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Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler

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Dr Mabuse der Spieler
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Directed by: 
Fritz Lang
Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Bernhard Goetzke
Gertrude Welcker
Aud Egede Nissen
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 Fritz Lang's mammoth, two-part, four-and-a-half hour, epic silent crime thriller, "Dr Mabuse: The Gambler", is one of the early German cinema's crowning glories. While building on the expressionistic innovations of cinematic masterpieces such as Robert Wiene's classic "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari", and setting the scene for the later shadowy paranoia of 40's American Film-Noir, the film also began the process which made novelist Norbert Jacques' master criminal Dr Mabuse, one of the most recognised and important literary/film creations in German popular culture. According to the short, but informative documentary included on Eureka's two-disc DVD edition of the movie, 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. When Fritz Lang completed the movie, a newspaper serialisation of Jacques' novel ( a marketing innovation at the time) was used as part of the pre-publicity campaign and helped it (along with a number of other marketing ploys) to become a huge success straight-away.
Unfortunetly, Jacques was eventually forced to sign away the rights to his character for 5000 marks out of financial necessity, and his version of the novel's sequel was dumped in favour of the novelisation of Thea Von Harbou's screenplay for Lang's filmed sequel, "The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse", which was also written by Von Harbou -- Lang's regular screen writer! Several decades later, a whole slew of low-budget German films were made with the character's name featuring as their selling point (even good ol' Jess Franco got in on the act with his "The Revenge Of Dr. Mabuse" [1970]), beginning with Lang's final ever film: "The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse" (1960). The original has still never been matched though for its large-scale creative ambition and overpowering sense of baroque style.
Any film that runs for four-and-a-half-hours -- let alone an early-twenties, silent German-language one -- risks turning into a mighty slog to sit through; but not only is "Dr. Mabuse" endlessly visually stimulating, it's structured in such an episodic fashion as to make it easily digestible by anyone. Indeed, the film could easily pass for a rather exciting seriel, since each Act ends on either a traditional 'cliff-hanger' or -- at the very least -- a significant moment of sharp punctuation.
Firstly, the film is split into two parts: "Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler - A Picture of Our Time" and "Inferno - A Game Of People Of Our Time", and each of these inturn is divided into Acts of roughly twenty minutes duration. The first scene introduces the title character in a manner which perfectly sums up the primary themes of the film: Mabuse sits at his dressing table and spreads a deck of cards before him; each one displays a photograph of one of a variety of different characters, ranging from a street drunk to a pompous banker. Mabuse selects one and his nervous dresser prepares the appropriate disguise -- for it turns out that all of the pictures are of Mabuse in a variety of personas, and all of these disguises, over the course of the movie, will turn out to play a vital role in Mabuse's intricate criminal plans.
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 German society during the chaotic economic free-fall that defined the Weimar 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 anxieties of these dark and disorientating times. The contemporary sense of upheaval engendered a powerful feeling that all past values were being thrown into question -- with hyperinflation and a devalued currency creating a magnitude of extremes in 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 Nietzscian "will to power" ideology was beginning to look more and more attractive to many people as a reaction to the troubling instability of the day.
The film's opening Act displays the stupifyingly elaborate level 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 he is traveling by train. The contract is tossed from the train window by Mabuse's associate as it 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 were reliable in those days!). Mabuse then arranges for the news of the theft to be leaked to the newspapers -- 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 the news of the theft causes. Mabuse has also arranged for the contract documents to be "fortuitously" rediscovered in order to enable him to 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! 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 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 usually chastising them for poor timekeeping, constantly taping 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 "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 evaporating. Ironically, Mabuse's methods of control involve him taking on multifarious identities and shrouding his true self in total mystery.
The consequences for those who interact 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 his addiction; while his 'lover, the dancer Carla Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) displays such total self-abnegating devotion to Mabuse that she comes across much-like one of Dracula's "brides": willing to do anything and destroy anyone (even herself) in order to protect her 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 soon discover their lives in ruins around their feet.
