As far​ as we know, Fritz Lang’s life of crime was confined to his films, although there was some gossip about the circumstances of his first wife’s convenient death. The familiar phrase has many uses and meanings, of course, and we might say the more the better. The lives we imagine for crime may help us to see in it and around it, and thinking about crime may help us to think about other matters. Still, we need a way of managing the profusion, and I am going to suggest three major meanings or reference points for the phrase.

First, there is the historical life of actual crime, wherever it takes place. Crime has a life of its own, though it may remain rather elusive to non-criminals. Second, there is the criminal life of the felons themselves, the subject of so much historical fiction and fictional history. And third, there is the life that crime lives in its representations: in print, on film, on the stage, in casual conversations, in metaphor, and in law courts and judgments. Needless to say, if we are not criminals or victims of criminals, this last life is the one we have easiest access to.

Many, perhaps most, representations of crime, whether the event is supposed to occur in fact or in fiction, give the impression of being about something else. Something instead of crime or something as well as crime. This impression doesn’t always arise, of course, but it is common enough to be worth exploring and this is a large part of what I want to do, with the aid of two films by Fritz Lang: The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The Big Heat (1953).

The car scene from Fritz Lang’s ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1933).

The car scene from Fritz Lang’s ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1933).

Lang was born in Vienna in 1890 and died in Beverly Hills in 1976. He made 17 films in Germany before leaving in 1933, one film in France in 1934, and 24 films in the US between 1936 and 1956. He directed his three last films in Germany. But even tyrannical directors need a lot of help, and I take ‘Fritz Lang’ to mean not only a historical person but also whatever controlling spirit we intuit behind the films as we watch them. That spirit is mainly Lang’s, but not only his. We could say the same of any acclaimed auteur. Writers, actors, cameramen, editors: not many directors do without them, and they need to be remembered. Tom Gunning’s book The Films of Fritz Lang (2000) has an excellent page on just this topic.

There are influences too. When in The Testament of Dr Mabuse we see a collection of small-time criminals hanging around waiting for instructions, we think we may have seen them before, indeed that we have been caught up in this whole atmosphere before. We have been, or some people were, in The Threepenny Opera, first staged in Berlin in 1928 and filmed in 1931. Asked if Brecht influenced him, Lang said: ‘Of course he did. Nobody who tried to come to grips with the time could escape his influence.’

With the idea of a controlling spirit we have already entered the double territory of this piece, the realms of Dr Mabuse and the American mafia. Very different realms of course, the second as obvious as the first is mysterious. How can two criminal worlds be so different? They belong to different countries, and different times, but is that an answer? Yes, although not much of one. We can get closer to the differences. And the similarities.

The figure of Dr Mabuse makes a powerful claim for the life of crime, since he can perish and still live – like a monarchy rather than an individual king or queen. In Lang’s film we see him dead, but the doctor who is his passionate admirer takes over. He not only continues Mabuse’s criminal enterprises but finally, after a few more murders, some spectacular fireworks at a chemical factory and an elaborate car chase, goes mad and is locked away in his own hospital, where Mabuse had been a patient. The doctor’s name is Baum and has never been anything else, but when he finds someone in the room he is to occupy as a patient he introduces himself with great formality and dignity as a legend rather than a person. ‘I am Mabuse,’ he says. ‘Dr Mabuse’. The detective who has tracked Baum down, faced with the now stark madness of the criminal, says to the informant who has been helping him: ‘Come, my boy. There is nothing more here for a mere police inspector to do.’

The film begins with an amazing scene in a small room full of boxes and bottles. There is a fantastic racket on the soundtrack, the thumping of some kind of machinery, so invasive that we can hardly look at what’s on the screen. This was Lang’s second sound film, and it is in many ways about sound. What’s happening in the scene is that a man who turns out to be an ex-police officer has discovered the headquarters of a money-printing operation, but is then caught himself by the criminals and taken off to an unnamed place (it turns out to be Baum’s hospital), where he is driven mad. All he can do is sing an old song in a frightened voice. Somewhere along the way, though, he manages to scratch a name on a windowpane, and his old boss, Inspector Lohmann, is able to find the place and, with difficulty, decipher the name: Mabuse. This recalls an old police file to the inspector (and an old movie to the audience, since Lang made a film called Dr Mabuse the Gambler in 1922), and Lohmann visits the hospital where Mabuse is confined. The mad doctor – the first mad doctor – hasn’t been anywhere and isn’t going anywhere. But his case is a favourite lecture subject of Dr Baum’s, and we see him waxing eloquent about Mabuse’s insanity and genius.

