulting room is lavishly decorated with astrological diagrams. The psychic, together with the criminals and the police inspector, create a problem common to films of this kind in which the more colourful characters generate greater interest for the viewer than do the romantic leads. After a succession of breathless opening scenes, Thousand Eyes sags a little while wealthy industrialist Henry Travers (Peter Van Eyck) is getting to know Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. The film also lacks the subtext of the earlier episodes, although Mabuse’s scheme turns out to be diabolical enough for any of James Bond’s Cold War enemies.

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The séance.

Continue reading “The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse”

Weekend links 389

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I Had Sweet Company Because I Sought Out None. Collage by Helen Adam.

• Readers of The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges continue to be compelled to either illustrate the impossible archive or create virtual equivalents. The Library of Blabber by nothke is a procedural version for home computers in which each volume on the shelves contains randomly-generated content.

• The Japanese American Toy Theatre of London presents: James Bonk in Matt Blackfinger (1987). Directed by Akiko Hada, with music by David Toop, and a song from Frank Chickens’ Kazuko Hohki (who also co-wrote the script).

• Music, Time and Long-Term Thinking—The Long Now Foundation (and a fair amount of Brian Eno) by Austin Brown, Alex Mensing and Ahmed Kabil.

• A Return to Normilcy: Bernie Brooks talks to post-punk group Normil Hawaiians about their 1982 album More Wealth Than Money which has just been reissued.

• Sound artist and theremin player Sarah Angliss has reworked music by Bernard Herrmann for an upcoming stage adaptation of The Twilight Zone.

• Does the world need another reissue of A Secret Wish by Propaganda? Not really but there’s a “deluxe” vinyl and CD edition on the way.

• “What Would [Bernard] Wolpe Do?” Talking Wolpe, Albertus and book cover design with the Faber & Faber Art Department.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 629 by Idle Hands/Chris Farrell, and XLR8R Podcast 518 by Cassy.

• At Phantasmaphile: Neglected collage artist Helen Adam (1909–1993).

Collectors’ corner: photos of book and music libraries

• The Black Meat (Deconstruction Of The Babel-Tower of Reason) (1994) by Automaton | Babel (2010) by Massive Attack feat. Martina Topley-Bird | Branching (2016) by The Library of Babel

Martin Rushent, 1948–2011

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Pop music is one of the best forms of time travel when it summons a memory that returns you to a specific time and place. All I need to revisit the summers of 1981/82/83 is a blast from one of these albums, each a Martin Rushent production that benefited from his expertise with synth and drum-machine programming. Much as I enjoyed Dare, I tended to play Love and Dancing a lot more, a follow-up to the League’s finest album that was dismissed at the time as a quick cash-in but which was a perfect dub of the album proper, pieced together from extended mixes on the 12″ singles. Rushent was an early master of the extended mix, a side of his production skills I’ve not seen mentioned in the obituaries circulating this week. Reggae artists had been doing this for years but Rushent was ahead of the game in turning successful pop songs inside out, extending tracks without taxing the patience of the listener.

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One of Rushent’s pet projects in the mid-1980s has also fallen by the wayside in the career retrospectives. Hard Corps were an outfit comprising three British guys and one French woman, Regine Fetet, who presented themselves as a kind of UK answer to Computer World-era Kraftwerk, albeit with more eros than Kraftwerk generally manage. Their sound was a combination of hard electronics and pop tunes which I found irresistible but the rest of the world stubbornly resisted, being too hard for the pop crowd and too poppy for the second generation Industrial crowd. (Propaganda were doing something similar during this period, and also managing to alienate too many people to be anything more than a cult success.) Martin Rushent produced two of Hard Core’s singles including the closest they got to a hit, Je Suis Passée (1985). There’s a site devoted to the group here.

Telegraph obit by Paul Gorman

• Altered Images: I Could Be Happy (extended mix) (1981)
• Pete Shelley: Homosapien (elongated mix) (1981)
• Pete Shelley: Witness The Change (dub mix) (1981)
• The Human League: Don’t You Want Me? (1981)
• The League Unlimited Orchestra: Hard Times (1982)
• Pete Shelley: What Was Heaven? (1983)

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Secret Wish by Propaganda
A Clockwork Orange: The Complete Original Score

A Secret Wish by Propaganda

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A Secret Wish (1985). Design by the London Design Partnership.

