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9.9.2011

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

The film takes place for the most part in a hotel that Fritz Lang's legendary cinematic villain Dr Mabuse has fitted out with optical espionage units. He is not the only one spying on the residents of the hotel, the unsuspecting guests relentlessly monitor and observe each other: insurance agent Mistelzweig is snooping on everyone, millionaire Travors is keeping a protective eye on Marion, who in turn is sounding him out whilst the Commissar keeps an eye on her every move.

Still from the movie "The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse". (© Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen)


The Cold War was approaching its height when The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse / Die 1.000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse was being filmed. It was released just a year before the Berlin Wall was built and was the forerunner of an exceptionally successful genre, the so-called 'Eurospy' film.

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About the Movie

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

Original Title: Die 1.000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
FRG / Italy / France 1960, 103 min., subtitles

Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Dawn Addams, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe et al.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse was Fritz Lang's swansong, the last in a long line of fine films. As early as 1928 he had successfully tried his hand at the spy genre with Spies, a film which was a major influence on contemporary cinema. And Lang had already brought the character of Dr Mabuse to the big screen in 1922 in Dr Mabuse the Gambler / Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, and he followed this ten years later with The Testament of Dr Mabuse / Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse was created by the novelist Norbert Jacques and became for Fritz Lang the personage who gave him the opportunity to portray an unlikely villain, one who does not seek material riches in the usual predictable way. Not for him the hi-jacking of a mail-train; swindles, confidence tricks and burglary are not his line at all. On the contrary, the first Mabuse film makes it abundantly clear that what he is really concerned about is information: for him, intelligence (in the 'spy' sense) means wealth. Lang quite consciously portrays Mabuse as a criminal, but one who understands that knowledge is an instrument of power. In Dr Mabuse the Gambler he wields this power through telepathic hypnosis, which he deploys to control the people he wants to make carry out his schemes. In 1922, when films were still silent, he achieves this using handwritten orders. In The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932), which was only Lang's second sound film, the doctor takes full advantage of the 'new' technology and literally becomes an invisible voice, what Michel Chion (one of the pioneers of musique concrète) later called an acousmêtre: a disembodied voice that seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power. Mabuse's power is spread via radio waves and reaches his victims, his lackeys, as spoken commands.

With his pre-war incarnations of Mabuse, Lang had anticipated the evils of dictatorship and the prospect of a Nazi régime in Germany: he not only managed to imbue his third Mabuse film with the public's sense of (political) insecurity as the 1960s dawned, he also created a template for the west European spy film. The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse shows Lang once again thoroughly at home with the new media technologies of the age. He creates a scenario, in which he demonstrates to perfection how information-gathering works in modern society. The story of The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse is largely played out in an hotel, in which spy cameras are everywhere. Not for nothing is it called 'Hotel Luxor', for here Lang is double-punning: firstly, on the communist Hotel Lux in Moscow, but also on the etymology of 'lux', Latin for 'light', suggesting perhaps both the sense of investigation ('shedding light') and of being x-rayed... the German word durchleuchten can convey both meanings.

Every movement of every person in the Hotel Luxor is watched by tiny cameras, which are linked to a bank of monitor screens in a control centre. At the same time, all unaware of this, the hotel's guests are keeping watch on each other: Mistelzweig, the insurance agent, is snooping on everyone; Travers, the millionaire, is keeping a protective and loving eye on Marion, who, in her turn, is secretly checking him out; and she in turn, like everyone else, is being spied on by Kommissar Kras. What's more, amid all this watching and waiting, there appears again and again the figure of a blind clairvoyant, who claims to be able to reveal people's secrets in séances. And finally, there's the hotel detective, who not only constantly keeps watch on Marion, he also shows Travers, the millionaire, a device in the next-door room to Marion's: a two-way mirror hidden in the wardrobe. Her every move can be seen. It's a voyeur's dream, which Travers, at first with reluctance but with increasing fascination, makes use of.

Referring to an estimation by the British double agent George Blake (see his autobiography No Other Choice, 1990), at the height of the Cold War, every second person in divided Berlin worked either directly or indirectly for the security services... and it's this sense of collective paranoia that permeates Lang's film.

Spying in itself, however, is not the only issue central to The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse: key also is the comprehensive nature of the surveillance and of the power this gives the observer. Lang makes it perfectly clear that, for him, this activity, collecting information in order to enhance personal or political power, is evil. He places the construction of the Hotel Luxor, and therefore the genesis of the surveillance complex, unambiguously in the Nazi period, thus giving the whole spy scenario a straightforwardly fascist origin.

The concept of 'monitoring' has an overwhelmingly negative connotation more broadly in cinema history. The fear that surveillance data will be misused has pervaded technological developments throughout the 'information age' that began hardly a decade after The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse. How we keep a balance between using surveillance for the maintenance of public order, for example, and its mis-use as an instrument of political power – or whether, for instance, Google Streetview is a useful tool or an invasion of privacy – these issues constitute one of the fundamental debates of the modern age.

With The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, Fritz Lang launched this debate, at the same time creating a prototype for the genre of spy-film that sets out to tackle this issue of surveillance. Many films followed in this tradition, especially American productions like Sliver (1993, dir. Philip Noyce), Enemy of the State (1998, dir. Tony Scott) and The End of Violence (USA/Germany 1997, dir. Wim Wenders), as well as the TV series Big Brother, and even perhaps the James Bond films.

It was not possible to foresee, at the time of its première, that Fritz Lang's final film would eventually assume such a comparatively central position in 1960s German cinematography. German critics at the time dismissed The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, and critical opinion there has not changed much since. This German-Italian-French co-production is still viewed in Germany as a flavourless ingredient in the cinematic Euro-Pudding!
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