A couple of months ago, I decided to put myself through the torture of watching all of the Fantomas serials on Netflix. Although I found them enjoyable enough, they didn’t deepen my appreciation for silent movies in the least. When I saw that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was coming up in my Netflix queue, I figured I probably should give the first installment of the Dr. Mabuse story line a try. Expecting nothing more than a change of country and name of Fantomas, I was pleasantly surprised.
Dr Mabuse is a psychoanalyst. He is also a gangster and a card shark. He combines these three interests and begins to terrorize the underground gambling parlors that were so popular among the elite in the mid twenties. Prosecutor van Wenk gets wind of this master criminal and pursues many leads. But Dr. Mabuse is a wily bastard. He is able to disguise himself and live under false names in order for his criminal conspiracies to thrive. Several people get caught up in this web of intrigue: Countess and Count Told, Edgar Hull, and Cara Carozza. All of these people end up confronting this evil genius and their fates are doled out accordingly. Throughout the four and half hour run time, van Wenk pursues Dr. Mabuse obsessively.
Fritz Lang used this surface criminal story to comment on the state of Germany at the time. Hitler assumed power of the nation only ten years after this film was made and there was a reason why he was so well received. We see throughout this film the frivolous nature of the German elite. They gamble thousands of dollars and expensive jewelry without batting an eye. They collect an insane amount of art (all of which were pieces from Lang and his wife’s collection), and they let almost anyone with enough charm to enter their group. They feel invincible. In one scene, Carozza has lured Hull and van Wenk to an illegal gambling room (I assume all gambling was illegal given the secretive nature of all the characters who participate in it). There is not one hint that this room is secretive. There are luxurious chairs, throngs of overdressed men and women lounging, and sparkly jewels just waiting to be taken. When they finally enter the gambling room, it is nothing we had seen prior in the film. The gambling table is a circle with a hole cut out in the middle for the banker to reside. Everyone sits in theater box like seating and their cards are trucked over to them via a small railroad like system. Their cover up is even more opulent. If the police decide to raid, There is a lever that is pulled and a woman drops down slowly from the ceiling and puts on a stark avant-garde dance that involves drapped clothing and lots of boobies. This scene is an example of many throughout the film that glimpse at the absurd amount of money the elite are wasting on trivial pursuits.This is at odds with the larger population of Germany. While the elite are wasting their money, the normal people are realizing that the value of their money is going down. Thanks in no small part to Dr. Mabuse who has a massive counterfeiting ring going on. Although we barely get to know any of them, it is obvious that Dr. Mabuse’s goons are not working for him out of pure loyalty, but more out of the need for a job. This is the only reason that explains the massive amount of blind men collecting and collating the counterfeit money.
Whether or not Lang liked the title, I would firmly put this movie in the German Expressionist movement. Stark contrasts, obtuse angles, psychological imagery abound in this beautifully made film. One of the more interesting techniques he is uses is the characters seeing physical manifestations of words that Dr. Mabuse says to them. At one point van Wenk is hypnotized into getting in a car and drive off to commit suicide off of the cliff. The name of the cliff haunts him as he drives faster and faster to his fate. He can’t seem to lose the name, it appears everywhere. The last scene in particular echoes visual tricks that he would prefect in Metropolis a couple of years later. Dr. Mabuse has descended into his own madness and he is trapped inside the room where all of the counterfeiting money is kept. He sees the counterfeiting machines as robots and scary creatures out to get him. This is a great scene that made for a satisfying ending.
Lang is a genius. There is no denying this fact. All you have to do is look at one sequence in this film and you will understand how he was able to have such a fruitful career. His ability to tell the story through his camera and not necessarily through the stage plotting or the characters is years ahead of his time. Tomorrow I will examine his sequel that he made to Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler exactly ten years later when the situation in Germany had gotten much worse. Until then, my sweet.