A “monumental film” as epic as the most far-fetched fantasy saga, but firmly grounded in the streets of Weimar Berlin, this first instalment of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy is, simply put, a whole lot of movie for your money. A supernatural tale intertwined with social commentary, a crime film on a majestic scale, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler represents four and a half hours of contradiction and excess. It’s brilliant.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure: this is the first film in the trilogy, but it’s two films, released a month apart. The first film is called The Great Gambler: an Image of the Age, the second, Inferno: a Game for the People of Our Age. Each has six acts and runs for around two hours. It’s a tale of rise and fall, at heart, but a messy business at best. Together the two films form a complete story, but the second part of the trilogy, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, would appear in 1933 and the third, Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, in 1967. The source for the first two films at least was the serialised Mabuse novels of author Norbert Jacques. This is pulp mystery fiction with a touch of class; Lang takes a few steps in the direction of his Hollywood film noir future with these slick stories of criminal twists, unexpected turns and moral compromises in a bleak urban setting.
Those subtitles for the two individual films should give you an inkling that this was intended to be, and was received as, a film that documented its own bewildering era. The cracks in the fractured, dysfunctional Berlin society where Mabuse and his seedy accomplices dwell are the symptoms of the national postwar crisis. That Mabuse is a charismatic, malevolent leader who leads his victims to commit terrible acts, even to destroy themselves, bodes ill for the future. The pace of the plot, the melting certainties and doubtful identities, speak to the fears of those baffled by the mechanisation of the age. This is a film driven by speeding trains, racing cars, guns and screaming mobs: modern phenomena as frightening to many as Mabuse’s mass hallucinations.
Like the film itself, Dr Mabuse is a man of many disguises. Publicly a psychoanalyst, he is privately a gambler at the card table, a hypnotist who transforms people into pawns, a bingeing alcoholic and an arch-criminal with a network of underling felons reaching across the continent. That “Spieler” subtitle translates variously as actor, player and puppeteer. Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse enthrals the audience. His deeds are evil, but there is endless fascination in watching him at work: the casual arrogance of a conman who sends memoranda to his criminal colleagues on banknotes, of a villain who fails to collect a towering gambling debt, because his eyes are on a grander, bloodier prize, of a boozer who condemns his assistant’s drug use.
Mabuse’s nemesis is a dogged man of the law, the state prosecutor on the trail of a gang of card cheats who stumbles upon by chance on a more sinister criminal organisation. Bernhard Goetzke plays Inspector Von Wenk as a slightly desperate individual, a Weimar gumshoe who throws himself recklessly into the hunt for Mabuse – in one stunning setpiece, he faces the villain down over the card table, and manages to resists the full force of the doctor’s hypnotic power. Von Wenk goes solely by his surname in the source novel, but Fritz Lang honours him with the same first name as the novel’s author, Norbert Jacques. It’s a hint, perhaps that the law will eventually reign supreme in the anarchic, shifting world of Dr Mabuse. Hold on tight for an all-guns-blazing finale.
There are women, of course. Norwegian star Aud Egede-Nissen is the nightclub dancer Cara whose love for Mabuse rules her every move, from her seduction of his latest mark (played by the man who would become her husband, Paul Richter – Siegried in Die Nibelungen) to her ultimate downfall. Her performance, especially at the climax of the first movie, is particularly moving. And the little-known Gertrude Welcker dazzles as a bored countess seduced by the thrills of the Berlin nightclubs, and the underworld that controls them.
Dr Mabuse is a film to savour – if you know your silent Fritz Lang, you won’t be surprised that it’s a rare frame you don’t want to freeze, to relish the grandeur of the upper-class interiors, the moodily lit street scenes or the disconcerting multiple exposures in the mad scenes. On this new Blu-Ray presentation, as you ponder the beauty of it all, you’ll want to take a listen to the excellent audio commentary by David Kalat. Among many interesting insights into the movie, Kalat argues staunchly that Lang was no Expressionist. You may waver in your agreement with this thesis, but what’s for sure is that on the evidence of Mabuse Lang knew when to drape his sets in Caligari-esque chiaroscuro lighting, and when to leave well alone. The abstract Expressionist artworks that transform the Count’s mansion into a palace are refigured as a gothic nightmare when he loses his sense. The contrast between the two cinematographic treatments of the jail cell setting here is heartbreaking: the crisscrossing, swerving bars of darkness almost seem a comfort when we return to the same scene in crisp, unforgiving sunlight.
It’s a rich text for sure, and Kalat drops more than a few clues in his commentary as to how you may want to view Mabuse from a 21st-century perspective. It’s a game of chase-the-parallel. Does Herr Doktor equate to a gangster, a terrorist, a capitalist or a banker? The devil perhaps, is not in the detail, but in Lang’s expertly drawn grand scheme. This is a story of the very rich and the very poor, and a man who found a way to exploit both groups. From his blind counterfeiters toiling in a slum workshops, to the society chumps he cheats at cards, Mabuse is bleeding everyone dry. The really terrifying idea is not that villains exist, after all, but that the circumstances exist in which they can thrive.
Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 28 October 2013. The two-disc set features a sparkling modern score by Aljoscha Zimmermann played by a small ensemble, three featurettes, audio commentary and a booklet of images and text from the archive. This is a Blu-Ray transfer of an existing 2K restoration. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.