In terms of its effect on the development of European popular/fantasy cinema, Fritz Lang's magnificent sequel to his 1921-22 two-part crime thriller "Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler", just might be the most influential movie ever made! According to film historian (and devoted Mabuse scholar) David Kalat, the film's startling innovations could also have helped transform American cinema in the early thirties -- if only it had been seen there in its original form at the time of its release. But Lang's ambiguous, supernatural-come-psychological crime-thriller happened to fall foul of Hitler and his Nazi henchmen's rise to power in Germany, which occurred while the movie was still in production (a fact which certainly aided the director who, in later years, developed a tendency towards self-aggrandising).
Certain elements of the story do appear remarkably prescient in their depiction of a virulent ideology of crime which seems to emanate from one man, but which then takes on a life of its own; so it probably isn't too surprising that the film was quickly banned by Georbels! Lang, a committed anti-Nazi after his flight to the US, would later claim that the film was, indeed, intended as a veiled critique of Hitler and his foul, gangster-rish regime, but nothing about the dark and ambivalent world of Dr. Mabuse is straightforward; like an immortal multi-headed hydra, this most complicated and enigmatic creation seems to continually re-grow and recast itself with a new face to fit the contemporary age (the bewildering array of variant versions and remakes is surely a testament to that)! Today, a cryptic plot full of calamitous acts of terrorism and crimes committed by a shadowy, diffuse terrorist network with a leader whose existence seems somehow less than corporal, and who's influence shimmers, instead, on the ether of modern media communications outlets, has a very obvious resonance for contemporary viewers!
Taking place at least a decade after the events of the first film, which ended with the dominating master criminal Dr. Mabuse going insane when his crime empire was destroyed by his aristocratic nemesis, Inspector Von Wenk, "Testament ..." invokes a very different world from that of the baroque dreamscape -- with its cavernous, richly ornate architecture crowding in on a dark labyrinth of shadowy, cramped alleyways -- that we were presented with in "The Gambler". Here, Mabuse posed as a psychoanalyst and stage mesmerist; wowing the elite of early-twenties Weimar society with his charismatic public persona, while secretly personally controlling Germany (indeed most of Europe) through his vast but diffuse criminal network. This involved Mabuse adopting a seemingly endless series of disguises and secret identities that enabled him to keep an iron grip (since not even the criminals who worked for him were aware of his multiple identities) on the Country and its politics, trade and cultural identity. The film proceeded like a dark fantasy allegory exposing the connections between an underworld of criminality and the everyday workings of society--its attitude obviously governed by the economic chaos that took hold of Germany during the early years of the 20th century.
But "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" looks very different from "The Gambler": gone are the huge, elaborate buildings dwarfing the characters in vast cathedral-like edifices built on the back of decadent criminal espionage; now the murderous plots and elaborate thefts of Mabuse's gang are hatched in bland, dim office spaces; allocated in dank cellars with peeling wallpaper; and organised in grimy, cramped attics. The exteriors are not the expressionistically lit cobbled alleys and winding roads of the original silent film, but evenly lit sidewalks and highways: wide, straight and long. In short, the film presents itself in a naturalistic, docudrama manner, much like Lang's previous early sound picture "M" which meticulously followed the police investigation into a series of child killings and objectively examined the reactions of a city living in fear of a terrible killer -- while also presenting the object of these fears as a pathetic, flawed human rather than a monster. The down-to-earth realism of the mis-en-scene of "Testament" stands in stark contrast to the otherworldliness of the silent, mysterious world depicted in "The Gambler" -- and its clever use of sound (at the time, a new medium) compounds the brutal, realistic immediacy with atmospheric industrial pounding and other naturalistic noises of the city -- tendencies already discernible in "M".
The complicated relationship between "Testament", Fritz Lang's first Mabuse film "The Gambler", and the documentary-style crime thriller "M", sends reverberations ricocheting throughout one's considerations of this masterpiece of early sound cinema: Lang did something even more groundbreaking than taking a baroque fantasy crime thriller and transplanting its characters into a realistic setting: he also took an established character -- Commissioner Lohmann -- from another of his films and a completely different film genre, and brought them into the unpredictable, mercurial fantasy world of Mabuse. Lohmann (played, once again, by Otto Wernicke) first appeared as the investigating Commissioner in "M", of course; his professional investigative techniques were presented methodically in that film as the best, rationally based methods of uncovering a crime. The world of "M" is a recognisable, reality-based world -- where the rules of logic and rationality apply and normal detective work can be expected to reveal an ordered, understandable reality. But, although "Testament ..." once again places Lohmann in a realistic setting, normal deductive reasoning soon proves itself incapable of yielding the expected results. This is the second great innovation of Lang's film: it totally disrupts normal genre distinctions. Is "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" a crime thriller or a horror film -- a supernatural tale of possession? The central enigma of the film is based around this conundrum. Lohmann's investigations continually bring him back to the name "Mabuse": when an ex-cop, drummed out of the force for corruption, tries to make good his reputation by acting as a spy in a crime syndicate dealing in forgery and robbery, Lohmann's attempts to get to the bottom of the plot are continually thwarted by the fact that his number one suspect, Dr. Mabuse, is insane and has resided for ten years in a privately run asylum presided over by the officious and saturnine Dr, Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) where he has remained constantly in a catatonic state. The only signs of activity from the former mastermind are his scribbled notes, written automatically in an unseeing subconscious state. Yet those notes turn out to contain detailed information relating to recent crimes in the city!
