A Thousand Unblinking Eyes: A History

Cinema and surveillance from Fritz Lang to Michael Mann

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There is a moment in the 1960 Fritz Lang film The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse which, even though it has since been seen in countless subsequent variations, seems jarring in its newness. A couple, played by Peter van Eyck and Dawn Addams, sit talking at a table adjacent to the ballroom floor in Berlin’s swank Luxor Hotel. They’re filmed in a two-shot discussing her troubled mindset, her unhappy marriage, and the possibility of a divorce from her beastly husband. We may notice that the quality of the image in this setup is unusually murky before Lang’s camera pulls back to reveal that we are looking at a frame within a frame, and that our protagonists are being captured by a surveillance camera and observed by an unseen figure in a control room whose location is unknown. As soon as this sinister information has registered, we leave behind the monitor on a cut that returns to the Luxor Hotel itself. “You see,” says Addams’s character, referring to her date’s unsettled frame of mind but suggesting much else, “You can’t just switch off either.”

This sudden encroachment by an observer, underlining the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic illusion (by crossing through the media of observation), had appeared in films before: What is the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball in The Wizard of Oz (1939) but a prototypical surveillance device? In how many Westerns and adventure movies has matte shot masking been used to create the illusion of the view from a pair of binoculars, traversing a vast distance? Film had been a consciously scopophilic medium since the days of keyhole spying in early cinema works such as Ferdinand Zecca’s What Happened to the Inquisitive Janitor (1901), but movies like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and its contemporary, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse responded to a new eruption of technology-driven voyeurism in the real world—pornographic permissiveness in Powell’s film, and the state-sponsored surveillance apparatus in Lang’s.

Lang himself had shown the ownership caste using audiovisual oversight to keep tabs on the working classes in his Metropolis (1927), an idea that Chaplin would appropriate for comic fodder in his Modern Times (1936). These futuristic examples aside, the realistic, practically functional moving-image surveillance camera had appeared in several movies before The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Henry Hathaway, a director more than usually attentive to cutting-edge tech in his semi-documentary-style thrillers—he gives meaty supporting roles to the Linotype, lie detector, and wire photo transfer machine in his Call Northside 777 (1948)—shows the use of hidden microphones and motion picture cameras positioned behind two-way mirrors in his The House on 92nd Street (1945), here working to capture and eventually incriminate Nazis.

Far from fearing the eyes of Big Brother, we’ve largely ceased to give his presence a second thought.

What is different about the spy setup at the Luxor, and what distinguishes it from any of these earlier examples, based either in speculative fantasy or fact, is that it is distinctly a then-still-new closed-circuit television (CCTV) device, or video surveillance system, a technological development that many worried would make real the possibility of the Orwellian security apparatus. If it is not the first appearance of an extensive CCTV system in a contemporary-set, non-science-fiction feature film, it is the first that I know of, though in subsequent years they would appear with increasing regularity—Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned (1962) imagines an almost literal nanny state, in which a CCTV-type system is used to educate a new race of irradiated, A-bomb invulnerable children from afar. Almost sixty years later, in a movie that belongs as distinctly to the early twenty-first century as Lang’s does to the middle of the twentieth, an echo of that The Thousand Eyes shot appears in Eduardo Williams’s El auge del humano (The Human Surge, 2016), which first seems to place us in a room with a group of Argentine boys performing sex acts for a voyeuristic webcam, but in the next minute has us watching them from the other side of a computer monitor somewhere in Mozambique. The observer has left the building—he isn’t even on the same continent anymore.

Reality CCTV

The Wild West Web of Chaturbate token currency and voluntary selfie-surveillance was still a long way away in the days of The House on 92nd Street and Call Northside 777, films in which new technology is optimistically portrayed as having the power to capture and condemn the guilty, as well as to acquit and exonerate the innocent. Strikingly, Hathaway’s films presume the existence of a wise and just governmental authority overseeing the operation of teletype machines, radio cars, and other newfangled gadgets, and inclined to use them for the greater good, a presumption that Lang, as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, did not necessarily share. The surveillance arm of American law enforcement, however, was not always brought to bear on such noble pursuits as arresting the spread of the Nazi menace. A police training film made by the Mansfield, Ohio, company Highway Safety Films, Camera Surveillance (1964), shows the nastier side of things, featuring an abundance of surreptitiously shot footage of area men meeting for secretive same-sex encounters in a public restroom, in many cases punitively displaying their mugshots afterwards. The puritanical nature of the American surveillance state would be analyzed in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), a fractured biopic of the infamous director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in which the nation’s top cop is portrayed as a gossipy, megalomaniacal closeted homosexual whose paranoia at the possibility of exposure is directed outward, inflicting private neurosis on a nation at large as he wielded wiretaps and practically unchecked power over the course of several decades.

