He has to be German.
We see the murder, and then we watch it again, on his private screen, we see the agony of the woman raped by the camera; and see him rising from his (director’s) chair – he has come, we think.
He is searching for something he will never find. His Holy Grail a perfect moment of fear, captured on film. However, he is to be forever disappointed, not because there is no such thing – since it is an aesthetic phenomenon he could experience it – but because he’s mistaken in his search.
Terrorized in his youth by his father - a famous psychologist, who used him as a research object into childhood fear; obsessively taping and filming his sleeping and waking life - he has not recovered. Emotionally he appears not to have developed much; he still has the gaucherie of an adolescent, and its concomitant obsession with sex. The film underscores this arrested development by a number of references to ‘boy’ (eg one of the party guests calls him old boy, a quiet irony). A good example of creating a texture, a certain layer of meaning, in a film, of which we are hardly conscious.
Emotionally wrecked, he needs love, and a relationship. Instead, he looks for other another cure, unconsciously acting out his father’s psychoanalytic theories – by finding that perfect moment of fear he will recognise the cause of his trauma, and be cured.
A typical mistake, as I explain elsewhere, of the psychoanalytic approach, which conflates emotions with ideas; in this case the effects of fear are turned into an idea about fear (which he seeks to find). In reality fear has caused him to be emotionally alienated and sexually confused and frustrated – his emotions will not allow him the close physical contact needed for the sexual act. Close human contact might have had a chance to save him, as the film suggests in the developing relationship with Julia; if it had not come too late.
Consciously he looks for that perfect moment, that fear on the woman’s face; but unconsciously is he driven by the need to kill? His terrible child memories, his emotionally estrangement from his father, are they all mixed up with a hatred of, and sexual attraction to, his beautiful step-mother (who married his father six weeks after his wife’s death)? So must he revenge his mother, and therefore kill, kill, kill? And obsessed by sex, which he cannot enact, he masturbates at the moment of his victim’s death, in his own cinema? Thus the near panic to process and watch the films?
Then a young woman falls in love with him. She writes children’s stories, has imagination and innocence, and responds to the child in him (he as a ‘quality’, she says to her blind mother). In turn, he responds to her, and suddenly he becomes a warm, and sweet person; albeit awkward, and a little odd.
Her mother doesn’t like him. Her instinct says there something wrong (underneath his room she can hear him moving – ‘never trust a man who walks quietly’). Later we find out that she often visits his room, when he is out. It’s a great scene, where at one point she says powerfully that it is in the rooms above them, that the blind live. An extraordinary character, who has her own demons – she is an alcoholic – she offers an alternative vision, that finds truth not in what you see, but in the instincts and intuitions; just what Mark lacks.
In a certain sense the two female characters appear as the two aspects of Mark: the mother dark and full of demons, and the innocent, fantastic daughter. These two poles play against each other throughout the film. Although it is ostensibly about sight (after all, it is called Peeping Tom!), the film is also about blindness: the daughter’s to his dark side; his colleagues to his character; and Mark himself to the real causes of his condition. Thus at certain moments, particularly with the mother, Powell seems to be say that sight is less important than the instincts; that the feelings of the artist (was the mother a painter?) is greater than the rationality, the clear-sightedness, of the scientist. Indeed one therapist is caricatured for his own blindness – to Mark -, and to the complacency of his profession: it can all be cured in three years by regular therapy.
The film is also about art, of course; maybe with a little irony towards the cinema. With its obsessional search for the right image; and the hurt and damage this can do – in the film within a film the director makes the lead actress faint again and again until she gets it right. Mark appears human, but like most artists, he is somewhat detached, estranged, obsessed by images and ideas, that sets him apart, and makes him both attractive, Julia is curious to understand and cure him, but also uncanny.
And there are some great scenes. An early one is when Julia visits his film room and the tension increases, as his urge to film, and thus to kill her, rises within him; while she remains innocent, and intelligently detached. The room is dark, she wears a rich red dress, and there are blue film reels, moving in the shafts of light. With his blood up, this beautiful contrast of colours is flooded by red… until he collapses in guilt and agony – he likes her too much to murder her (some might say its because she doesn’t show fear, but I think its because his feelings have been touched).
The film wasn’t well received, when first released. I don’t know the reasons why, but I can speculate. It has a rawness and seediness (the dirty postcards in the newsagents, the domesticity of the porn industry) that might have turned people off; while the film seems to mock the industry itself – the absurd comedy of the film within a film. There is the message about the alienating, fetishistic, effect of cinema; and then there is Mark, the main character. He is no ordinary cinematic psychopath. A little odd, yes; very German, yes; but also innocent and sweet, very Hampstead middle class (at one point he passes for an Observer journalist). He is full of ambiguity, is both German and English, and this creates uneasiness, as we are repelled then attracted to him. But not too many people pay good money to spend two hours feeling uneasy…
Why German? There are so many reasons: the need for a certain distance and strangeness - a foreigner -; the awkward use of the language, which makes him even more gauche; and the associations with ‘German’ psychoanalysis and science – associations of rigidity and detachment, of inhumanity and threat. And most of the then audience would have strong prejudices against anything German. But now, in the dark of the hall, you begin to feel sympathy for a German psychopath! This is the greatness of Michael Powell.