Although Ministry of Fear opens on Stephen Neale’s (Ray Milland) release from an asylum, it’s the lunacy of the real world that gives this WWII-era film the feel of some kind of a bizarre dream, or, perhaps more precisely, a nightmare. While the narrative may be a subdued and simplified version of Graham Greene’s novel, the exaggerations and distortions typical of director Fritz Lang’s distinctively German expressionist style not only complement but also enhance the sinister and twisted plot. Exploring questions of reality and false appearances, this remastered 1944 film from the Criterion Collection is both visually enthralling and psychologically provoking.
The inciting incident itself is outlandish, as Neale’s trip down the rabbit hole begins when winning a cake by correctly guessing its weight at a fair somehow gets him caught up in a Nazi espionage plot. The importance of this seemingly inconsequential event is highlighted by the drastic change in the tone it incites. At first, the fairgoers’ are unrealistically cheery, their exaggerated jubilance giving the impression of an ideally quaint and harmonious community. They even let out a hearty cheer when Neale decides to take a second stab at the “guess-the-weight” contest.
But the mood turns unmistakably grim the moment he utters the correct number, revealed to him by the fortune teller in a nearby tent after his inadvertent use of a code phrase: “Don’t bother with the past—tell me about the future.” The people fall deadly silent as all eyes turn to Neale. Their extreme cheerfulness is replaced by intense suspicion, a feeling that permeates the rest of this stark and grim film.
Indeed, these watchful eyes elicit a paranoia that haunts our protagonist throughout his series of bizarre mishaps. Despite its validity, Neale’s paranoia is also caricatural, as he constantly thinks someone is out to get him. This enemy remains largely enigmatic, a generic antagonist consisting of some anonymous invincible power. Here we see an example of how Ministry of Fear is waters down its novelistic source through using largely archetypal characters. Not only is this monolithic enemy a familiar construct, the good guys also follow convention: Neale, the standard man of action who does whatever it takes, sweeps leading lady Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) off her feet, and they very easily fall madly in love.
But these cookie-cutter characters may actually enhance the nightmare by forcing the focus to be on the absurd and erratic progression of the story rather on characters’ psychological complexities. For example, when a random blind man (who isn’t really blind) steals the cake and Neale inanely chases after him into the swampy wilderness amid falling bombs, Neale’s lack of motivation is not important. It doesn’t matter that Mrs. Bellane inexplicably transforms from the old woman telling fortunes at the fair (Aminta Dyne) into a femme fatale (Hillary Brooke) who hosts swanky seances. While these discontinuities would normally be characterized as deficiencies, they are entirely appropriate for Ministry of Fear precisely because they break down reality and take us to a place where nothing makes sense, not unlike the world of a dream.
The nightmare is heightened by the film’s stark visual quality. By using high-contrast shots, depicting, for example faces engulfed by darkness, lit only by the ghostly glow of a crystal ball, Lang reflects the kind of tunnel vision dreamers often experience as well as the intensity of dream imagery. Exaggerated objects, like the garishly large scissors the tailor uses when dialing a rotary phone, heighten the film’s surreal quality, as do the visual distortions produced by sharp camera angles, such as the vertigo-inducing chase scene on a towering flight of stairs. For these reasons, Ministry of Fear is not only an excellent example of Lang’s distinctive style, but it also very effectively evokes a sort of unconscious unease, pulling the viewer into a sort of dream state, into this twisted nightmare.
Neale’s adventure takes an erratic and nightmarish course throughout the majority of the movie, but it is bookended by light and cheery scenes that stand in stark contrast, even more so because of the light is exaggerated just as much as the dark. After being forced to make a grisly and deadly decision, the abrupt shift to a lighthearted and sunny drive along the beach is more than just shocking. The final scene is nothing like the demented and darkly surreal meat of the film, but it is just as unrealistic. Ministry of Fear’s presentation of reality is therefore constantly called into question, and, by sucking the viewer into its unstable dreamworld, this fine film provokes a consideration of psychological and metaphysical realities.