What old Hoover wouldn’t have done for a bugged Luxor Hotel of his own! And given how much the conquering Americans borrowed from the vanquished Germany, it’s almost surprising he didn’t get one. The building, we learn in the course of Lang’s film, is a leftover from the Third Reich days, fitted with a central surveillance system that allows for the observation of goings-on everywhere within—a modern gloss on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, so central to Michel Foucault’s thinking in 1975’s Discipline and Punish. In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma in 1965, Lang, who’d fled Germany shortly after the ascent of Hitler, discussed the genesis of the idea as taken from recently published Nazi documents. The documents, per Lang, laid out a plan to build a series of hotels in Berlin, catering to foreign diplomats. “In each room would be found a microphone hidden in such a way that at a certain central spot the government would be able to know exactly what was happening in each room. Pushing the idea to the point of imagining hidden TV cameras and a see-through mirror, it seemed to be a possible point of departure for a new, postwar Mabuse.” From the Nazis through Hoover to contemporary Russia: with Lang’s idea of the strategic monitoring of hotels and living spaces, we’re not a far cry from pee-tape kompromat and the Sochi Olympics.

I haven’t seen any further information on the documents Lang refers to, but the plan he describes is likely more than one of the director’s periodic (if prophetic) flights of fancy, for the Third Reich’s scientists were innovators in CCTV, as they were innovators in television tech overall. It was the German company Siemens AG that installed the first CCTV system at the Peenemünde Airfield at Test Stand VII, a center for the experimental launch of V-2 rockets, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles. The CCTV setup was designed and installed by Walter Bruch, who earlier at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin had field-tested the premiere Iconoscope camera, run on the first fully electric video camera tube—so many firsts!—and who at Telefunken in the early 1960s would be the inventor of the PAL color television system. It was designed so that rocket technicians could observe the V-2s in takeoff, watching from a safe distance the Vergeltungswaffens, or “vengeance weapons,” manufactured with concentration- camp labor, which would terrorize and pulverize the citizenry of London, Lille, Antwerp, and Paris.

Mabuse was distinguished from the supervillains of the past by his very contemporaneity, his intimate understanding of the intricate cogs that comprise the clockwork mechanisms of the age.

With its gyroscopic guidance system, powerful engine, and liquid fuel, the V-2 has been credited with inaugurating the Space and Atomic Age—its brilliant designer, Wernher von Braun, surrendered himself to the American occupying force—while Bruch’s CCTV system was a quantum leap in the advancement of the Surveillance Age. (The Americans later used it to watch A-bomb tests from afar while avoiding the taint of radiation, like the overseers of These Are the Damned.) By 1960, the year of Lang’s film, CCTV had for some time been paired with cumbersome-but-effective video tape recorder (VTR) technology, allowing for the creation of a replayable record of surreptitiously observed phenomena. In the same year, Metropolitan Police in London would first make use of temporary surveillance cameras in Trafalgar Square, to monitor crowds assembling for an appearance by the Thai royal family, and to keep an eye on suspicious activity during Guy Fawkes Day. Today they are so ubiquitous that an audience barely blinks when, in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), Ving Rhames’s computer expert is seen to use a global scan of CCTV cameras to pluck a single face from the crowd of seven billion. Far from fearing the eyes of Big Brother, we’ve largely ceased to give his presence a second thought.

Alamy / The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1961

Used and Mabused

Lang’s renascent Mabuse was a none-too-subtle manifestation of the enduring presence of Gestapo crime tactics in the West Germany of Adenauer’s Economic Miracle, not to speak of the Stasi-surveyed East. That we live today in a future prearranged in part by the Third Reich is a fact that was not lost on Lang, whose master villain, though long believed dead, continues to exert malign influence from beyond the grave, much as the influence of Hitler continued to lay over the Federal Republic of Germany.

