The Dream Nazis of Ministry of Fear (1944)

The Nazis in Fritz Lang's film noir mid-war favourite Ministry of Fear aren't presented in the typical style of the day.

The Nazis in this film noir classic don't wear swastika armbands and nor do they make fascist speeches about the benefits of the Reich's new order, a sight common enough from other mid-War propaganda.

There were many films made about WWII, during WWII. The movie Nazis that made the most impact at the time were in the style of the pompous evil-doers of films like Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942); or Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943).

But Fritz Lang had been tormenting Nazis on screen for quite a long time before this, and Lang's 1933 film The Testament of Dr Mabuse was the first of his to genuinely get under the skin of the Master Race.

In this second Mabuse film, Mabuse's amazing looking ghost, (a creature rarely bettered in cinema) seems to partially quote some Nazi slogans in a speech which promotes a warped political anarcho-tyranny, as follows:

"Humanity's soul must be shaken to the very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crime.  Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to' inspire fear and terror, because the only ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the empire of crime—a state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation.  When humanity subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law—then the time will come for the empire of crime."
The very terrifying Voice of Terror (1942)
The Testament of Dr Mabuse is about psychological projections and magic, and features an insane asylum, madness, and a sensational barrage of images, constituting crazier versions of what Lang tried to tame for The Ministry of Fear in 1944.

What Mabuse is really about is Nazis, however.

It's 1933, and Lang presents a society-wide criminal gang, that seems to infiltrate every aspect of German life, from labourers to the police themselves. The gang are controlled by a madman, who uses other people's bodies to issue orders, and works through the newly developed technological mediums to spread the message, which is largely one of fear.

It's a clear allegory for the rising tide of what Fritz Lang saw as a tide of immoral and chaotic violence-based attacks which were intended to destabilise society at every level, including the physical and emotional.

Joseph Goebbels withheld the release of Testament of Dr. Mabuse, stating that the film "showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence." Which is also very telling!

But Lang has a definite vision of social evil, and it is always the same: an underground criminal organisation, usually run as a bureaucracy.

Dr Mabuse - the monster warns against tyrannical political crimes and violence being used to overthrow a state.

Goebbels famously summoned Lang to talk about this movie, and it appeared that Hitler had it in mind that Lang would make the ultimate National Socialist film; it also transpired that Lang being half Jewish didn't bother the Nazis either, and Lang reported that Goebbels had said: "We decide who is Aryan."

This was when Fritz Lang led Germany, in fact, he left the very day of that meeting, ultimately beginning a new career in the United States. Lang's 20 American films were often compared unfavorably to his earlier works by critics at the time, but the restrained Expressionism of these movies was in fact integral to what we now know as noir.

Ministry of Fear is a later effort then, and the work of an emigre mow completely settled in Hollywood.

The film opens with a shot of a clock, which sets the hero, a polite and contemplative Ray Milland free from the mental hospital in which he resides.

He watches the clock, he grips the chair, he is alone in the empty room, and he is hoping to wake up from a bad dream.

It doesn't work out that way though. Instead Ray Milland's character is about to enter the dream-world of Fritz Lang.

The Blitz ... hits 'The Grimpen Mire'?
Briefly inspected by a kindly doctor, Milland sets out into the world to make a brand new life for himself. He buys a train ticket to London, but before he even gets on to the station's platform, he’s drawn away into dark dreams, deceit, danger and a world of sex, death and spies.

Drawn by lights, Milland enters something like a hedge maze which transports him to a strange  charity garden fete, which appears to be taking place at night. He finds himself similarly drawn into a fortune-teller’s tent, where his dream journey speeds up.

Find The Nazi . . . in the dark.
Of all the dream characters in The Ministry of Fear the most powerful is the magical Mrs Bellane, played by Hillary Brooke. She's a goddess figure, a mother nature figure, a magical figure and a self-proclaimed portal to elsewhere. The men defer to her every time, and it isn't just the way she dresses. She is the only one who seems to know what's going on, and sweeps from room to room, creating the magical 'find the Nazi in the dark' game.

This dream-like quality adds a psychological stain to the drama, making what feels from time to time like a crime romp, into something more oppressive. It gives it that film noir feel, in the most psychological sense. The weirdness, and the doubt, the darkness and the motifs, all combine. Nothing is real, and everything is strange, even amid the very real perils and hardships of war.

In fact, there seems nothing genuine about the war portrayed in Ministry of Fear.

The absence of what Glenn Kenny calls "standard-issue Menacing Nazis" leads us not to farce but to fairly common Fritz Lang territory, a semi-psychological landscape wherein faked film sets seem appropriate.

The Blitz in London is not even really seen, and the only real expression of it is when Milland's train passes through an already torn industrial landscape into which he pursues a blind man, who is not really blind. There are later scenes in which we visit the London Underground, where real people once sheltered from real bombs, and these are without doubt the realistic touches which give the film its touch of war.

But this movie is really about an escape into nightmares, admirably summed up by Dan Duryea's massive pair of tailor's scissors, with which he dials upon a telephone near the end.

He's a tailor, yes, and everything is well-cut, designed and infused with what could best be described as stylish menace. 

Hillary Brooke in Ministry of Fear (1944)

Dan Duryea in Ministry of Fear (1944)

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