Mabuse's Control Center

How to Capture Life: Examining Gazes

Mabuse's Control Center

After the Austrian premiere had taken place on Friday, May 12, 1933, Fritz Lang's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) was screened in eight movie theaters in Vienna on the weekend of the "" (Türkenbefreiungsfeier).  The film aroused considerable public interest because the director was a Vienna-born celebrity and his latest work was banned in Germany. 

It was Lang's second sound feature after M (1931) and was again produced by the Berlin Nero Film AG.  The screenplay was written by his wife Thea von Harbou, based on a then still unpublished novel by Norbert Jacques, who had already provided the literary source for Lang's silent film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922). 
However, even in the sequel the insane Mabuse, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, does not speak but merely writes instructions for crimes in his cell, which are then carried out by a criminal organization. The go-between is Mabuse's doctor, Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi), who communicates with the criminal network via telegram and telephone and gives the most important instructions in a kind of control center. 

When the associates are summoned to this "room with the curtain," they first have to open two doors with safety locks. Upon entering, the silhouette of a seated man appears behind a curtain, which divides the room.  The wallpaper is peeling off the walls; the outline of a urinal can be made out next to the door; a window is bricked up. A male voice not only tells those present what they must do but also reacts to their behavior. Those who move are called to order. No one knows what the "boss" looks like, and no one would dare to peer behind the curtain since a colleague was killed for doing just that. The secret is only aired when a rogue associate, Kent (Gustav Diessl), is locked in the room with his lover, Lilli (Wera Liessem). He shoots at the curtain, rips it aside, and discovers a table with a microphone and loudspeaker behind which a dummy is affixed.  The couple escape a ticking time bomb thanks to Kent piercing the pipe that leads to the removed urinal with a knife and a revolver and filling the room with water until the pressure breaks a hole in the wooden floor.

In the specialist literature, readers' attention is often drawn to the similarities between Mabuse's control center and the movie theater. 

What Kent and Lilli discover is in principle the equipment for screening sound films. However, Lang appears to be intentionally trying to disorient the audience in this sequence, because the angle of the shots alternates axially between the curtain and the door, or, to continue the analogy, between the screen and the seats. The dummy's shadow is cast onto the curtain like the film's images onto a screen. But at the point of the reveal, it seems as though Kent and Lilli were breaking the fourth wall and looking straight at the audience.  Furthermore, not only is there a loudspeaker on the table, but also a microphone to transmit or record sounds. It is certainly striking that the sound film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse reflects its use of audiovisual technology. 
Hence, the fictional control center alludes to the type of cinema that was becoming established internationally around 1930.

The development from theater to cinema can be demonstrated by the at Taborstrasse 8, for example,  which was one of the locations for the Vienna premiere of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and screened the film at 4:45, 7:00, and 9:10 p.m. that weekend, May 13 and 14, 1933. 

The cinema had opened as the Central Kino on the ground floor of Hotel Central in 1916, where a theater had been installed around 1900, which was also available to rent for events by associations and individuals.  A theatrical ensemble founded in 1889 that had previously performed in the building opposite, the Hotel Zum Schwarzen Adler at Taborstrasse 11, the Budapester Orpheum Society (Budapester Orpheum Gesellschaft) played the "musical comedy hall" at the Central from summer 1903. "In front of what was mostly a full house, a four-hour program was offered every day until the outbreak of war in 1914," writes Georg Wacks of the Budapester Orpheum: "The program comprised solo cabaret recitals, performances by various comedians, musical interludes by Viennese folk and operetta singers, dance performances, and guest appearances by nonresident artistes." 
Loved for its Jargon theater, the ensemble combined Viennese and Jewish dialects into the "Jiddeln" that was an everyday language in the Leopoldstadt, Vienna's second district through which the Taborstrasse runs. 

The auditorium at Hotel Central was licensed for 540 people.  In front of the stage was the orchestra, followed first by reserved and then free seats. The audience sat at tables, each with five chairs, and generally ate and drank during the performances. In the loges there were also curtains to allow their occupants to withdraw into a chambre séparée. In the summer the Budapester Orpheum mostly performed in the amusement park in Vienna's Prater, and every fall the ensemble had to leave the Central for ten days because the hotel's auditorium was repurposed as a temple on the Jewish Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. After Carl Lechner, the director of the society, had received police authorization to screen stereoscopic, i.e., apparently three-dimensional, images in public in 1904, the Budapester Orpheum also included the cinematograph in its program over the next two years. 

