Robert Wiene – Panik in Chicago (1931)


Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene (Uli Jung, Walter Schatzberg), pp 166 ff.

Panik in Chicago was an enormous success in all major cities in Germany, as reported in the press. “The D.L.S. branches in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt a.M. had such record bookings for the film Panik in Chicago during the following two weeks that several new copies had to be distributed in these districts because the available subsidiary copies could not fulfill the demand for screenings. Other reports refer to the unusual popular acclaim the film enjoyed in Leipzig, Halle, Munich, and Stuttgart.

In the reviews some criticism was leveled against the quality of several of the dialogues and the relative weakness of the female roles. The film as a whole, however was given a most positive evaluation in Die LichtBildBühne.

Robert Wiene made a tremendous effort to extract from the story whatever it would give. So he did succeed in creating scenes that will be remembered for a long time. Eerie and ghostlike, everything connected with the lonely house. The dim stairs, the rushing people, or the fabulous night shots of a big city. The glass reflections of a dance scene. Simply masterful! On the whole, the imagery in this film achieves great triumphs. Willi Goldberger, the camera artist, and Robert Neppach, the refined architect, were Wiene’s invaluable collaborators. [text continues below]


It is interesting that the journalist emphasizes the pictorial in Panik in Chicago. After all, it is with this film that Robert Wiene’s visual style begins to change, as the first scene demonstrates. The very first shot shows a gigantic vault being opened by bank attendants. A split second later, bank robbers burst in with shouts of “hands up.” In the next hundred seconds, thirty shots show a gang taking over a major bank in downtown Chicago with a thoroughly professional routine. This rapid sequencing represents a general tendency in Wiene’s visual style in Panik in Chicago. Consistent with this is a more active use of the mobile camera, which along with frequent travelings, pans, and tilts of the camera creates a spatial dynamic – a fairly new feature in Wiene’s directorial technique. In addition to this, he constructs complex framing with a variegated organization of levels within the deep focus. Together with unusual fast cutting at certain dramatic moments, Wiene effectively adopts the visual styles of action films.

In the film’s early sequences the four main characters – Taglioni, Percy Boot, Florence Dingly, and Inspector Renard – are introduced, as well as information about the double lives of the first two. Thus, from the very beginning the spectator knows more than the active participants and the police, who are investigating the criminal activity of the two major gangs. Throughout the film Wiene continues this strategy of keeping the spectators more informed than the participants of the film. He reverses this strategy only toward the end by introducing surprises for the audience. Just as the audience begins to identify Susy Owen as the prime suspect for the murder of Percy Boot, through careful criminal investigation, the police discover the true identity of Fay Davis and thereby the real murderer; secondly, Inspector Reynard, working behind the scenes, finds a witness who, because of a personal grudge against Taglioni, is willing to identify him as A1 Patou.

Structurally, Panik in Chicago revolves around three subplots, in each of which Taglioni is one of the two adversaries. There is an early encounter between Taglioni and his arch enemy Percy Booth, who is murdered soon thereafter. This murder precipitates the conflict between Taglioni and Florence Dingly, who “inherits” the gang of her friend Morand Billy (Percy Boot). At the same time the murder and the bank holdup bring police inspector Renard into the picture as Taglioni’s (A1 Patou) main antagonist who doggedly pursues him throughout the film.

The duel between Taglioni and Renard is fought on a subtle, intellectual level. Both play a game, the rules of which they know very well, and both are “modern” in that they use modem technology to further their ends. Taglioni, for example, signals messages to his gang by means of an electric piano with which he can manipulate the letters of a large neon sign on the rooftop of his house. Renard, in turn, has access to a high-tech transmitter with which he receives radioed photographs from the New York police. The struggle between Taglioni and Renard takes place in the most sophisticated accommodations. Renard, who suspects Taglioni but has no proof, pursues him relentlessly but always with good manners, dressed as the occasion requires. Taglioni, fully aware of his pursuer’s intention, is cool and collected in his tuxedo, with his urbane demeanor, to the very end.

Taglioni’s struggle with Florence Dingly is not nearly as clear cut. After Morand Billy’s death, she becomes Taglioni’s adversary and exhorts the gang to attack his cocaine transport as an act of revenge against the man she suspects of having committed the murder. Indeed, she succeeds in bringing him down primarily because he has underestimated her. During a dramatic poker scene, he intimidates her whole gang with his cool ruthlessness, but by refusing to accept her challenge purely out of vanity (“I don’t play against women”), he brings about his own downfall.

Although the structure of the film emerges quite clearly through these three subplots and the duels between the major characters, a deficiency in the characterization of the women in the film – specifically in the all-important case of Florence Dingly – mars an otherwise well-balanced film. Florence’s sudden transformation from high-society lady to the leader of a mob is not at all convincing, nor is her readiness to give up her revenge on Taglioni and even help him in his escape well motivated.

In Panik in Chicago Wiene concentrates on the conflict between the two main protagonists rather than on an authentic depiction of the criminal milieu as he had in Der Andere. The gangs appear, thus, for the most part as anonymous and faceless. Taglioni’s men are seen only in the bank holdup and the shootout at the end. Morand Billy’s gang emerges a bit more clearly, but even in the poker scene, they remain fairly colorless and are given only a minimum of individual characterization. It may have been the Chicago setting that prevented Wiene from using devices such as slang or dialects (all characters speak standard German). Hence, he did not achieve an authenticity the likes of which made the criminal milieu in Der Andere so lively. Nevertheless, with all its flaws, Panik in Chicago is an unusual example for the early German sound film, which is still overlooked without good reason. In its mixture of crime drama and gangster film it is, according to Herbert Holba, a rarity among German films of the period.


Subtitles:French (hard subs),Eng srt.

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