Fritz Lang's epic, two-part, four-and-a-half hour silent crime thriller "Dr Mabuse: Der Spieler" (“Dr Mabuse: The Galmbler”) is one of early German cinema's crowning glories; a celebrated monochrome spectacle, full of ideas which continue to reverberate to this day, such as the notion of crime becoming a tool and a weapon of anonymous terrorism and identity a nebulous form that can be stolen, appropriated, manipulated and then discarded at will. While building on the expressionistic innovations of cinematic masterpieces such as Robert Wiene's classic "The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari", taking them in an entirely opposite direction which aimed to reflect social reality rather than an abstract subjective state of delirium, Lang also set the scene for the later shadowy paranoia of 40's American film noir, his crafting of the Mabuse myth (which was heavily influenced by the Louis Feuillade serials based on the Fantômas comic-book character) also beginning a process which transformed novelist Norbert Jacques' pulp fiction master criminal into one of the most recognised and important literary/film creations ever to emerge out of German popular culture. Jacques appears to have been something of a forerunner to Michael Crichton (although without quite the same level of business acumen) in that his novel was written with a shrewd eye on an eventual film adaptation at a time when the author was probably one of the most successful popular writers of his generation. After Fritz Lang completed his movie version (with the collaboration of Jacques) the earlier serialisation of the source novel in the Berliner effectively acted as a pre-publicity campaign for the film’s premier (a marketing innovation at the time) and, along with a number of other marketing ploys, helped it become a huge success with German audiences straightaway.
Unfortunately, Jacques was eventually forced to sign away the rights to his character (out of financial necessity) for a mere 5000 marks; by this time the name Mabuse had become synonymous with Lang and his striking film incarnation, rather than the novel which had provided the inspiration and a great deal of the material for it. Jacques’ written version of the novel's intended sequel was later dumped in favour of a novelisation of the Thea von Harbou screenplay for Lang's "The Testament of Dr Mabuse" -- which was also written by von Harbou, Lang's regular screenwriter, collaborator and romantic partner during his German film-making years. Several decades later, a whole slew of low-budget B-movie German films were made with the character's name featuring prominently as their selling point (even good ol' Jess Franco got in on the act with his "The Revenge of Dr Mabuse" ). This phase began with Fritz Lang's own update on the character, and the recurrent themes associated with him, in a work which became Lang’s final ever film: "The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse", released in 1960. The original 1922 masterpiece has still never been matched, though, for its large-scale creative ambition and the sheer overpowering sense of its baroque style, which captures the decadent smoky glamour of Weimar era Berlin with an artistic ink-black splendour unparalleled elsewhere.
Any work that runs for four-and-a-half hours, let alone a silent German-language one from the early 1920s, risks turning into a mighty slog to sit through for a modern viewer; but not only is "Dr Mabuse" an endlessly visually stimulating dark feast, it's also structured in such an episodic fashion as to make it easily digested by almost anyone. Indeed, the film could easily pass for a rather exciting serial blockbuster, since each act ends on either a traditional 'cliff hanger' or -- at the very least -- a significant moment of sharp punctuation. As a completed entity, the film is presented to us in two discrete parts: "Dr Mabuse: The Gambler - A Picture of Our Time" and "Inferno - A Game Of People Of Our Time"; each of these in turn divided into acts of roughly twenty minutes duration. But the two halves of the movie, which together make up one full story, were never actually meant to be seen in one sitting, though; and were originally premiered a month apart, in Berlin. The closest modern equivalent to this situation would probably be Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”, in which one story was split into two films, or ‘volumes’, which were released separately. It was actually a common practice in early 20th century German cinema, where two- or sometimes three-part epics were known as ‘monumental’ films.
