Posted by David Kalat on January 10, 2015
So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?
OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.
What do we know for sure? That our hero (Raymond Milland) has just been released from an asylum where he served time for the (mercy) killing of his wife. Does that make him a murderer? Was he really insane? Or was that just a label put on him by a society uncomfortable with the idea of mercy killings? Is sanity just a social construct—and if so, can an entire society be insane? What would that look like?
No—stop. No questions. We’re trying to map out what we know. This man was in an asylum, now he is out. And he goes to a carnival—a petty street fair put on by a charity, Mothers of Free Nations. It’s wartime—the Blitz is underway. These are simple facts.
Our hero visits a fortune teller—she seems strangely keen on his winning a cake. All you do is guess the weight, and the closest guess wins the cake. What a strange use of psychic gifts, to query the mystic forces of the universe to find out the weight of a cake, but nevertheless she tells him the weight—just say those numbers and win the cake.
Which he does, but this seems to upset everyone. Silence falls. A well dressed man seems to want the cake—he has words with the psychic. The Mothers of Free Nations are flustered—what a sorry mix up.
On the train to London, our hero agrees to share his train compartment with a blind man. And share his cake. But the blind man isn’t eating—he’s crumbling the pieces in his fists. No time to wonder what that’s about—the German bombers have arrived and are bombarding the countryside. Our hero peers out the window at the fireworks. His back turned to the blind man. And the blind man seizes the opportunity to take his cane and bludgeon the man senseless, steal his cake, and race into the night—only to be blown to smithereens by a German bomb.
It’s a brilliant hook—the audience can’t help but ask questions, and the “answers” are just phantoms. The whole movie operates on the logic of a dream. The action relocates from the hinterlands of Lembridge to the urban sprawl of London and back again effortlessly, as if both spaces bleed into each other—as if the big city were tucked into a nook of the countryside, or the countryside just a neighborhood of the big city.
Our hero enlists the aid of a private detective in the early reels. He’s a standard issue movie detective—the down on his luck gumshoe, drinking in his office, suspicious of his own clients. Straight out of central casting. And he seems to disappear into the shadows in his first scene. We wait for him to resurface, and then we forget about him altogether. Oh that guy? Until our hero gets arrested for the murder of that detective—a plot twist so out of left field even Milland’s character is baffled by it. He’s not surprised to be arrested for murder, he just figured it was one of the other corpses that had piled up in the interim.
Characters turn into one another. Milland’s character seeks out the old crow who told him the cake’s weight—but when he finds “Mrs. Bellane” she’s now a stylish vamp who hosts séances in her London flat for the social set. Among her guests are eminent psychiatrist Dr. Forester—a consultant to the Ministry of Defense. Or is he a bookish geek named Mr. Travers? Another guest is a gaunt blond man named Costa—the same man from the carnival who so wanted that cake. Or is he a tailor named Mr. Travers?
Costa is shot to death during the séance—and our hero has to go on the run to avoid being arrested for the murder. He insists he’s innocent—but being a recently released inmate with a murder conviction to his name, his word doesn’t carry much weight. Then again, maybe it does—with the helpful Hilfe family of the Mothers of Free Nations. Yes, German speakers, that name does mean “Help.” And they mean it—whatever our hero needs to stay on the run, to clear his name, to find the truth, he’s gonna get it.
The Hilfes are Austrian immigrants who know all too well the sting of prejudice. They’ve been fleeing Nazis their whole lives, and now face daily suspicion in their adopted home. They see a kindred spirit in our hero…
Except, no, that’s not quite right. I’ve been talking about “Hilfes” plural as if they are interchangeable. This dreamlike movie lulls you into thinking like that—like people can be hot-swapped as easily as changing a tire. But there are two Hilfes, a brother and a sister. Different people, swapping in and out of the same narrative role. Maybe they’re not completely interchangeable—maybe there are crucial differences between them that will come to matter a great deal, in the rain, at night, when the bullets start to fly.
Sorry, I wasn’t going to ask more questions. Stop again, step back—take stock all over again. What do we have here?
It’s 1944. Since the US joined the war, Fritz Lang has been hard at work establishing his bona fides as an anti-Nazi filmmaker. It starts with the belated US release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which Lang mildly distorts as an anti-Hitler screed. He’s not wholly wrong, but the stories he starts to tell about his fleeing Nazi Germany in the dead of night with just his passport and whatever cash he could stow in the floorboards of his train compartment are as fantastical and fictional as anything in the movie itself.
But it works—Lang has reinvented himself. Just a few years ago he was making lightweight Westerns, and now he has a singular focus and consistent creative vision. Man Hunt sends Gary Cooper behind enemy lines to assassinate Hitler. Hangmen Also Die sends Brian Donlevy behind enemy lines to assassinate Reichsprotektor Heydrich. And Cloak and Dagger would send Gary Cooper (again) behind enemy lines to assassinate a traitorous scientist working for the Nazis.
Sandwiched in amongst these films is something darker, more urgent, more trippy and awesome. Apparently Fritz Lang apologized to Grahame Greene for making the film—and Greene turned up his nose at the whole thing as one of the least interesting of his film adaptations. Both men were being foolish. Greene was an egotist who thought less of Ministry of Fear because he hadn’t been allowed to openly collaborate on it. Lang was an even bigger egotist who thought less of Ministry of Fear because it wasn’t as ostentatiously anti-Nazi as his other works.
That’s absurd. Lang seemed to think the power of the movie could be objectively measured in the number of shots of swastikas. Ministry of Fear had too few swastikas, therefore it wasn’t scary enough.
But that’s it enduring power. Frankly, I’m not scared of Nazis anymore. They’re too close to vampires—a mythical horror that haunted a previous generation. I know they were real, obviously, unlike vampires, but my grandfather and others like him killed those monsters off long before I was born.
But Ministry of Fear’s delirious conspiracy doesn’t depend on Nazi iconography for its horrors—it’s a nightmare, told with the logic of a dream and the dark, shadowy imagery of Hollywood’s most haunted screen. You want to know what an insane society looks like? Well, it might be covered in swastikas, sure. But that’s just one face. Chances are, the insane society you live in looks more like this.
(Ministry of Fear airs tonight on TCM–see listing here. Set your DVRs.)
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