Fritz Lang’s infatuation with obsession, subterfuge, and the gossamer veil of social order are not precisely fascinating food for critical thought in 2016, but the progression of his fears might be. His customary debut to the big leagues of artistic cinema, 1922’s Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler, is stupendous cinema, but it is sometimes assumed as the sarcophagus of his career, a film he more or less copied and only advanced a handful of times. Formally, the assumption is obviously incorrect; the advent of sound and Lang’s almost unstoppably innate understanding of how to inlay sound into his medium as a complement and commentator on the visual realm ensures that Lang was never formally stable or complete in the silent era. But what is often undervalued is how Lang began investigating his own image of a petrified world right from the get-go, transforming the horror of a man controlling the world in Mabuse into a vision of a world-as-thieves-den so robbed of humanity that any one human exerting dominance over it seemed almost passé and innocent in comparison.
By M, Lang’s first sound film, Mabuse had become a lie, a ruse, a figment of our imaginations embodied in a pasty, baby-faced child-man who was daringly and emphatically not the most damaging threat to Germany and the audience’s soul. The individual maestro behind the screen of our lives was now not an individual we could blame, but a cop-out, an excuse, a person to push blame onto to obfuscate and pacify our inner nightmares about our own souls. The moral rot was the populace itself, easing its crestfallen nature by looking for a singular entity to criminalize and thereby alleviate the social burden on the public as a whole. On the eve of Nazism, the statement was frighteningly apt and rebellious because it questioned the very Enlightenment values that, when corrupted, undergirdered not only Nazism but capitalism more broadly; if Nazism was a way to shift blame to social minorities, Lang posited, then it was only the nastiest and most direct manifestation of the latent nature of Western governance to interpret social rot as the failure of certain individuals. The solution to the anxiety and entropy running away with the mind was tethering the anxiety to certain “others”, stabilizing fear by linking it to a specific cause we can all unite in the harmony of blame.
In its own way, Lang’s final German film is even more curdled, with a spectral phantom invading the corporeal human form as a suggestion that individual volition now shifted into individual impotence. The singular foe of society, now no longer even a scapegoat to mask social woes, was now incorporealized into a sort of ether, a malignancy in the air that infects everyone; the Mabuse figure becomes almost a serpentine figment, an evaporable idea controlling society from various bodies, possibly even nonexistent and fundamentally seperable from the idea of blaming a human body, in the singular, for social ills. No one individual is the scapegoat; everyone can and may be weapons wielded by a social milieu – a ghost – always ungraspable and dripping out of our fingers. In this regard, Testament is a dread-tinged denouement to Lang’s German cinematic career, the final implosion of his paranoia where society, and his films, shifted from fright at individual enemies to an evolved suspicion that there really aren’t any individuals to displace blame onto in the first place.
In this Mabuse, every corporeal form is a mask, a façade waiting to be embodied; human flesh is no longer useful beyond its ability to be utilized and objectified, with a human’s agency no longer a nagging suspicion of questionable volition but a full-on suggestion of passivity and helplessness. So, thematically Lang was on firm, provocatively unstable ground with Testament before absconding to the US and punching-up equally provocative B pictures with plucky, if not revelatory, style. An impression that also, in all honesty, belongs to Testament in spite of its thematic malevolence, for if Testament advances M thematically, the formal, stylistic results are much less certain. While M could dance circles around nearly every single sound motion picture until Renoir emerged as his best self in the later part of the ‘30s, Testament is a more tentative affair, a stylistic success but not a stylistic challenge so to speak.
Visually, for instance, the clandestine, malformed spaces of M so wonderfully accentuated the wide-empty cavern of Berlin streets beset by mortal terror, enervating the once ribald and kinetic city of its patented German hyperbole so that little but vacancy, both physical and moral, remained. Instead of that smorgasbord of inescapably cinematic delight, Testament asks us to fend off a parade of office buildings and closed locales that never achieve the poetic melancholy or the luxuriant chiaroscuro of M, where prying eyes could persist around every corner (even if this more genre-bound Mabuse boasts some positively unholy shadows that further intimate the unknown nature of terror in what feels like a missing link between German Expressionism and film noir). M’s editing cut between villainy and domesticity to tease out the connections between the German populace and the witches they wished to imprison (tacitly suggesting that Hans Beckert was among the less malevolent forces at play in the city). Testament is punchy and spindly, no doubt, but the editing more reinforces known-quantity genre thrills (at which the film is impeccable) rather than ladling the subfuscous subtext on thick.
Of course, in 1933, these genre thrills weren’t known a quantity, and the kaleidoscopic chiller at hand here – held between at-bay and fully-unleashed by Lang’s immaculate directorly rhythms – was the proverbial idea of a blockbuster knuckle-duster in its day. So if Lang’s style is slightly reserved and less devilishly proto-Hitchcockian and impulsive than in M, then we ought to cut him some slack; an A student deserves a B paper now and again, and Testament is a killer B(ee). Especially because its indispensible utilization of sound is actually close to a patch on M’s positively divine application of the aural realm to its optic delights. The introduction and the conclusion, ticking time bomb masterworks of pure cinema, are almost unimaginable without their soundscapes, frighteningly silent until they aren’t. The look of the film is comfortably great, but the aural layer is stellar, following M’s footsteps of exploiting sound as a layer of new perception – Testament explicitly relies on sound in both its formal and narrative layers to solve its mysteries – rather than merely a circumstantial necessity to construct realism.
The Nazi critique is obvious, the crux of nearly every scholarly piece on the film, but looking beyond the real-world context and into the cinematic time period of ’33, Testament’s most notable court-ordered disclosure is attesting to the potential for sound to reorient, renegotiate, and even surpass the screen by providing a vision of off-screen space then unheard of (haha) in the medium. Sound in Testament, as in M, suggests a new world of perception and sensation, new possibilities to divine truths, and most frighteningly, untold avenues to discover the ever-skulking, ever-unquiet world beyond the superficially visible. Sound acclimatizes us to the potential existence of that we cannot see, which necessarily assumes it forecloses on the possibility that we can ever be blissfully ignorant that all we have in front of us is all there is to worry about in the world. Sound is the savior, but also the devil in Testament. The saving grace of learning that we can be saved is also the misfortune of knowing we need to be.