The first scene introduces the title character in a manner which perfectly sums up Lang’s primary themes: evil-eyed Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) sits at his dressing table in his study and fan-spreads a deck of cards before him; each displays a photograph of one of a variety of different characters who, taken together, span the whole of the German social class structure, ranging from a working class street drunk to a pompous banker. Mabuse selects one, and his ferrety coke fiend of a dresser nervously prepares the appropriate disguise for him -- for it turns out that all of the cards depict Mabuse himself in his many secret personas; and these disguises, over the course of the movie, will turn out to play a vital role in the criminal’s intricate plans, which revolve around economically destabilising an increasingly corrupt society.
This scene immediately establishes Mabuse as an omnipotent malevolent force, secretly controlling and manipulating all of German society -- its Industry, economy and finances -- from every conceivable angle … and all simply for the sake of exercising power for power's sake. Lang seeks to examine post-war Weimar Germany during the chaotic economic free-fall that defined the Republic during the years 1918-24. But rather than a worthy realist document of the era, Lang and many other contemporary German filmmakers of the day turned instead to the illicit pleasures of pulp fiction (spy stories, science-fiction and horror thrillers) as a means of expressing the very real anxieties of these dark and disorientating times. The contemporary sense of upheaval engendered a powerful sense that all past values were being thrown into question -- with hyperinflation and a devalued currency creating a magnitude of extremes of wealth and poverty. In the film, all of society's most pressing problems are seen as being the result of the machinations of one man, whose Nietzscheian "will to power" ideology was beginning to look more and more attractive to many ordinary people as a reaction to the troubling instability of the day.
The film's opening act spells out the stupefyingly elaborate levels of intricacy in the planning required to enable Mabuse to manipulate national events to his satisfaction: a secret business contract which has far-reaching implications for the economic welfare of several nations is stolen from its courier while being transported by train. The contract is tossed from the window by one of Mabuse's associates-in-crime as the train passes over a bridge, under-which, at that precise moment, Mabuse has arranged for another of his gang to be driving an open-hooded car! (A good job the train timetables at least, were reliable in those days!) Mabuse then arranges for news of the theft to be leaked to the newspapers – an act timed to allow him (in another of his disguises) to make a killing on the German stock exchange by buying shares at a knockdown price after the market crash that news of his own thievery inevitably causes. Mabuse has also arranged for the contract documents to be "fortuitously" rediscovered later, in order to enable him to then sell at a massive profit in the consequent bull market!
In fact, every major crime in the country is seen to be controlled by Mabuse in one of his many disguises -- including a massive counterfeit operation that’s being run from a backstreet Berlin sweatshop providing a living for the impoverished and the blind! Mabuse's meticulously conceived, covert criminal operations demand total loyalty and complete commitment from his followers, and he dominates them through a combination of iron will and strange hypnotic powers. Mabuse's devoted fraternity are more like members of a cult than an ordinary criminal gang: in all of his dealings with them he is invariably seen chastising them for poor timekeeping or some other misdemeanour, constantly tapping his watch and reminding them that they are all pawns in his ultimate "game with people's faiths!"
Mabuse's need to control every person and situation is portrayed as a pathological condition, and actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who went on to play the Frankenstein-like inventor Rotwang in Lang's dystopian SF classic "Metropolis") tackles the role with a performance which emphasises the fact that the character's sanity appears to be constantly in the balance: Mabuse seems to need to rein in the chaos of the world around him and impose himself on others in order to stop his own persona simply evaporating in an alcohol and drug intoxicated miasma. Ironically, Mabuse's methods of control involve him taking on multifarious identities and shrouding his true self in such total mystery that the real man behind the endless personas just might as well not exist at all. Indeed, when his plans eventually unravel his identity retreats into a shell of a body contorted and shrunk by his encroaching insanity. Lang makes Mabuse stand for the personification of a set of themes and an ideology, but then turns him into an abstraction once again, so that ‘the great unknown’ could be anyone at any time who cares to take up the name Mabuse – a name which is ultimately merely a cipher for a frenetic, unstable and corrupt age in which the fault lines between nascent psychiatry, stage mesmerism and the occult practices of spiritualism; between the stock market rushes and the thrills of the high-class gambling den -- are as permeable as Mabuse’s innumerable identities.