Then we learn something new. Mabuse has started scribbling on paper: incoherent squiggles that turn into signs and faces and then into words, and finally into elaborate, subtle masterplans for one clever crime after another. A colleague stops by Baum’s office to borrow a book. Baum isn’t there; the man looks around, and accidentally knocks some papers off the desk. As he gathers them from the floor – they are the extensive writings of the patient Mabuse – he reads a sentence or two and finds in them an exact account of a crime, a jewellery heist, he has just read about in the newspaper. He doesn’t know what this means, but thinks he should tell the police.

He doesn’t make it to the police station, and the scene of his death is a much cited moment in film history; Lang himself copied it in his late work The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). The man’s car stops at a traffic light. Other cars pull up beside it and around it; in one of them is a person we know to be an assassin. The cars are facing us, seen from a high angle. There is a long wait, the drivers get impatient, and they all, including Baum’s colleague, start banging on their car horns. The assassin shoots, and the light changes. The cars start to move. All but one, that is. Now we see the cars from the back, from the same high angle. The solitary car looks like a hearse that has turned into a coffin. A policeman who comes to rebuke the slack driver finds a dead man slumped over the steering wheel and sees a crack in the rear side window. As he opens the car door, a newspaper falls out and we read the headline about the jewel robbery. The film cuts to the jewels themselves, on a table waiting to be evaluated. The importance of the scene in the plot is that it marks the moment when theory and practice collide – or are seen to have been colliding. The brilliant schemes we have been led to believe existed only in the imagination of madness are, it turns out, already materially in place, avidly practised in the supposedly sane world.

Dr Baum, then, is doing a little more than studying Mabuse’s case and lecturing on it. In case we don’t get this, Lang has the ghost of Mabuse show up in Baum’s office, the very place where the dead man stumbled on the secret, and give Baum a seminar on what he calls the ‘dominion’ or ‘mastery’ of crime, ‘die Herrschaft des Verbrechens’. Lang later said he wished he hadn’t used such a crude device as a ghost, and as a matter of taste he was probably right. But it’s good to have the seminar on account of what it tells us not about crime but about how crime can be imagined, displaced and glorified, and a curious feature of the film’s timing will really haunt you if you let it.

Mabuse’s ghost appears to Baum well after the scene in the traffic. He delivers his doctrine and visually possesses Baum, sitting first across the desk from him, and then in Baum’s chair, slipping into his body, so to speak. But if Baum is the mastermind behind the crime, he must have been possessed long before this episode. Is it a flashback? Nothing suggests this. It’s true that Baum saw Mabuse’s ghost when Mabuse was still alive, and we can make what we like of that. Were the crimes being committed telepathically by Mabuse from his cell? From the notes themselves, without any human agency? Is Baum a legitimate successor to Mabuse, or is he just getting onto some psychic bandwagon, turning magic from beyond the grave into vulgar, material conspiracy? We don’t have to cling to the question but it certainly extends the idea of the life of crime, and allows us to see, when Baum has such frequent recourse to his gramophone to pretend he is in his office when he is not, that technology is perhaps not the enemy of magic but its colleague or proxy.

Dr Mabuse was the creation of the Luxemburg writer Norbert Jacques. His novel Dr Mabuse the Gambler was serialised in a Berlin newspaper in 1921. Lang’s first Mabuse film – in two parts, The Great Gambler and Inferno – appeared the following year. Lang’s subtitle for the first part was ‘A Picture of the Time’, and for the second ‘A Game for the People of Our Time’. The war had come and gone in Europe; vast empires had vanished; short-lived revolutions had come and gone too, although one revolution stayed. Dr Mabuse is clearly the product of this period, a close relative of Dr Caligari, who made his screen appearance in 1919 – Lang at one point planned to direct that film.

