With his monumental silent monstrosities of expressionist-tinged paranoia and fervent chiaroscuro-afflicted studies of monomaniacal madmen driving the modern world insane, Fritz Lang practically invented the film noir. That he was somewhat disavowed by producers and abandoned by film audiences after his escape to America on the eve of the rise of Nazism is a quandary. Fellow expatriate FW Murnau was instantly embraced by Hollywood and could have risen to superstar status had the sinister hand of death – the very subject Murnau tinkered with time and time again behind the camera – not intervened. Ernst Lubitsch at least lasted a decade in the top ranks of Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s star would germinate for decades still. Hollywood was generally kind to German filmmakers prior to WWII, or at least, Hollywood was willing to play ball with the Weimar filmmakers who had soundly trounced Americas best efforts during the silent era. If you couldn’t beat em, buy em, or so the American mantra goes.
But Lang was a different story. After ending his silent career with his most confrontational, most venomous riposte to the German public at large, M – stating the case for sound cinema in the process, as if that was no small feat – Lang directed a sequel to one of his most loved silent films and then went to America, where he was largely eschewed by Hollywood. Oh, he had a steady stream of work, but almost exclusively in mercenary productions where he was treated as director-for-hire and not auteur – his budgets were consistently slashed and his thirst to distort the ductile celluloid of his career was curtailed by producers more interested in a quick dollar than in the almost avant-garde thrills of Lang’s early films. Until his dying days, he would be a stably employed but undernourished director of B-pictures produced on shoestring budgets.
One of the most overlooked of which is Ministry of Fear and, considering Lang was practically a one man embodiment of the title all to himself, it is surely no surprise that it is – whether despite or because of Lang’s malnourishment – a startling and disconcertingly abrasive, suggestive work from beginning to end. Indeed, if nothing else, Ministry of Fear proves even more suspicious and mistrustful than Lang’s earlier efforts – perhaps Lang the angry underdog with Hollywood ministries always watching him stoked the fires within Lang the hungry hyena who fed on death for his art.
Right from the beginning, when Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from a two year stint in a mental asylum for mercy killing his wife, Lang is afoot in a sorrowful world that had soured even further south from the jagged, hedonistic days of Berlin in Lang’s early features. Those films were characterized by a masterful malaise and dreaded fatalism, where the likes of Dr. Mabuse and the German underground prowled around and skulked within the back alleys of the geometric urban darknesses Lang essayed as unconscious nightmare.
These early films were also provoked by the fanatical individualism and rising oppression of post-WWI Germany. With WWII on the rise and the world sourer and less sure of itself still – not to mention Lang always watching over his shoulder for the lurking Hollywood bigwigs pulling the strings behind his back – 1944’s Ministry of Fear sees Lang in a more cynical mood than ever. Neale leaves the asylum and wanders, cryptically, right into an abstracted pastiche of domesticity in the form of a perplexingly nocturnal local charity fundraiser where the character blocking and framing is wonderfully tilted and slanted and distraught at all ends. Neale wins a cake, but the women of the charity seem ever set that he doesn’t leave with it, and soon enough the cake is stolen by an elderly man who enters the frame as Hans Beckert did in M, with aural taps and snickers signifying a sinister entrance before any visual clues us in. Over a decade after M, Lang was still toying with sound and fury signifying everything.
Soon enough that man is dead, but Neale’s fantasia has only just begun. In every one of Lang’s masterworks, a figure – be it Mabuse himself or the thuggish organized crime syndicates in M scapegoating Hans Beckert the individual – pulls the strings of the world. Ministry technically locates an antagonist in an evil spy organization, but the limits of the organization are unstated and probably non-existent. The organization is not a collective of individuals so much as an all-encompassing fact of existence in the world. Antagonists are no longer a category to be set off from the good in the world. Fear is no longer a product marketed by a specific figure, a string to be pulled by a specific entity. Ministry is the film where the strings were cut and the world was left to free fall.
A full-throated descent into the dank caves of expressionism follows as Neale finds himself part of a séance where each present human is engulfed in darkness and noir is driven to its most irradiated, terrorized core. This is noir at its most elemental. The gaunt, subfuscous corridors of England reflect mundane domesticity turned inside out and screwed unloose until the hinges fall off.
As a work of pure cinema, Ministry does not equal the downright heretical effervescence of the ever-naughty M, nor even the marvelous cold open of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, nor any number of other later period Lang thrillers. It was after all, still the product of Lang the puppy dog owned by the studios; he could rebel and revolt in secret ways, for specific cinematic moments that scorch into the memory of the mind, but the interstitial material – a few of the narrative’s lulling passages – are relatively staid and straightforward in comparison.
So this is Lang biting his master’s leg a few times, but not quite Lang unchained for good and roaming the world to his own whims once again. Nonetheless, the lights do dim and the shadows do crawl, and the spirit of Mabuse is once more alive and well, as is the spirit of Lang, one of the great cinematic necromancers. It is true that Neale begins the film by walking out of a supposed insane asylum, but while he was biding his mind, the world seemed to have lost its.