The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns
— William Blake

It’s a hallmark of musical obsession when you find yourself buying the same album over and over. Propaganda’s meisterwerk from 1985, A Secret Wish, was finally released in a definitive double-CD version this week, the fourth edition I’ve bought (after the original vinyl and two other CD releases), and this new set is easily the best of the lot.

Propaganda were always my favourites among the early acts on Trevor Horn and Paul Morley’s ZTT label: smarter than Frankie Goes To Hollywood and more musical than the Art of Noise. How could I resist another quartet of Germans from Kraftwerk’s home city of Düsseldorf, a group memorably described as “ABBA from Hell”? The first single in 1984, Dr Mabuse, came along when I’d been immersed in Lotte Eisner’s celebrated study of German Expressionist cinema, The Haunted Screen; an avant garde pop outfit devoted to the same material was just the thing I wanted to hear. Almost a mini-album, the single’s A-side was filled by an epic ten-minute song describing the character of a villainous anti-hero from several Fritz Lang films, Dr Mabuse. On the B-side there was a cover of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale (and another Lang reference in the subtitle, The Woman with the Orchid) followed by some metal bashing and a taste of the A-side’s Schönberg-esque orchestral stabs then a return to the song. Cover versions were an important thing at ZTT, as was the idea of the 12-inch single as a self-contained work, Mabuse being a prime example. All of this came packaged in a sleeve whose Anton Corbijn painting referenced another Fritz Lang film, M… It felt as though they were doing this purely for my benefit.

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Dr Mabuse (1984). Design by Anton Corbijn and XL.

The intertextual reference on this and subsequent releases isn’t surprising given the people involved. Paul Morley took a great delight in embellishing the ZTT releases with quotations—the Frankie album was probably the first chart-topping release with a recommended reading list—while band member Ralph Dörper had been with the Neue Deutsche Welle band Die Krupps prior to Propaganda, and it was his influence which gave the group the abrasive industrial edge that I found so attractive. While between groups he released an experimental EP in 1983 under his own name which included versions of In Heaven from Eraserhead and John Carpenter’s theme from Assault on Precinct 13, and it was he who chose Throbbing Gristle’s Discipline as the demo song which the group used to catch the attention of ZTT. That cover version never made it to A Secret Wish although they did perform it live on The Tube, and a later version appeared on the remix album, Wishful Thinking. This recording is happily included on the second disc of the new reissue.

A Secret Wish was released in 1985 and pushed further buttons of obsession for me with the opening track, Dream Within A Dream, which is Edgar Allan Poe’s poem set to music. The album artwork came liberally decorated with Morley’s signifying quotes, the one for the Poe track being the opening lines from HP Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. Yes, they really were doing this for my benefit… Two further 12-inch singles appeared: Duel/Jewel was the same song presented in an “ABBA” version and a “from Hell” version: sweet and melodic versus harsh and industrial.

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A Secret Wish inner sleeve.

The third and final single, p:Machinery, expanded the short album mix to another nine-minute epic whose vision of a population enslaved to industrial technology easily invokes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, so much so that I used to play the single whilst running scenes from the film on TV. The enormous “Polish” mix of this song has always been scarce on CD, with a Japanese release in 1988, and a later reissue (with some shoddy and superfluous remixes) in 1995. Another benefit of the new edition of the album is that the extended mix provides the climax of the second disc and sounds even more enormous, its brass fanfares accurately described in a review at the time as conjuring images of cities rising from the sea.

Also present for the first time on the new CD is Do Well, the twenty-minute Duel suite which was a cassette-only release, and a number of other previously unavailable mixes. If you have this double-disc set and the Outside World single collection from 2002 then you’ll own pretty much everything that’s great about Propaganda. A lot of pop music from the 1980s sounds horribly dated now: tinny synths, empty production and a paucity of ambition. Propaganda sound as thunderingly magnificent as they did in 1985, and still unique. It’s a shame that A Secret Wish was their finest moment, things fell apart fairly soon after. But one masterpiece will always be worth fifty Duran Duran travesties.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Metropolis posters