The programme handed out at the premiere of Dr Mabuse the Gambler explained the historical conjuncture as follows: ‘Mankind, swept about and trampled down in the wake of war and revolution, takes revenge for years of anguish by indulging in lusts … and by passively or actively surrendering to crime.’ Siegfried Kracauer shrewdly commented on the word ‘and’ in the phrase ‘war and revolution’. ‘One should not overlook the seemingly harmless word,’ he said, since it ‘throws a dazzling light on Dr Mabuse’s origin in the middle-class mind’. Not just the middle-class mind perhaps, but any mind devoted to the idea that the middle has to be the safest place. This is the film that ends in Mabuse’s madness, and prepares the way for our sight of him in the hospital in the 1933 work: the actor is the same, Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

By 1933 Lang had made his first sound film, M, with Peter Lorre as the child murderer who is caught and tried by criminals rather than cops: the trouble he is causing is bad for business, and the criminals are also full of moral indignation. The film’s original title was Murderer among Us, and the story goes that movie-house managers wouldn’t show it because they thought it was about the Nazis, whom they didn’t want to annoy. When told it was about a child murderer, they didn’t have a problem. But then Lang’s next film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, really was about the Nazis. Or was it? Lang said it was, and in later versions added dialogue to reinforce the impression. It is true that the Nazis, specifically Goebbels, refused to allow the film to be released, but that was probably because it was in its way anti-authoritarian, dedicated to a dissident, even anarchistic anti-hero. One critic suggests the Mabuse of The Testament is ‘more of a subversive than an autocrat’. Another says that we see in Mabuse ‘the ultimately unbearable face of the anarchistic powers of capital’. The Nazis were legally in power, and Goebbels didn’t want people to see a film about toppling governments, or toppling the very idea of government.

I need to explain why I (and others) think the film is anti-authoritarian, or authoritarian in an unorthodox way. First, let’s consider Lotte Eisner’s interesting remark about the source of Mabuse’s rhetoric. In this film, she said, Lang ‘puts into the mouth of his mad Mabuse words which the Nazis themselves still did not dare speak out aloud, but which were already apparent in their confused thought’. It’s true that Mabuse uses words that ought to have been part of Nazi policy and rhetoric even if they weren’t. He indulges in plenty of sub-Nietzschean thinking about will and power. But he doesn’t want to rule the world, he wants to wreck it, to show how vulnerable it is to intelligent undoing. His chief ideological proposition concerns the pure pointlessness of crime, and is worth careful attention, for all its apparent collapse into non-logic: ‘For the ultimate meaning of crime is to establish a limitless rule of crime.’ This is ‘confused thought’, and is perhaps a picture of where we believe Nazi thought must end, but even then the picture is complicated. As Hannah Arendt suggested, ‘Eichmann … dimly realised that it was not an order but a law which had turned them all into criminals.’ They were criminals under international law, of course, but what were they at home? What is a crime if the rule of crime is limitless?

It makes more sense to link the Mabuse fantasy, the dream of the infinitely intelligent malign genius, to the mentality that Arendt, in another book, associates with a particular German mood in the 1920s: ‘Destruction without mitigation, chaos and ruin as such assumed the dignity of supreme values.’ There is a curious prefiguration of this mood in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, when the protagonist indulges in ‘lawless hopes’ that have no future, because ‘passion is like crime … it welcomes every blow dealt the bourgeois structure, every weakening of the social fabric.’ Needless to say, this is not the view of the men who execute Mabuse’s plans, or of the criminals in M or The Threepenny Opera. They are baffled by the absence of the profit motive.

There are other possibilities. Jonathan Crary says that ‘Mabuse is the name of a system’ and that ‘Lang is less interested in the nature of an emotional tie to a charismatic figure than he is in a diverse technology of influence. The protean Mabuse, in his multiple masks and guises, becomes a principle of flexible and versatile power rather than a figuration of totalitarianism.’ Crary is thinking of all the Mabuse manifestations rather than the one 1933 film; but it is true that even this Mabuse can look like a crazed counterpart of Walter Benjamin. When ‘the man behind the curtain’ in The Testament, the figure issuing instructions to the gang, is revealed to be a gramophone, the detective formulates his discovery in an interesting way. ‘You have been listening,’ he says to the now undeceived crooks, ‘only to a technical translation.’

