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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)


This post is my contribution to this year's "For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon."


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At the university, Fritz Lang is often studied alongside Alfred Hitchcock, but the connections can be superficial. Their films sometimes share dramatic circumstances such as the Wrong Man plot, employ debonair gentleman-villains, and a good portion of each man's reputation is built on their picture-frame compositional sense, but their paths diverge in their fundamental regard for truth and illusion. In a Hitchcock film - North by Northwest, for example, drama is generated via competing realities, opposing characters trying to extract truth from a set of data that appears, by virtue of its incompleteness, to indicate an incoherent riddle, the kind that violently baffles the natural desire to make sense from noise. Through the haze, or beneath it, Hitchcock's films always have at least a teensy grain of insistent reality - his own, custom version of reality, to be sure, but nevertheless a tool to highlight the absurd, insane, and illusory by contrast. In the comic version, the grain takes the form of Mrs. Thornhill rolling her eyes and telling Roger to pay the two dollars. In the tragic, Scottie's delirious flights are measured against Midge's aghast and disregarded activity on the ground.


These observations are not intended to undercut the inimitable and enduring manner with which Hitchcock filters and shapes his imagery, but to say that his films' attitude toward "reality" is leagues apart from that of Lang's:  a difference in kind rather than quality. In practically all of his films, Lang treats reality as a hypothetical - just another layer of the dominant irrational. Many of his protagonists and antagonists are suitable cases for emergency psychiatric treatment, exhibiting signs of this or that mania, catatonia, or obsessive fixation. Even the plainly noble Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) in Man Hunt suffers from a stubborn denial of an overriding reality, a denial that is relinquished only during the climax, and under great duress.

Here's the interesting thing about Lang: the sense of distortion doesn't begin and end with the individual, but infects the landscape, the frame, and envelops the viewer. One leaves a Lang film wondering if the world hasn't undergone some kind of subtle change, too infinitesimally small to be noticed, or else concealed behind the skin, but irrevocable and vaguely terrifying. As if in direct address to this phenomenon, Ministry of Fear (1944) begins in a sanitarium - the interior of a cozy rest home, the exterior a spiritual prototype for Arkham Asylum. In a scene that weirdly resembles the opening of Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) bids adieu to his doctor after the passing of the last minute of the last day of his obligation. In a characteristically Langian reversal of surface expectations, the hero is given an air of menace (he counts down the final minute with a pre-Kubrick glare), and his mental unkemptness is undeniable if to-be-decoded, whereas all the genuinely malevolent parties in the movie wear the disguise of benign eccentricity.

The first and biggest joke in Lang's comedy of terrors, aside from the fact that there are no ministries for miles in any direction, is that Neale exits one insane asylum, composed of brick and mortar, only to find himself in another one, this time the size of the whole world. The big revelation at the town fair - every man, woman, and puppy dog in attendance is a Nazi turncoat - ought to give the audience an "oh, okay" foothold, but as this is Lang's world, where even the air looks a little off-kilter, you rarely get what you expect, and the feeling of instability doesn't recede but spreads, scarcely to be contained by subsequent developments. According to the "rules" of movies, you can pull the rug out from under the audience, but you're supposed to have a floor under it. Lang pulls the rug and you end up in the middle of a busy freeway. Since Stephen Neale is a little slow on the uptake, we aren't quite sure how to read the friends and acquaintances he makes after almost getting blown up in an air raid: the only thing that reassures us about the essential goodness of the private investigator he retains is the fact that he's played by Erskine Sanford, and that he's a drunk with little professional bearing. As for the handsome, all-smiles Nordic couple - the menagerie of Clue-style archetypes at the séance - Dan Duryea and the giant scissors - who can say?

The translucent tissue of espionage narrative, taken from Graham Greene's novel, bears a slight resemblance to The Third Man, with its compromised, troubled, and naïve hero, the all-business cop who's just gotta believe him (more Lang multivalence:  Inspector Prentice is more kin to Lohmann of Mabuse/M than Greene/Reed's Major Calloway), a grave-site excavation, and meddlesome birds. It's just enough to contain the whole affair without falling apart - if anything, it's a pretext for several extraordinary set pieces: two explosions, a blind man searching the cake, the very short flight of the very bad tailor, the screwball séance, and, most memorably, a white dot that appears on a black screen, blinks out, then returns.

All that taken into account, however, doesn't fully assess the power of Lang's cinema, which is found less in the satisfactory vetting of a traditional narrative, whether heartfelt or perfunctory (it's comically perfunctory in Ministry of Fear: the final shoot-out is a masterful illustration of finding a simple solution to a knotty problem, and the inappropriately Norman Krasna-flavored denouement is the ideal way to be forcefully ejected from a shadowy nightmare of angles and shapes), and more with the way the audience is absorbed into an off-angle world, given little to expect and denied some basic expectations. While you can view Ministry of Fear through the lens of pulp melodramas about the war and fifth-column infiltration, the larger story it tells concerns the continuity of Lang's body of work from his earliest silents through the final Mabuse film, one that locates the conduit connecting film noir with a far older, more general dread concerning existence and struggle.  Time and again in Lang's movies the routine plot kits are handled carelessly and assembled half-heartedly, their happy endings no balm for the work's cardinal despair, and as the mighty budgets and sets and pyrotechnics of his German films dissolved into anonymous, all-purpose drywall and decaying soundstages, the truth of Lang's tale became clear:  that we are occasionally permitted to contradict the void (if only in gesture), but that we, at long last, exist only at its convenience.


Jaime N. Christley
Curator, unexamined/essentials
Queens, NY, 2011

2 comments:

thomas said...

Very nice analysis and comparison with Hitchcock.
Thanks.

Judy said...

Ministry of Fear is one of the best espionage films of it's time. I wish it was available on DVD.