The consequences for those who come into contact with Mabuse's indomitable personality are never less than disastrous. The theme of total domination of the will was already a common one in German cinema, especially in early expressionist movies like "The Cabinet of Dr Calligari" and "Nosferatu". Although the film is not a 'horror' picture, Mabuse does come across as a vampire-like figure: draining the life from those who surround him by robbing them of their free will. Mabuse's pathetic, cocaine addicted dresser is reduced to a timid mouse-like man, constantly scurrying around his master's feet and kept subservient through fear and addiction; while Mabuse’s 'lover, the exotic casino dancer Carla Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) displays such total self-abnegating devotion to her paramour that she starts to come across much more like one of Dracula's hypnotised "brides" -- willing to do anything and to destroy anyone (even herself) in order to protect her adored master. Along the way there are many other completely innocent victims who find themselves drawn into Mabuse's cruel world through no fault of their own, and who soon discover their lives crumbling in ruins around their feet as a result.
This need to dominate on a private as well as a public level probably explains Mabuse's habitual gambling. Not content with making huge amounts of money through his one man war on the state, Mabuse also visits Berlin's teeming gaming clubs where a whole culture of gambling exists in a crepuscular atmosphere of baroque decadence. Here, Mabuse targets wealthy playboy businessmen and ruins them, depriving them of their undeserved fortunes after hypnotising them into losing at poker! These schemes turn out to be just as elaborate as his other criminal activities: part one of the movie centres on Mabuse's plan to rob the son of a rich industrialist called Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) of his inherited fortune, in a plot which involves Carla Carozza becoming Hull's lover in order to provide Mabuse with insider information on the moneyed bachelor's movements. Mabuse's gambling seems like an unnecessary compulsion, but once again, the twisted mastermind sees these nocturnal visits to the smoky backrooms of Berlin's elitist clubs as a game against the vagaries of chance, where he seeks to control outcomes through use of his powers of mesmerism; and by dominating his unsuspecting opponents he thereby eliminates randomness and unpredictability from his life.
Opposing Mabuse’s game of fate is another very strong character: Chief Inspector Norbert von Wenk (played with solid determination by Bernhard Goetzke). In many ways, von Wenk is a parallel personality to Mabuse: both are prone to obsession and Wenk also resorts to disguising himself in order to pose as a typical patron of the secret gambling clubs; in fact, the first time Wenk and Mabuse encounter each other, both men are in disguise and acting under pseudonyms! Both men also fall for the same (married) woman -- although, while Wenk pays courteous respect to his unattainable amore, Mabuse simply kidnaps the poor woman, subjugates her hopeless husband with his hypnotic powers, and then threatens to kill the man if she does not consent to his advances! In the final analysis, von Wenk's controlling personality is directed towards restoring order for the state, while Mabuse is an egotist who destroys everything for the sake of his own selfish personal goals and whims. The connections between the two are further enforced though, by the fact that Wenk is the only man who ever shows the slightest aptitude for resisting Mabuse's diabolical powers of mesmerism.
Besides Edgar Hull, the other character that really plays a vital role in the plot is the intriguing, doe-eyed Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker). We first encounter her at an ornately decorated gambling club to which von Wenk has accompanied Hull while trying to discover the identity of the hypnotist who has cheated the handsome playboy and many other rich gamers of their fortunes. Countess Told is not a gambler herself but someone who is so bored of living life with her introverted, gentleman-archaeologist husband in their huge, ornately sepulchral palace home that she has taken to secret night-time expeditions of her own, in search of racy vicarious thrills while under the soporific influence of opium.