Mabuse had his antecedents, of course, and has his successors. Moriarty, for example. Fantômas, who was no doubt Norbert Jacques’s most immediate model. Dr Strangelove. Hannibal Lecter in his aesthetic moments. There are echoes of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde too, though we have to reverse the story and get rid of the idea of repression. In this light Mr Hyde would be the jovial Victorian man about town, and Dr Jekyll would be busy using medicine to unravel the kingdom. And if we wished to stay in Germany we could think of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, ‘the spirit who always denies’, who believes that everything created is worthy of destruction, and worthy only of that.

Debby and Vince in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953).

Debby and Vince in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953).

The world​ of The Big Heat seems a long way from that of The Testament of Dr Mabuse. My sense that the films belong together seems a bit of a stretch even to me, so it’s a little surprising to find commentators, and even Lang himself, jumping to the conclusion I am only prepared to creep towards. Lang said that a book about Al Capone had a large influence on the making of The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Lang’s most recent biographer, Norbert Grob, says ‘The Big Heat is finally Lang’s American pendant to the German Mabuse.’ And David Kalat, author of an excellent book on all the Mabuse incarnations, says that Debby, the character played by Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, ‘is key to understanding Lang’s worldview, key to understanding the Mabuse genre’.

Certainly The Big Heat offers memorable instances of the life of crime. Debby, a gangster’s moll, unusually irreverent and funny in the role, becomes the film’s heroine because she kills someone. That person is the widow of a corrupt policeman. Weary of his corruption, or perhaps for other, less noble reasons, this man has committed suicide, leaving a note of everything he knows about crime in his town. The widow has put the note in a bank safe, with instructions that it is to be released to the press if she dies. As one character says to her, cueing us in to the title of the movie, ‘With you dead, the big heat follows.’ On the basis of this security, she is receiving handsome payments from the gang boss; she wasn’t half as well off with her husband alive. Debby’s face meanwhile has become grotesquely scarred because her gangster friend Vince, played by Lee Marvin, threw hot coffee in it. Fresh from the killing of the widow, Debby returns the favour, and the film hastens to a shoot-out and its problematic end.

Unlike Mabuse, Mike Lagana, the gangster who oversees the criminal world in The Big Heat, is no mastermind and no madman. He is reasonableness itself: a man who knows how to make large profits out of what the film calls dirt, while keeping his private life entirely, luxuriously clean. He is offended by the mere idea of a policeman coming into his house and using the word ‘murder’. And there is no mystery at all in the movie, no secret scheme or plot, no ‘technical translation’ of the human into something else. As the central character says, ‘Nothing dirty happens in this city without Lagana’s OK.’ The problem is not access to knowledge or understanding, but what to do about what everybody knows. And how, at last, to get the dirt to go away.

That’s a problem for the characters; the other problem is ours. What are we to do when the means of disposing of the dirt may seem more of a moral disaster than the dirt itself? Dave Bannion, played by Glenn Ford, the decent if slightly unruly detective trying to do something about crime rather than ignore it, receives a sermon from his immediate superior in the police force. ‘No man is an island, Dave,’ he says, quoting John Donne slightly out of context. ‘You can’t set yourself against the world and get away with it.’ The plot of the film says this cynical fellow is wrong, but taking up a broader perspective, we could ask where the movies, and many great novels, would be if you couldn’t set yourself against the world and fail to get away with it. It’s in fairy tales that the getting away happens.

For me the most sinister moment in The Big Heat follows immediately on its most shocking moment. Well, its second most shocking moment – the first occurs when the coffee is thrown in Debby’s face. Bannion has spoken to a woman who has cast some doubt on the reasons for the policeman’s suicide. He wasn’t in ill health, as his widow said. This woman should know, she was his mistress. Now she is dead. This is the murder Bannion asks about in Lagana’s house, and the result, obviously enough, is that Lagana gives instructions that Bannion be taken care of too. Lagana’s men decide to blow up his car, but unfortunately Bannion’s wife takes it first because she wants to run a brief errand. There is a wonderful moment – which probably took a lot of practice on the set – just before she dies. He is reading a story to their little girl, and throws the car keys to his wife. His aim is a little wide, but she catches the keys perfectly. They both laugh. It’s a picture of their marriage. She leaves the house, there’s a noise and she is dead.