"Life is captured everywhere where the lens was pointed and everything that happened faithfully reappears," according to a flyer circulated when the Cinématographe of Auguste and Louis Lumière from Lyon was presented in Vienna.  Several roughly one-minute 35 mm films were screened daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from March 26, 1896, at Kärntner Strasse 45. The apparatus could photograph and project sixteen frames per second, which the human eye only just recognizes as flowing movement.  In the years that followed, cinematography became a permanent attraction in Vienna's Prater and in variety shows. Around the time when cinematographic recordings were also being shown at Hotel Central, the first permanent movie theaters became established in the city: by 1906 there were already seventeen cinemas in Vienna. 

That might have been one reason why the Budapester Orpheum only screened films for one year before returning to concentrate on its core business, Jewish cabaret shows.  Finally, in 1913 the ensemble moved to its own theater built a five-minute walk away at Praterstrasse 25. 

During World War I, the Committee of Daycare Centers for War Orphans and Needy Children of Enlisted Persons (Komitee der Tagesheimstätten für Krieger-Waisen und bedürftige Kinder von Eingerückten) made an application to the police headquarters in Vienna for permission to open a movie theater in the auditorium of Hotel Central. 

For this purpose, the stage had to be bricked up and a waiting room for the audience as well as a projection room for the film projector had to be built. While the loges could remain unchanged, the tables were removed from the parterre and replaced with 614 folding chairs in twenty-four rows parallel to the screen. With the additional loges and seats on the balcony, there were a total of 1,008 seats available for the audience. The Central Kino was awarded a "cinematograph license" for this capacity on October 4, 1916. 
Its first manager was the journalist, screenwriter, and later film director Alfred Deutsch-German. The orchestra remained immediately in front of the stage, which now housed the screen,  and in 1925 a theater organ was added on the occasion of the premiere of the film The Ten Commandments

In 1930 the management sold the organ to the Sievering parish in Vienna's nineteenth district. 

The year before, the Central Kino had been fitted with sound film equipment and renamed the "UFA-Ton-Kino." The Central Association for Feeding the People (Zentralverein für Volksernährung), which had taken over the permit for its operation in 1926, justified the name change to the responsible municipal authority with the introduction of sound film and the fact that it was a premiere cinema for the German Universum Film AG (UFA), which had long been involved in the Central Kino. 
In April 1929 the influential German film company concluded a cooperation agreement with Klangfilm GmbH, which had been founded by the electrical corporations Siemens & Halske and AEG. 
Consequently, in the summer of 1929 sound film equipment by the Klangfilm brand was installed at Vienna's UFA Ton Kino. However, it was not a mere optical sound system after the Klangfilm method, but rather the "Uniton" model, which was attached to the existing projectors and could be supplemented with a phonograph. 

Attempts to combine sound and image had existed since the very beginnings of cinematography. In the German-speaking world, the "Biophon" by Oskar Messter was the most famous, which was presented in Berlin in 1903 and connected the film projector with a gramophone. 

However, the early sound-on-disc methods did not catch on because the synchronous recording and playback of films and records was too complicated at that time and the results mostly poor. These technical difficulties could be remedied after World War I when the electronic tube amplifiers first patented by Robert von Lieben (1906) and Lee de Forest (1907) were used. 
Though not uncontested in specialist literature, the breakthrough for sound film is generally considered to be The Jazz Singer, which premiered in New York in 1927 and which Warner Brothers had produced using their sound-on-disc technique called Vitaphone. 
What was novel about Alan Crosland's motion picture about a New York singer and son of a Jewish cantor who rises from the ghetto on the Lower East Side to become a musical star on Broadway was not only the musical interludes integrated in the plot, but above all a short monologue by the leading actor Al Jolson and a dialogue between him and his on-screen mother. 

The Jazz Singer premiered in Austria on January 21, 1929, namely at the Central Kino at Taborstrasse 8 in Vienna.  However, what was shown was neither the American original nor a post-dubbed German version, but rather a silent version with intertitles, which was accompanied by music from the cinema orchestra, as well as singers and records. 