Von Wenk's encounter with Countess Told leads him to pay her special visits at her home, and eventually to invite her to help on the Mabuse case by questioning the recently captured Cara Carozza, who is now in police custody after Mabuse's diabolical schemes result in the death of Edgar Hull. Unfortunately, Countess Told has independently come to the attention of Mabuse after they both attend a séance, in a beautifully macabre sequence that gently mocks the patrons of such events. Told's unquenchable search for thrills is not satisfied by the unintentionally comic machinations of the mawkish medium presiding over the evening's entertainment, and so she removes herself from the assembly to be joined by the enraptured Mabuse. Though both Mabuse and von Wenk end up habitually calling on his wife at her palatial home, the amiable Count Told (Alfred Abel) seems blithely unconcerned with his wife's unconventional social life, so wrapped up is he in his dusty ancient artefacts! Alfred Abel gives a beautifully judged performance as the bewildered Count, who finds himself at the receiving end of Dr Mabuse's all-consuming desire to dominate. Mabuse ruins the Count's reputation by hypnotising him into cheating at cards, and after kidnapping Countess Told, tortures the now broken man (who believes his wife has left him) with hallucinations that eventually drive him to suicide.
This rich blend of crime and melodrama, which came to foreshadow the Hitchcock thriller and the Hollywood gangster film, is played out amid some fantastically eye-catching sets conceived by master architect Karl Stahl-Urach and designed and fashioned by Lang's magnificent art directing team of Otto Hunte, Erich Ketteelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. The striking gaudiness of Berlin’s gambling clubs, the raucous music halls and the Folies Bergères-like cabaret scenes depicted in various of the film’s acts, are hugely evocative of the corrupt and decadent lifestyle of the powerful new rich class who’ve made their money from war profiteering, especially the over-elaborate mechanical stage at the Folies Bergères, where the gaming banker can be hastily hidden in the event of a police raid by a secret platform that lowers him out of sight, to be replaced by a stage that descends from the ceiling on which a semi-nude dancing girl is posed! Mechanical figures also crop up elsewhere: in Cara Carozza's stage act -- which encompasses two mechanical heads with huge noses (the Freudian subtext of-which is probably best left unspoken); and, at the climax of the film, when Mabuse finally goes insane and the complex locking mechanism at his counterfeiting shop becomes a bizarre, moving mechanical head in his fevered imagination. Such indulgent spectacles foreshadow the futuristic sights of Lang's later masterpiece "Metropolis".
The characters in the film are often dwarfed by their surroundings as many of the sets exhibit a marked tendency towards gigantism: huge revolving doors and a gargantuan staircase at the posh Excelsior Hotel where one of Mabuse's personas resides, make everybody in their vicinity look like tiny figurines disappearing into a vast ornate landscape. Indeed, doorways often seem to be three times the size of people, and many other peculiar games are played with the viewer's sense of visual orientation by manipulating perspective and depth of field, emphasising the inadequacy of the individual overwhelmed by economic forces beyond his/her control. The interiors of the Tolds' palace represent the highlight of the design team's creative vision: a baroque extravaganza of faux-Egyptian architecture with sculptured ornamentation and crafted furnishings filtered through a contorted cubist sensibility and expressionist lighting. Once again, its massive rooms render their occupants as nothing more than negligible ciphers. This is all in stark contrast to the film’s exteriors, which are never anything less than dark, cramped and visibly crumbling through neglect. The uneven cobbles, broken paving and peeling paint on innumerable dilapidated stairwells in shadowy streets and alleys show a city disintegrating while, behind its shabby facades, the idle rich casually fritter away their often ill-gotten wealth in fabulously glamorous settings!
The early expressionist films forsook realism in favour of a radical depiction of the psychological state of their characters through outlandish landscapes; for instance, "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" featured evenly lit sets with the shadows actually painted onto their canvas backings. Lang's film takes a much more realistic approach -- but there is still an expressionist aesthetic built into many of the sets, which is fleshed-out by the play of light and shadow in Carl Hoffmann's luminous photography. A notable example is the gaming establishment of the newly wealthy Emil Schramm, which has its jaggedly off-kilter design plan -- with all those disorientating alcoves and recesses protruding and receding at all sorts of odd, spiky angles -- further enhanced by a patchwork of irrational, triangular shadows painted on to the set, all of which has the effect of emphasising Schramm's taste for the tacky while showcasing a somewhat scrambled mind-set! Another peculiar but noteworthy fact is that the outlandish interiors often seem to have an irrational relationship with their unassuming exteriors; most notably, Mabuse's hideout contains a bizarre "round room" (which is where he imprisons Countess Told) that seems geometrically impossible in relation to the rest of the rooms in the house and the utterly unremarkable exterior brick facade!