The origins of the sophisticated surveillance apparatus that aided Mabuse’s criminal operation, however, reached back further still—per historian Udi Greenberg’s 2014 study The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War, the modern American surveillance state as it developed from the Cold War to the National Security Agency had its roots in that of the German Weimar Republic (1919-33), developed to defend the democracy from fascist and communist elements, and spread abroad by influential intellectuals like Carl J. Friedrich. The character of Mabuse was himself a child of the Weimar period, having followed Lang through the decades, and was, per author Tom Gunning, “not only his ultimate figure of urban crime, but his most complex Enunciator figure, the author of crimes who aspires to be a demi-urge in control of his own creation, Lang’s own doppelganger as director and author who will haunt Lang for nearly the full extent of his career.”

Dr. Mabuse, a gifted doctor of psychology who lives a double life as a master criminal bent on upending the social order, first appeared in a 1921 novel by the Luxembourgish writer Norbert Jacques, though he has many precedents in both literature and cinema—Gunning points to Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, while in cinema the proto-supervillain must be Fantômas, created by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre and immortalized on screen by the 1913-14 serial films of Louis Feuillade. Lang made altogether three Mabuse films, each of them assertively of the present-day, as indicated by the subtitles of the first epic Mabuse effort, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), bifurcated into two sections: Ein Bild der Zeit (A Picture of the Time) and Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit (A Game for the People of Our Age). As promised, the film is firmly ensconced in a scene that exemplifies the 1920s Berlin of the popular imagination, opening with Rudolf Klein-Rogge reprimanding one of his underlings for doing too much cocaine, and including among its ensemble Gertrude Welcker’s terminally bored countess, who seeks momentary relief from her ennui by haunting illegal gambling dens and consorting with the demimonde. If Der Spieler is the prototypal Weimar film, Lang’s second Mabuse outing, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), shot on the eve of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, has come to appear as a commentary on the Nazi party’s gangster tactics. This is given some credence by the fact that the film was banned in Germany by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and by Lang’s statements to the effect that he had planted Nazi-esque language in the mouths of Mabuse and his underlings.

This must be also taken with a grain of salt, for Lang was a storyteller, known in interviews to pad his premature antifascist credentials. It isn’t too much of a stretch, however, to draw some analogy between the Mabuse of Das Testament—confined to an asylum and seemingly lost to the world, though his manic scribblings mysteriously predict real-world crimes—and the post– Beer Hall Putsch Hitler, hunched over his writing desk in Landsberg Prison, turning out the manuscript of Mein Kampf. By the time that Das Testament premiered in Budapest in April of 1933, however, Hitler was considerably more than an isolated crackpot, having gained the chancellorship in January, and further consolidating power following the Reichstag fire the following month. Lang never goes so far as to give us a Mabuse in official corridors of power, however—though by this time traditional definitions of criminality had begun to lose all meaning, a phenomenon reflected in Jean Genet’s response to Nazi Germany in his 1949 semi-memoir The Thief’s Journal: “‘It’s a race of thieves,’ I felt within me. ‘If I steal here, I perform no singular deed that might fulfill me. I obey the customary order; I do not destroy it. I am not committing evil. I am not upsetting anything. The outrageous is impossible. I’m stealing in the void.’”

Lang’s imagination of universal iniquity in Das Testament had, then, not gone quite so far as reality, though from early on in his directorial career he was developing a uniquely cinematic means of conveying something essential about the still-young twentieth century—the fact that it was to be an age of networks, of vast, interlocking systems, rather than of individuals. Mabuse, from his first appearance, was distinguished from the supervillains of the past by his very contemporaneity, his intimate understanding of the intricate cogs that comprise the clockwork mechanisms of the age. Not only was he, as a psychologist, a priest of a still-novel soft scientific faith, but he was a preternatural genius of organization, a creature with biorhythms perfectly accustomed to train timetables and the ding-ding of the stock market bell.

Dr. Mabuse der Spieler launches into full swing with a set piece illustrating its anti-hero’s singular instinct for understanding and gaming the system, a masterwork of Griffithian cross-cutting. In a compartment on a sleeper train, a man carrying an international trade contract in a briefcase is assaulted and knocked unconscious. His assailant, one of Mabuse’s operatives, throws the briefcase out the window of the moving train, where it lands in the rumble seat of a speeding coupe passing beneath the train overpass. The car’s driver—another Mabuse agent—sounds an alert from something that looks like a hunter’s horn and his signal is picked up by a third henchman, perched on a nearby telephone pole, who phones the boss to announce that his plan has gone off without a hitch. Now Mabuse, a master of disguise in addition to his other considerable accomplishments, goes to work. Posing as a stockbroker, he enters the Bourse and takes advantage of the breaking news of the contract’s heist to snap up affected shares at bargain basement costs and then, when the contract is conveniently recovered at his command, sells them back at a massive profit. This is a Machine Age heist set to train timetable and stock market ticker, a marvel of precision timing, only to be accomplished by a man who is himself half-machine—that is to say, the man of the future.