"A swindle," declared Das Kleine Blatt:

Fritz Rosenfeld, the film critic at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, also trashed the Viennese premiere but found it striking that The Jazz Singer was playing "in the movie theater of the German National Ufa" whose lobby had been fitted out as a Jewish "temple" for the event. 

Heinrich Lipsker, the then manager, did indeed set up some vitrines and candelabras from the Jewish Museum, which was located nearby at Malzgasse 16, in the waiting room of the Central Kino in mid-January 1929. 
Presumably, these loans were intended to establish a connection between the film's plot about the cantor's son from the New York ghetto and Jewish life in Vienna's Leopoldstadt district.

Published in January 1929, the article in the Arbeiter-Zeitung also makes it clear that even before the Central Kino was renamed the following August, the involvement of Universum Film AG was common knowledge. Both artistically and commercially successful in the 1920s, the film company had been considered to be "German National" since its founding in 1917, and this perception was only reinforced once it belonged to Alfred Hugenberg's media group. The cofounder and future president of the German National People's Party had taken over UFA in 1927, which was in dire financial straits, partly because of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis whose production had cost over five million reichsmarks. 

In the course of its financial recovery, the experiments with optical sound were abandoned, which had been conducted by the company in collaboration with the Tri-Ergon group of inventors since the mid-1920s. 
After the founding of the German Tonbild Syndikat AG, known as Tobis for short, and Klangfilm GmbH, which signed a cooperation agreement in March 1929, UFA concluded the aforementioned contract with Klangfilm, which is probably what led to the sound film equipment being fitted in Vienna's Central Kino. 

The "schematic of the Klangfilm equipment at the Central Kino" has been preserved in the Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna.  The two apparatuses it shows each comprise a motion-picture and a sound projector, as well as a phonograph, which were powered by an electric motor, meaning that 35 mm films could be screened silently, with optical sound, or with records being played synchronously at a constant speed of twenty-four frames per second.  For the sound reinforcement system in the auditorium, which was now licensed to hold 1,048 people, two "Blatthaller" were deployed, presumably positioned to the left and right of the screen.  The Blatthaller was an electrodynamic loudspeaker by Siemens & Halske, which was available in a range of versions around 1930. 

According to the AEG schematic from 1929, the 20 cm wide and 54 cm tall, that is, the smaller model of the loudspeaker was used in the Central Kino,  which allowed the sound direction to be steered more easily than the bigger "Riesenblatthaller."  Nevertheless, the acoustics still appear to have caused problems, because the following year the interior of the UFA Ton Kino was clad in fabric to improve the sound quality. 

At first, most sound features were released in both an optical sound and a sound-on-disc version. 

However, it did not take long for the optical sound method to become prevalent, the product of which, a soundtrack recorded on film, As such, Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was also filmed using the Tobis-Klangfilm system in 1932 before being distributed in early 1933 as an optical sound film in 35 mm format. 
On the same day that the feature film was banned in Germany, March 29, 1933, the board of UFA decided to terminate all employment contracts with Jewish employees. 
A government under the leadership of Adolf Hitler had been in office in the German Reich for just two months; not only was Alfred Hugenberg part of this administration as its economy minister, but now also Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who had personally demanded that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse be banned. 

Shortly before the film's premiere at the UFA Ton Kino in Vienna, there was a change of management. On May 9, 1933, the Central Association for Feeding the People as the licensee reported to the municipal authorities that Heinrich Lipsker had "left our services" and Hermann Stritzko had taken his place. 

The new manager was evidently a member of the NSDAP, which was banned in Austria in June 1933: in May 1939, at which point the country had been part of the German Reich for over a year, a report from the Viennese branch of the Reich Chamber of Film (Reichsfilmkammer) stated that party comrade Stritzko had conducted himself "as an upstanding and respectable National Socialist throughout all the years of the prohibition." 
Heinrich Moses Lipsker, in contrast, was deported from Vienna to Kaunas by train on November 23, 1941, together with 997 other Jews, where he was shot six days later by Lithuanian auxiliaries of a National Socialist task force. 

UFA Ton Kino
Screening of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
8 km 112 m from the start
20 h 15 min before the end

How to Use Reason:
Sovereign Signs
How to Capture Life:
Examining Gazes
How to Speak Up:
Governed Transmissions

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