In the next sequence, Bannion is talking to his superiors. They express sympathy, but no outrage. They know exactly what happened, but no man is an island, Dave, and life has to go on. They are going to pull out all the stops, work on the case relentlessly until they find the perpetrator. They have all the old files out, they’ll get to the bottom of this. Bannion would be surprised if he weren’t so disgusted. He resigns and/or is sacked. A chain of accident and dogged pursuit leads him back to the widow and the story of the security note in the bank. But what can he do? He can’t kill the widow. He can’t even, in the end, bring himself to kill the evil Vince when he has him at his mercy. He’s a lawman.

Debby is not, though, and Bannion effectively contracts her to do the killing of the widow. This is how you keep your hands clean in a dirty world, and the resemblance of Bannion’s situation to that of Lagana can hardly escape us. We don’t have to see things this way, and my summary is obviously tendentious. Bannion doesn’t ask Debby to kill the woman, he just tells her what the situation is; and he leaves a gun with her for her own protection. Most critics place The Big Heat among Lang’s more positively minded films, take it as a sign that the dark director had his optimistic moments. And it is true that in 1953 we were still nine years ahead of John Ford’s classic tale of moral substitution, where the man who shot Liberty Valance was not the man who shot Liberty Valance; or, to put that another way, where James Stewart got all the credit for killing Lee Marvin (the villain again), leaving John Wayne with the actual dirty hands. ‘Print the legend,’ is what the newspaperman says when he’s told the full story. But then, is the deed dirty? Do we object morally to the killing of Liberty Valance or of the widow in The Big Heat? Is it possible to endorse the deed, as surely we do emotionally, and indeed clear it of all dirt, and still worry about the manoeuvre that keeps certain hands clean? I don’t want Bannion to kill the widow, and I don’t want Debby not to have done it. But then where am I? Where are we?

The first answer is that we are still at the movies, and don’t have to make any immediate, practical decision about this dilemma. It’s a fiction, a theoretical problem. Or a real problem but no more than theoretical as far as we are concerned. This is not a bad answer, and it’s good to think about what happens when we imagine ourselves into and out of situations that have been created for just that purpose. But then the fairy tale is not too far away. Some men are islands, Dave – you just have to find yourself in the right movie.

Perhaps Dr Mabuse can help us. Recall that the evil doctor made the extreme metaphysical claim that ‘the ultimate meaning of crime is to establish a limitless rule of crime.’ A rule of crime, note, and not the rule of a criminal. The second phrase, the rule of a criminal, describes far too many historical regimes from well before 1933 and continuing into the present. But the limitless rule of crime is not a historical category, it is a fantasy, an expression of fear – or desire, depending on our delusional preferences. Of course it seems a long way from a dream of perfectly designed disorder to a quasi-factual report on organised crime. But both pictures – both films and both social fantasies – are about planning and control, about taking care of chance, so to speak.

Let’s think​ again about Siegfried Kracauer’s suggestion regarding the middle-class nature of the fantasy in the first Mabuse film. The Weimar Republic has emerged from ‘war and revolution’, and it hopes those things are in the past. It can’t get rid of panic and disorder, but it can, in a fiction of mastery, of Herrschaft, make all the panic and disorder come from one place, one mind. It’s a familiar move in many stories, from Greek myths to horror movies. Human beings, Nietzsche said, would rather have the void for their purpose than be void of purpose, and he could have been talking about the allure of Dr Mabuse. This man wants something and he gets what he wants. In the really paranoid version of the fantasy he cannot not get what he wants. He not only commits the perfect crime many times over: he turns crime into a model of perfection.

This is Kracauer on The Testament of Dr Mabuse. He understands everything about it except the multifarious attraction of the myth.

Lang is so exclusively concerned with highlighting the magic spell of Mabuse and Baum that his film mirrors their demoniac irresistibility rather than the inner superiority of their opponents. To be sure, Lohmann defeats Baum; but Lohmann himself is left without any halo … His victory lacks broad moral significance. As so often with Lang, the law triumphs and the lawless glitters. This anti-Nazi film betrays the power of Nazi spirit over minds insufficiently equipped to counter its peculiar fascination.