How is the information getting out? It turns out that Mabuse's ideology is even stronger than he is. Half-way through the film, he actually dies! but his "crime for crime's sake" philosophy has already taken hold of Dr Baum: is it possession or just simply that Baum has himself become infected with Mabuse's insane Nazi-like ideology? One of the most disconcerting and creepy sequences in all of Lang's cinema occurs when Mabuse (once again played by silent movie star Rudolf Klein-Rogge) appears to materialise in spirit form and invades Baum's consciousness. The sequence is full of the strange camera angles and stark lighting effects that would become associated with Film Noir and the use of sound is particularly creepy and unnerving. As the plot unweaves itself in a paranoid loop, the viewer is left, like Commissioner Lohmann, to decipher a puzzle box plot that makes no rational sense but yet remains seemingly rooted in the everyday. This mix of espionage, supernatural horror and crime is what makes the film still, to this day, seem fresh and ahead of its time; a subplot involving a member of Mabuse's gang, Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl) who wants to go straight with the help of his new love, Lilli (Wera Liessem) but finds the tendrils of the all-seeing Mabuse/Baum impossible to escape, adds another element reminiscent of the early British Hitchcock suspense thrillers of the day, such as "The 39 Steps". Liessem's rather wooden acting is the only weak link in an otherwise splendid cast, and the romantic subplot between Lilli and Kent comes across as a bit too wishy-washy, although it does give us the film's big Hitchcockian suspense sequence when the two are locked in a cellar with a bomb that is primed to go off at any second.
Awash with memorable images and performances and pushing back the boundaries of genre cinema, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" is essential viewing for anyone interested in European fantasy/horror cinema: we can see the beginnings of so many strands of it in Lang's marvelous creation, which takes a popular German literary character and moulds him into something far more provocative and thought-provoking than his origins in '20s pulp fiction would ever have implied. From the Edgar Wallace thrillers of the '60s (directly prefaced by Lang's third Mabuse film "The One Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse", released in 1960) to the Italian horrors of the '70s, Lang's genre challenging film anticipates them all and remains a compelling piece of celluloid history which is here given a new lease of life on DVD.
Criterion's new high-definition digital transfer claims to present the film in its original "pillar box" aspect ratio of 1.19:1, although it still comes out in the familiar 1.33:1 ratio on my TV screen! The UK release by Eureka Video did preserve the more sever ratio, but the black levels looked very much more faded than they do on this edition (although the two transfers appear to be from the same print). I prefer Criterion's slightly sharper transfer even though Eureka Video's edition features slightly more information at the top and bottom of the screen.
"The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" has had a strange and varied history. The first disc on this two- disc set features Lang's complete German cut of the film; but disc two features the French version -- shot by Lang simultaneously and featuring French actors in all the main roles. The print is poor quality but this version is still very much inferior to the German version and illustrates the importance of casting in the creation of a masterpiece.
As well as this French version, the film was also reedited for its release in the US and a featurette on the disc compares all three versions. We also get an excerpt from a 1964 documentary where the director is interviewed about the film; an excerpt from "Mabuse in Mind". a 1984 film in which actor Rudolf Schundler, who had a minor role in "Testament ... " and went on to play Professor Milius in Dario Argento's "Suspiria", remembers working with Fritz Lang; a short interview with Mabuse expert Michael Farin about the writer who originally invented the Mabuse character, Norbert Jacques; and finally, we have a collection of production design drawings, pictures of memorabilia, press books, stills and posters -- as well as a written essay by Tom Gunning, author of "The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity". Also, on disc One, Film scholar David Kalat provides an informative audio commentary on the history of the film, its actors and the Mabuse character.
This is a great collection for a true masterpiece -- endlessly re-watchable and re-interpretable and looking a million dollars in this re-mastered DVD presentation, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" will continue to enthrall and mystify audiences with its strange, languid thriller dynamics and enigmatic plotting, for years to come.