BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

{Note: spoilers ahead-Steve}


The world once was divided in two. I speak of the world of cinema lovers, the small world of cinephiles. There were those who giggled at the last films of Fritz Lang and those for whom these films ranked among the most beautiful . (Yes, but how to prove it?) The second lived in fear: fear of understanding the firsts' snicker of a smile before BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956) or of poking fun at THE INDIAN TOMB (1959). Because these vulnerable films, obtuse to logic, touched on what one pompously called "the essence" of cinema. To those who know that there are films that sound idiotic when one tells their stories and are shattering when one sees them. To those who know that a film isn't its screenplay, nor cinema literature.

And then, these films had no reputation: the histories of cinema spoke only of METROPOLIS, M, of the rigor of FURY, and the critical establishment of the time spat with condescension on the American period of Lang, a period of bad luck, tiny budgets and films more and more B.

One had to defend these films against the thick common sense of the snickerers, against Lang himself, who had the air of being ashamed of them. (Hadn't he spoken of THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB as his "Indian shits?") Helplessness. The old master already had the disillusioned smile that one could see in him a few years later in CONTEMPT. The smile a little superior of one who nevertheless knows (and who better than him, who could have become the #1 man of Nazi cinema?) that one must never feel superior. That feeling superior is the only crime. The rictus grin that Langian heroes have at the worst moments, like Tom Garrett at the end of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, when all is lost for him, and he doesn't know how to do anything other than  step towards the office to see closer the pardon in his favor the governor won't sign.

The scenario of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is the story of a scenario. Of a frame-up, a simulacrum. An influential journalist (Sidney Blackmer) campaigns against the death penalty. He wants to prove that it's perfectly possible to send an innocent man to the electric chair. Yes, but how to prove it?

He has this baroque idea of proposing to his future son-in-law, Tom Garrett , a writer (Dana Andrews, once again rancid and admirable) to let himself be accused of a murder that came to be committed, fabricating false proofs, leaving himself condemned to death. At this moment, deus ex machina, he will unveil the implausible truth {note: "implausible truth" is a literal translation of the French title-Steve} and the partisans of the death penalty will be ashamed and listen to their conscience. That's their scenario, but in the film it will go entirely differently.

In this film, there is all of Lang. The subject isn't really the death penalty. It wouldn't be a good film for DOSSIERS DE L'ECRAN {note: I don't know what this is.-Steve}

The subject, as always with Fritz Lang, is the idea of responsibility. In his films, there are those who know they're guilty (it's stronger than that, it's pathological: from Mabuse to M passing by the "lipstick killer" of WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS) and those who believe themselves innocent. But, from the silent serials to his American films made on command, through the big machines of UFA, Lang always drove in the same nail: there are no innocents. There might have been, but there are no longer. Innocence is provisional, wanting proof is already guilt. Being sure of oneself, succumbing to the cold passion of ideas and ideologies, having the superior and smirky air of those who have expected everything, who have responded to everything, who are "mad of everything" is a dangerous state. Dangerous for others.

The journalist who struggles against the death penalty and the sadistic prosecutor who wants to apply it at all costs are brothers. One can expose an innocent man to be condemned to better prove himself innocent, the other is ready to condemn the innocent man. What they haven't expected is that the innocent man is already the guilty one.

I won't recount the events of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. I have already said too much. Its humor would be less redemptive if we weren't also, as long as we're spectators, at the same time innocent and guilty. Innocent because we know nothing, guilty because we believe everything. The Lang-machine is infernal: it needs us as spectators, witness, jury, cop. We play all the roles in this comedy of justice. But in the last shot, we are held up to ridicule and if some laugh, that would be annoying (one doesn't like being the dupe of a film, of a little celluloid.) Because we should know that in the films of Lang, there is never absolute proof, no end, no certainty, but a dry linking of causes and effects, words and things, puns and favorite objects, doors and secrets behind doors, insane uphill slopes and unreasonable downhill slopes. To infinity.

How to watch the film? One must not try to be more clever than it. At the cinema, it's never an interesting attitude. (What does the face of a clever spectator in the dark resemble? Nothing great, it's even ridiculous.) And if we enter into the paranoid scenario of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, it's by pleasure, by  play - not to have the final word.

One must see the film twice: once for suspense and once to play its humor "in reverse." The humor of Lang, unique in the cinema, consists of supplying the spectator all the information he needs to understand everything. But of supplying it in disorder, so that he can make nothing of it. The truth is implausible because the characters don't stop telling it without knowing it . They don't stop saying "innocently" the key-words of the story they debate. Imagine a crossword puzzle where the definition and the word to find are the same. What anger (or what fragment of a laugh) when you discover the trick.

It's a word, only one, the name of the women that he has killed, that makes Garrett  lose and when the film is over, nothing prevents you from thinking with a greedy and retrospective terror of all the other words of the dialogue that are perhaps passwords, blunder-words of another story that could cross this one, as deadly as it. Infernal circle, that of your imagination.

I remember the first time I saw the film. I followed dumbfounded this crazy story where the innocent is the guilty man, and the inquirer is the inquiry, and it's the criminal who revolts against the death penalty. I admired this facet of telling all these stories in one, as if to establish a theorem.  (I would like to write this article on Lang without using the word "rigor": I haven't succeeded.) I also admired the respect of Lang for the public, his estimate of our capacity for  memorizing all the elements of the film, never doing the job for us. And then, suddenly, at the moment where the old journalist takes his car out of  the garage to go to the appeal tribunal of the "unfortunate" Garrett, I had a premonition. The man leaves the garage, he is in a rush and  retreats towards the street filled with light that's at the base of the image. A second later, the camera is in the street, at a perpendicular angle to the preceding shot: a truck  has knocked over the car, now in flames: the journalist and the false proofs with it. Horror. Horror and logic: the thing  we hadn't expected  must arrive.

Lang is at the same time the director who calculates causes and effects as far as possible  causes and effects and the one who knows how to make you feel  in advance, only by  direction, the stupid accident that will cut you down. A second before (not two, not three) before it arrives. A very abstract director  and a very physical director . A genius. (Yes, but how to prove it etc.?)

Translated by Steve Erickson

Originally published in LIBERATION July 18, 1981