The Systemized World

A contemporary equivalent to Mabuse’s big score can be found in Michael Mann’s 2015 film Blackhat, a work whose narrative is driven by the investigation of an act of stock market manipulation, here operating on a global scale and at a far more baroque level of complexity. A combined force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army cyber warfare unit, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an unaffiliated Foucault-reading hacker played by Chris Hemsworth, race against time to discover the motives and identity of a mysterious entity wreaking havoc from afar through untraceable remote cyberattacks, prompting a disaster at a Hong Kong nuclear facility and jacking up soy futures at the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago—all warmups for a main event that involves exchanging an enormous loss of human life for an opportunity to manipulate Malaysian tin prices. Cracking the case involves a globe-trotting itinerary and the overstepping of institutional boundaries, including a break-in at the NSA, filmed at a moment when the agency was very much in the news thanks to revelations of the scope of its global surveillance operation by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Hemsworth character, incidentally, bears the name Hathaway—as in Henry.

Mabuse was not one man but a concept, a mantle to be passed along among imitators who take their inspiration from the Doctor’s aspiration to inaugurate a universal reign of criminality.

If any single filmmaker can be said to have picked up the Hathaway-Lang project of mapping the spiderweb systems in which modern life is ensnared, it is the gearhead Michael Mann, whose filmography offers an abridged history of American surveillance tech as used by law enforcement, embedded within the framework of genre thrillers. Working backward by year of setting from Mann’s Blackhat through his Manhunter and Public Enemies, you can find a survey of FBI methodology dating to the days of Hoover, as depicted in Mann’s film on the last days of the Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger, increasingly hemmed in by the claustrophobic concentric circles of the Melvin Purvis-led federal investigation that comes closer and closer to him, until his final annihilation is almost an afterthought.

For Lang, as with Mann, integrating the operation of surveillance apparatuses in the context of genre narratives is a career-long undertaking, exemplified in (though hardly limited to) The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. In the cloak-and-dagger thriller Spies (1928), the last of Lang’s silent films, the arch-criminal Haghi—played by Dr. Mabuse himself, Klein-Rogge—leverages blackmail shakedowns with covertly taken photographs, and keeps agents inside the offices of the German secret service, using lapel-mounted spy cameras to compile an extensive record of undercover agents. This data-gathering initiative, it runs out, is very much like the photo files that, as standardized by Parisian police officer Alphonse Bertillon, were an important precursor to modern surveillance techniques. That cops and criminals were not so unalike in methodology or hierarchy is a point made explicitly by what is perhaps Lang’s most celebrated German film, M (1931), in which the law and the criminal underworld make an uneasy truce, pooling their collective resources to tighten a dragnet around the compulsive child-killer played by Peter Lorre. Finally, snoops abound in Lang’s films, from Overlord Frederson’s spymaster Thin Man in Metropolis (1927) to the department store floorwalkers of You and Me (1938).

In The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, the modernity of the surveillance material is especially striking, for the film has a way of seeming at once of its moment and entirely out-of-step with popular cinema as it existed at the beginning of the 1960s. From Germany to France to America and back again, Lang remained very much unwavering in his style and method, approaching each film as an opportunity to erect a grand new architectonic structure that could contain and constrain his characters, even as the language, the fashions, and the technology changed. The film was to be Lang’s last, his third for the Polish-born producer Artur Brauner, who had lured his favorite director back to newly flush West Germany with the promise of prestige and a total autonomy he had long ago ceased to enjoy in his adoptive home of Hollywood. Mabuse, however, was far from done: in the 1960s Brauner produced five more Mabuse films of varying quality. This is, after a fashion, wholly appropriate. Mabuse, as it is uncovered in Lang’s swansong, was not one man, the same crime capo who croaked back in 1933, but a concept, a mantle to be passed along among imitators who take their inspiration from the Doctor’s aspiration to inaugurate a universal reign of criminality. He was, then, ineradicable, as impossible to vanquish as the systemized world that he was master of and that Fritz Lang delineated the operations of, the world where we are all forever in the crosshairs of a thousand unblinking electric eyes, never resting and never, ever switched off.

Nick Pinkerton is a freelance journalist and film programmer. He has written about films for Sight & Sound, ArtForum, the Village Voice, Film Comment, among other publications.

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