In terms of its effect on the development of European popular/fantasy cinema, Fritz Lang's magnificent sequel to his 1921-22 two-part silent crime thriller "Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler", just might be one of the most influential movies ever made. According to film historian and devoted Mabuse scholar David Kalat, the film's startling innovations in sound could also have helped to 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-cum-psychological crime drama happened to fall foul of Hitler and his Nazi henchmens' rise to power in Germany at the time of the movie’s production, a fact which certainly aided the director who, in later years, developed a tendency towards self-aggrandising myth-making on the subject. Certain elements of the plot do appear remarkably prescient in their depiction of the spread of a virulent ideology of crime and destruction which seems to emanate from one madman with uncanny charisma, but which then takes on a life of its own; so it probably isn't too surprising that the film was quickly banned by Joseph Goebbels, although his real reasons were slightly more obscure than one might think (as is related in Kalet’s commentary). 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 regime of gangsters, but nothing about the dark and ambivalent world of Dr Mabuse proves that straightforward; like an immortal multi-headed hydra, this most complicated and enigmatic creation seems to continually re-grow itself, recast with a new face to fit the contemporary age (the bewildering array of variant versions and remakes is surely a testament to that). From today’s perspective for instance, 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 remains even after his death, shimmering on the ether of modern media communications outlets, still 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 all-dominating master criminal and hypnotist Dr Mabuse going insane when his crime empire is destroyed by his aristocratic nemesis Inspector Von Wenk, "Testament ..." invokes a very different world from that of the baroque city dreamscape -- with its cavernous, ornate architecture crowding in on a labyrinth of shadowy darkend cramped alleyways -- we were presented with by "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 a vast but diffuse criminal network. This involved Mabuse adopting a seemingly endless series of disguises and secret identities which 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 opulently staged but paranoid attitude obviously a reflection of the atmosphere of 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 towering 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, dark cramped attics. The exteriors are not the expressionistically lit cobbled alleys and winding roads of the original silent film, but evenly lit sidewalks and public highways -- wide, straight and long. In short, the film seemingly 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 mise-en-scene of "Testament" stands in stark contrast to the otherworldliness of the silent, mysterious world depicted in "The Gambler" -- and the sequel’s clever use of sound (at the time, a new medium) compounds the brutal, realistic immediacy of the milieu depicted 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 ground-breaking than taking a baroque fantasy crime thriller and transplanting its characters into a realistic setting: he also took an established character -- Commissioner Lohmann -- from a completely different film and genre, and brought him 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 for uncovering and detecting crime (in fact he was based on a real-life detective, said to have been the first criminal profiler). 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, this time 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 genre distinctions. Is "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" a crime thriller or a horror film; a supernatural tale of possession or a warning allegory about the corrupting power of politcial ideology? 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, rigid and saturnine Dr Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.), where he has remained in a constant catatonic state. The only signs of activity from the former mastermind are his scribbled notes, written automatically and in silence in an unseeing subconscious state. Yet those notes turn out to contain detailed information relating to recent crimes taking place 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 bug-eyed spirit form and invade Baum's consciousness. After Mabuse apparently dies, the shadowy twilight effects of expressionism immediately seem to creep back into the film’s mise-en-scene: the sequence in question is full of the strange camera angles and stark lighting effects that would later become associated with Film Noir, and the use of sound is particularly creepy and unnerving.
As the plot un-weaves 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; another 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 sydicate 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 (still stuck in silent-like movie over-emoting) 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 ticking bomb that is primed to go off any second.
Awash with memorable images and performances throughout, and instrumental in pushing back the boundaries of genre cinema, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" is essential viewing for anyone interested in both American and European fantasy/horror cinema: we can see the beginnings of so many strands of it in Lang's marvellous 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 Expressionistic influence on Universal’s horror films of the ‘30s to the German Edgar Wallace thrillers of the '60s (directly prefaced by Lang's third Mabuse film "The One Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse", released in 1960) and onto 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 Blu-ray thanks to the Masters of Cinema range.
This HD Blu-ray edition from the Masters of Cinema features only the original (and best) full-length German version (running at 2 hours) in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Some sequences look a bit faded and lack resolution since the print is a composite derived from two different sources, but thankfully the bulk of the film looks tremendous with strong contrast, vivid detail and healthy black levels with convincing period grain. The German audio track has a tendency to get very crackly in a couple of sequences, but again thankfully soon settles down. Film scholar David Kalat provides an informative audio commentary on the history of the film and the differences between its variant versions, including the simultaneously filmed French language version which was shot by Lang with a different cast. The Blu-ray comes with another excellent high quality booklet of essays and excerpts from various sources, offering historical context and insightful analysis. Particularly recommended is an excerpt from a book by Michel Chion on the clever use Lang made in the film of the then new medium of sound – a piercing piece of writing which made me look at this great masterpiece in a new way.
Endlessly re-watchable and re-interpretable and now looking a million dollars in this re-mastered HD Blu-ray presentation -- available in a dual-format edition with DVD and Limited Edition dual-format Steelbook version -- "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" will continue to enthral and mystify audiences, with its strange, languid thriller dynamics and enigmatic plotting, for years to come. Recommended.