There are two cases on the record of filmmakers producing trilogies that spanned their careers. Fritz Lang began directing films in 1919, but a landmark from his early output is the Weimar parable Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (translated as Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, though the German word spieler also conveys the sense of a manipulator or “player”). The four-and-a-half-hour crime thriller was released in two parts, the first in April 1922 and the second a month later — a true event film, the launching point of a franchise. After the rise of talkies and fascism, Lang continued the story with Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse in 1933 before escaping from Germany and eventually working in Hollywood. Finally, after playing a central role in the film noir era, Lang was invited to return to (then West) Germany for one more Mabuse movie, Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse). Ironically enough, though this would be Lang’s last film, it also sparked enough interest in the series to produce a more familiar pattern of sequels: six more over the next eleven years.
In February 1960, seven months before the release of Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, the capstone was placed on another filmmaker’s decades-long series, the Orphic Trilogy of Jean Cocteau. In his case, the first film of the trilogy was also his directorial debut, Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, finished in 1930 but not released until 1932 due to its controversial avant-garde style and content). A multi-talented writer, artist and critic, Cocteau added filmmaking to his resume but only completed six feature-length films in all, including the canonical version of Beauty and the Beast. He continued the trilogy in 1950 with Orphée and in 1960 with Le testament d’Orphée, three years before his death at the age of 74. Lang’s and Cocteau’s trilogies present a remarkable unity of vision over such long spans of time. Technology changed, the very face of Europe changed, and while each film pays close attention to these changes, they all manage to cohere together as singular artistic statements.
One of cinema’s first supervillains, Dr. Mabuse stepped into the economic chaos of 1920s Germany determined to exploit it to his own ends. A psychologist with a penchant for inventive disguises and the ability to hypnotize people with a stare, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) spends his time wresting money from the stock exchanges and gambling halls of Berlin. A nemesis arrives in due course: the state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), himself prone to disguises and more resistant than most to Mabuse’s powers. The two characters demonstrate a familiar dynamic, the urbane Mabuse speaking wittily on Expressionism (an artistic movement with a profound influence on Lang) while in another scene von Wenk stands uncomfortably in a room full of modern art. Throughout the trilogy, Lang devotes as much energy to the police investigations of Mabuse’s schemes as to the ins and outs of the heists themselves. This becomes more necessary in the later films as the literal presence of Mabuse himself diminishes. At the end of the first film, Mabuse is defeated and driven to madness as he sits trapped in his own lair. In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, the criminal mastermind remains nearly catatonic in a mental hospital. Yet, if anything, his power and influence are only magnified in this condition. He exhibits telepathic, even demonic control that doesn’t seem to go away even with the character’s physical death. By the time of the third movie, Mabuse is more of a trademark than anything else, a half-remembered inspiration for a new generation of criminals. The new Mabuses use surveillance and cutting-edge weapons as a substitute for mind control and second sight, but the feeling of an expertly run underworld network is much the same.
Like Mabuse, Orpheus is the main character in only one film from the trilogy bearing his name, functioning as a presiding influence in the other two. Truly, the stylistic similarities are all that link Le sang d’un poète with the two later films, unless we count the broad outline of the narrative: a poet travels outside of the human realm into some kind of netherworld or dreamscape. A slim 50-minute film, in contrast to the fulsome spectacle of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Le sang d’un poète exists to experiment and confound rather than to elaborate on established myths. Orphée is a more complete work, casting the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in a modern context, with the poet (Jean Marais) accosted by the personification of Death (Maria Casarès) amid the ruins of postwar France. Le testament d’Orphée introduces a metafictional layer, with Cocteau playing (more or less) himself running into three characters from his previous film. These are three journeys through the looking glass — often literally so — put forth with some of the most charming and beguiling special effects ever devised. If the Mabuse films are political documents, implicitly (and, in Die 1000 Augen, explicitly) linking the crimes of their villains with the far greater crimes of Nazi Germany, then the Orpheus films are an altogether more intimate treatment of the same time period. Opening with a brawl at a poetry club, Orphée is a whimsical take on the mid-century generation gap, as the established poet Orpheus fails to connect with younger readers. By the time of Le testament d’Orphée, however, Cocteau seems reassured that the kids will be all right, even as his own time grows short.
Besides the coincidence of timing and the use of the word “testament” in two of the titles, these trilogies would seem to occupy opposite poles of the film industry. They share evident and accessible artistry, from the energetic and often playful cutting of Lang’s films to the reverse-action photography and practical effects of Cocteau’s. But Lang plays to the conventions of popular entertainment. There are young lovers in all three of his films, and they end up together and happy in two out of three. The resolutions in Cocteau’s films are more thought-provoking, if not confusing. It can be unclear if a character is alive or dead, and why. But this kind of ambiguous transcendence is of a piece with Mabuse’s own ascension to something like immortality. It fits in with the paradox of cinema as the gateway to eternal youth that also, from film to film, tracks the effects of aging on people. These are generalities, but we can locate specific points of contact between Mabuse and Orpheus as well. Motifs common to both trilogies include piercing stares — in Cocteau’s eeriest effect, eyes are sometimes painted onto closed eyelids — and mirrors doubling as forbidden portals. The critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave revered both Lang and Cocteau, but if there’s one director who’s a clear descendant of both, it may be David Lynch. Consider the insistent industrial noise of the opening scene of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, the repetitive coded instructions heard over the radio in Orphée. Sinister, supernaturally tinged crime narratives and unpredictable, recursive dream logic make for an enticing combination. The poles are not so far apart after all.