By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “13 Tzameti,” Palm Picture, 2006]
Some films are bulletproof from spoiler overkill, while others, whose structures are delicate and whose impact depends on left curves, are vulnerable as hell. Géla Babluani’s superb, disconcerting, seismic “13 Tzameti” is one for the latter camp so, if you hadn’t read about it during its brief release last year, don’t ruin it now. The less you know, the better, although saying that frames up its own kind of hype-exhaustion, and Babluani’s movie is a nightmare in a minor key, a small-framed riff on socioeconomic injustice that will, if you let it, get under your nape skin and scratch you raw.
“Tzameti” is 13 in Georgian (in the UK, the title reads more coherently as “13 (Tzameti)”); Babluani is the son of famed Georgian director Temur Babluani and brother of George Babluani, who stars as the open-faced hero Sébastien, a young Tbilisi immigrant doing uninsured construction work in France. In the house he’s roofing, mysterious messages come for the owner, a desiccated old junkie with an angry wife. When the dopey coot finally dies, and payment for labor performed is not forthcoming, Sébastien whimsically grabs a letter that had been portentously delivered in it, he finds a hotel reservation, a train ticket and instructions. He takes off, wordlessly hoping to take advantage of whatever earning opportunities might present themselves, and we discover the police are trailing him.
Where Sébastien actually lands, and what secretly happens there, constitutes the film’s left hook sucker punch that keeps hitting you to the last minute. It’s simple, violent and horrifyingly cold-blooded, eloquent as a metaphor for class exploitation and capitalist amorality humans as disposable trash, as pawns, as meat. Low-budget and shot in shadowy black and white, “13 Tzameti” has the muscular, ethical inevitability of an existential fable.
It’s easy to love movies that posit dreadful secret machinations operating under the surface of ordinary life isn’t that how things are actually run? One of the great modern myths of covert power is Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind that began as the villain in a few books by Luxembourgian novelist Norbert Jacques, first adapted by Fritz Lang in epic serial form in 1922 as “Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler.” A mere gambler/mobster he did not remain; in Lang’s 1933 masterpiece “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” the evil genius became a mind-controlling force not necessarily dependent on corporeal form. This is how he was reconstituted for the Cold War in the 60s, by Lang and far less talented filmmakers, in a series of West German films that borrowed ideas from German Expressionism, James Bond, John le Carré and Marvel comics. The new triple-feature DVD set The Dr. Mabuse Collection houses three cheapjack samples of blissful mid-century pulp: “The Return of Dr. Mabuse” (1961), “The Invisible Dr. Mabuse” (1962), both directed by one Harald Reinl, a hack-journeyman who made dozens of German espionage thrillers and a few German westerns, and “The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse” (1964), directed by Argentine B-man Hugo Fregonese.
The first two films stalk the wet, Langian streets of Berlin with stolid U.S. agent Lex Barker; the third opts for a more Ian Flemingish milieu and flits over to sunny Malta. Everywhere, it seems, bodies turn up, hospitals and institutions are hiding secret conspiracies, oblivious victims are radio-controlled by a constantly reincarnating Mabuse to kill or commit suicide, and plans are hatched to destroy or take over the globe one asylum ward and curvaceous double-agent at a time. Here, you do not seek out deft screenwriting and committed acting (the wall-to-wall English dubbing, the only alternative on these public-domain prints, obviates the requirement for either in any case). Rather, you get a retro-tech sense of ominous, Euro-urban dread not unlike the ghostly Parisian emptiness summoned in the serials of silent pioneer Louis Feuillade. When will Mabuse’s time come around again?
“13 Tzameti” (Palm) will be available on DVD on February 13. “The Dr. Mabuse Collection” (Image) is available now.