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 businessmen and forces them to lose their fortunes by 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 rich industrialist Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) of his fortune in a plot which involves Carla Carozza becoming Hull's lover in order to provide Mabuse with inside 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 back-rooms of Berlin's clubs as a game against chance where he seeks to control the outcome through his powers of mesmerism -- and by dominating his unsuspecting opponents he thereby eliminates randomness and unpredictability from life.
Opposing Mabuse 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, subjegates her hopless 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 egoist who destroys everything for the sake of his own selfish personal goals. The connections between the two are further enforced by the fact that Wenk is the only man who ever shows the slightest aptitude for resisting Mabuse's diabolical powers of mesmerism though!
Besides Edgar Hull, the other character who really plays a vital role in the plot is the intriguing Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker). We first encounter her at a gambling club where Von Wenk has accompanied Hull while they are trying to discover the identity of the hypnotist who has cheated Hull and other rich gamers of their fortunes. Countess Told is not a gambler herself but someone who is so bored of life with her introverted gentleman-archaeologist husband in their huge, ornately sepulchral palace, that she has taken to secret night-time expeditions of her own in search of vicarious thrills! Von Wenk's encounter with Countess Told leads him to pay her visits at her home and eventually to invite her to help on the case by questioning the captured Cara Carozza, after Mabuse's plans result in the death of Edgar Hull. Unfortunately, Countess Told has, independently, come to the attention of Mabuse after they both attend a seance (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 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 their palace, 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 recieving 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, he 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 is played out amid some fantastically eye-catching sets conceived, designed and fashioned by Lang's magnificent team of Otto Hunte, Erich Ketteelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. The striking gaudiness of the Berlin gambling clubs is hugely evocative of the corrupt and decadent lifestyle of the powerful -- especially an over-elaborate mechanical stage at the Follies Bergers where the gaming banker can be hidden by a secret platform which lowers him down to be replaced by a stage with a semi-nude dancing girl on it (which descends from the ceiling) in case of a police raid! 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, 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 an elephantine staircase at a posh hotel where one of Mabuse's personas resides make everybody in their vicinity look like tiny figurines disappearing into an 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 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; once again, its massive rooms render their occupants as nothing more than negligible ciphers. This is all in stark contrast to the 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 show a city disintegrating, while, behind its shabby facades, the idle rich casually fritters away its 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 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 its disorientating alcoves and enclaves protruding 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 mindset! 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" -- in which he imprisons Countess Told -- that seems geometrically impossible in relation to the rest of the rooms in the house and its utterly unremarkable 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 -- 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 influence, is lost in a kaleidoscope of threatening shadow-play in his cavernous palace. Lang manages to make the compositions of the -- always static -- camera thoroughly compelling through his original framing of the images 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 transfer of the film looks amazing -- with a level of detail now evident that's 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 wall-paper 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 removable English subtitles available. Unfortunately, they appear to have been translated by a non-native English speaker and are full of clumsy sentences, misspellings and grammatical errors. The best that can be said is that their meaning is still desrenable ... with a little effort.
Disc one features the first two-and-a-half hour long part of the film while disc two includes the second two-hour part with both featuring a newly composed score which is presented in 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround sound. A selection of extras have been including: a photo gallery; some very comprehensive biographies of all the principle cast and crew; and a three part documentary (produced by the German company HG Pflaum -- the English subtitles are, thankfully, much more readable than those for the actual film) which covers the life of the author as well as examining the themes of the movie. There is also a section devoted to the composer Aljoscha Zimmermann whose newly composed score is a delight, and considerabley enhances the viewing experience of a film which, apparently, had no known original music of its own.
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-ish pulp of the German 'Krimi' movies of the sixties to the feverish work of Italy's Dario Argento, the groundwork was laid here -- in the diabolical world of Dr. Mabuse!

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