Fritz Lang's timing, as always, is impeccable. As the world trembles with a trepidation not approached since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the late German director's tales of unseen, orchestrated evil and looming fascism return to the Pacific Film Archive. Ever notice that pessimists always turn out to be more prescient than optimists?
"Fritz Lang: Minister of Fear" collects the ambitious, ominous films the director made with his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, between the world wars. Produced in a climate of economic turmoil and political upheaval, these "entertainments" pinpointed the vulnerability of the damaged German psyche. In the epic 1922 silent masterpiece Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (screening in two parts, Sept. 29 and 30), a shadowy villain impels weaker men to carry out his wishes through greed, lust, and fear. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the sequel Lang made a decade later as Hitler consolidated his power, the scoundrel continues to operate his devious network -- from the confines of a lunatic asylum. "I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans," Lang bragged many years later.
Lang and von Harbou's triumphs between the Mabuse films included The Nibelungen (1924, screening in two parts, Oct. 13 and 14), a fantastical landscape of love and destruction set in 13th-century Europe, and the populist sci-fi classic Metropolis (Oct. 7). Spies (Oct. 6), the 1927 portrait of a nefarious egomaniac who uses the inventions of modern society to acquire state secrets and power, presages bad guys from Dr. No to today's Public Enemy No. 1.
That famous Lang timing? The director fled Germany in 1933, the same day that Goebbels informed him both that he'd banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (the Nazis were brutal, but they weren't stupid) and that the Führer admired his work. Von Harbou stayed, eventually joining the Nazi Party and honing scripts for propaganda films.