Lohmann is the detective who tracks Mabuse down and leaves him in the hospital. The same detective (and the same actor) is in charge of the murder case in Lang’s previous film, M. Kracauer’s subtle reading ends in a kind of helplessness in part because he, like his friend Walter Benjamin, was addicted to traditional detective stories, which largely deal in a quite different collection of myths. They picture crime as a blot or a stain on a world that is in principle clean. The mystery is not only who done it, but that there should be a mystery at all, and at the end of the tale there is none. Eden is restored, as Auden suggested in his essay on the genre. Of course this Eden is no less mythical than the lunatic mastermind, but it’s a tamer, kinder myth, and that is the reason Kracauer speaks wishfully of the ‘inner superiority’ of the forces of the law, and even more wishfully of a form of mental equipment that enables some minds to resist ‘the peculiar fascination’ of the Nazi spirit. We may need more than a bit of equipment, and the Nazi spirit does not belong only to the Nazis. The Mabuse fantasy appeals to anyone, or to any part of us, that is drawn to the ideal of total organisation, of the impeccable plan, and this is where we can return to our later instance of organised crime.

The Big Heat was made in the wake of some serious investigation into syndicated crime in the US. Audiences may have felt that the law was winning the war against corruption, or been afraid that it still wasn’t, or never would. They may have felt the world of crime was alien enough to ordinary life to provide a scary mode of entertainment. The novel the film is based on, by William McGivern, was certainly meant to tell a cautionary tale; it was ‘a profoundly moral work’, as Colin McArthur says in his book on the film. Fritz Lang and his writer, Sidney Boehm, and various executives from Columbia Pictures who contributed ideas and possibilities, didn’t want to make an immoral work, and they certainly didn’t glamorise crime as Lang and his then wife and screenwriter Thea von Harbou did in The Testament of Dr Mabuse. The lawless doesn’t glitter here, it just oozes nasty comfort and privilege.

But Lagana and his crowd are the heirs of Mabuse all the same, better than his heirs because they have improved the machinery, converted crazy nihilism into good business practice, and what in Weimar Germany was a fascinating nightmare is in Harry Truman’s America a tawdry reality. When Lagana lectures Vince about the crudity and obviousness of his gangster methods, we may we think we are hearing the opposite of Mabuse’s sermon about the dominion of crime, and we are, as a matter of tone and ambition. But we are also hearing the voice of Mabuse’s domestication or normalisation, and witnessing a return to practical politics:

Vince, you worry me. We’ve stirred up enough headlines. The election’s too close. Things are changing in this country, Vince. A man who can’t see that hasn’t got eyes. Never get the people steamed up. They start doing things. Grand juries, election investigations, deportation proceedings. I don’t want to land in the same ditch with the Lucky Lucianos.

Luciano went to jail in 1936, but continued to run the family business from prison, so we see what Lagana is saying. He wants to continue his affairs in the right style. As Gunning says, the film’s ‘ultimate critique of 1950s culture’ may be ‘that normal life does not look so very different, whether the mob has been defeated or not’.

I suggested at the beginning that many crime stories seem to be about something else. These two films by Fritz Lang are about many things: fear of disorder, fear of order, dreams of impossible alternatives, the horrors of violence, especially against women. And we are quite used to viewing crime as a kind of allegory. When audiences watched John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera in the early 18th century they knew the hoodlums on the stage were meant to represent Robert Walpole and his cabinet. But what I see in The Testament of Dr Mabuse and The Big Heat is not really an allegory, and not a plain imitation of reality either. It is an escalation of reality, a magnified version of what is already there: in the first case, a world that is so out of control that we imagine a maniac has it in hand; in the second, the endemic threats or temptations of corruption which are not as remote from our lives as we would like. And with this we can return to the question of Debby in The Big Heat as scapegoat both for the sins of crime and the weakness of the law. The moral contradictions here are inescapable and irresolvable. They are the subject of the movie, as the horrible attraction of Mabuse is the subject of the other one.

The best theoretical account of such depictions of what can’t be resolved is one I’ve treasured and admired for a long time. It belongs to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He sketches it out in an essay called ‘The Structural Study of Myth’, and it underlies his magnificent four-volume series Mythologiques. ‘The purpose of myth,’ Lévi-Strauss says, ‘is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.’ And then he adds in parenthesis: ‘an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real’. This provision of a logical model is not the only purpose of movies, of course, or even perhaps of myth. But it is one important function of film as a narrative form, especially when the contradiction is real. The logical model may do nothing more than help us to see how real the contradiction is, but that is surely better than failing to see the contradiction or wishing it away.

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