Right before Fritz Lang fled Germany for France and eventually Hollywood’s wide open arms, he made a movie that was essentially the straw that broke camel’s back in his own life. Banned in 1933 by the newly instated Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Joseph Goebbels), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse would mark the last German film in Lang’s filmography. There are many theories as to why it was banned and why Lang fled Germany this early on in the Third Reich’s reign, but the truth is elusive.This elusive truth is fitting for both the genius behind the camera and the movie that plays on madness with a psychological and expressionist slant.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel, but it seems to be only on the surface. While both films keep the title character, in Testament, Dr. Mabuse is relegated to a side character. Instead the film is more about the doctor who treats Dr. Mabuse in the insane asylum. He becomes obsessed by him and assumes the moniker in order to pull off masterful schemes and crimes. Like Fantomas or Sherlock Holmes stories, the criminal must also have the police inspector nipping at its heels. In Testament, this role is fulfilled by Commissioner Lohman. Commissioner Lohman gets wind of the Dr. Mabuse conspiracy after he receives a phone call from an ex-cop. This disgraced man pleads almost manically for the Commissioner to help him, cut off as he is discovered by the criminals sent to hunt him. Lohman gets to the apartment where this ex-cop made that fateful phone call and launches a long and convoluted search that expands beyond his first beliefs. Lohman gets help from a man he once arrested. Through desperation from long unemployment bouts, Kent joins the criminal ring led by Dr. Mabuse. But he quickly learns that he is in over his head and refuses to take part in the murderous tendencies for a way to gain control over the city. Kent crosses over from the criminal world and into the world of cops and justice with the help of the woman he loves. As Lohman and Kent piece together the investigation, the doctor spirals further down into madness and his master schemes dictated to him by the real and dead Dr. Mabuse. Every event and plot point crescendo to the film’s inevitable ending.
There is something about Lang’s German features that keep them above his later catalogue in America. The obvious answer would be the Expressionist tendencies he indulges in their raw form in these films. But by the time of the making of Testament of Dr. Mabuse, he barely ever indulges in the psychological bent and distorted imagery that are indicative of the Expressionist movement. He only ever employs these tricks to show the descent into madness that several characters indulge in. But these scenes are not the focus of the film. Instead Lang uses stark realism and seemingly in scene sound to show the mad chase towards solving a mass conspiracy. Another obvious answer would be the overt social commentary that is layered on in the subtext of a traditional crime story. Years after he made the movie, Lang claimed that much of Dr. Mabuse’s ideas were based on Nazi propaganda that was just taking hold on his country of origin. This is most obviously seen in the crime manifesto the real Dr. Mabuse wrote and the psychologist follows with almost a maniacal precision and without any doubt. But the Nazi correlations were attached later on. Instead these ideas that dominate Dr. Mabuse’s manifestos are more universal. In the commentary on the Criterion Collection release, David Kalat, makes allusions to Osama Bin Laden’s propaganda and other tyrannical regimes. These allusions are just as fitting as it being attached to the Nazi regime.
I can’t point to just one reason why this movie, M, Metropolis, and several other German Lang movies were so great and interesting. It is rather the sum of their parts that make them masterpieces. A combination of actors willing to do anything Lang wants them to, the freedom to film as many scenes as he wants, and the willingness to comment on the social world around him give Lang’s German movies an effectiveness his American films do not have.