The already mentioned photography of Carl Hoffmann plays a big part in forging the notable visual aesthetic of the film through its use of expressionistic lighting techniques -- especially in scenes where Cara Carozza's featureless white prison cell suddenly becomes shrouded in shadows, with prison bars projected over the entire room; and where Count Told, driven insane by Mabuse's hypnotic influence, is lost in a kaleidoscope of threatening shadow play in his cavernous palace where he is haunted by an army of multiple exposure ghosts of his pale self. Lang manages to make the compositions of the almost always static camera thoroughly compelling through his original framing of images and camera effects trickey; and this classic crime drama ends up as a perfect summation of the romantic style of the early German cinema. But no-one, not even Lang, could have guessed at this stage just how important the character of Dr Mabuse was to become in the annals of European fantasy cinema.
The newly restored HD transfer of the film looks amazing, with a level of detail now becoming evident that makes it look better than a lot of films half its age! Of course there is a lot of wear-and-tear and a few missing frames here and there, but when you can clearly see the intricate patterning on the Police Commissioner's wallpaper, it's hard to get too worked up by a few blemishes. The transfer has been compiled from two sources and, while one is noticeably better than the other, thankfully, the better one makes up the bulk of the running time. The original German Intertitles have been preserved for this release with newly translated and much improved removable English subtitles also available.
Disc one features “Dr Mabuse: The Gambler”, the first two-and-a-half hour long part of the film, while the second disc includes the two-hour conclusion entitled “Dr Mabuse: Inferno”, with both featuring a newly composed score. Both are also complemented by an extraordinary commentary track by Mabuse expert David Kalat, recorded for the 2009 Mabuse box set (which is why Kalat frequently refers to other Mabuse commentary tracks he’s recorded throughout). Kalat manages to keep up the pace of his breathless, scholarly and wide-ranging analyses of everything Mabuse-related for the full four-and-a-half hours’ duration, with barely a pause for breath! This is effectively an extremely learned, book length treatise in which you will learn all there is to know about everything from the social and political climate of Weimer era Germany to the content of a recent graphic novel based on the Mabuse ‘franchise’ and about obscure art film ‘spin-offs such as “The Image of Dorian Grey in the Yellow Press” by Ulrike Ottinger.
The disc also includes three featurettes produced by the German company HG Pflaum. “The Music of Dr Mabuse” features the composer Aljoscha Zimmermann, whose newly composed score is a delight, and considerably enhances the viewing experience of a film which, apparently, has no known original music score of its own. In this interview he takes some major scenes from the movie and explains the thinking behind his musical accompaniment. “Norbert Jacques: The Literary Inventor of Dr Mabuse” features Mabuse expert Michael Farin, who provides a brief biographical sketch of the author and expands on how the success of the film both helped and hindered his career. Finally a 29 minute documentary entitled “Mabuses Motives: The Motives and Themes of Dr Mabuse” relates the work’s striking visual ideas and themes to other classics of German cinema to put Lang’s achievement in both its cinematic and post-World War One societal context. Finally the Eureka Masters of Cinema release features a 32-page booklet with reprints of some vintage Fritz Lang interviews.
Fritz Lang's German films of the 20s and 30s influenced, in various roundabout ways, the whole of Europe's fantasy-horror-thriller output. From the noir tinged pulp of the German 'Krimi' movies of the sixties to the feverish work of Italy's Dario Argento in the 1970s, the groundwork was laid right here -- in the diabolical world of Dr Mabuse!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!