The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset DVD Review
    SRP: £49.99


    All three films are presented in their original theatrical aspects. All have been restored and look fine, the first two having been “refreshed” from their previous Eureka releases - but it would have to be the first film that impresses the most, simply because you would not have expected it to have retained such lush visual dynamics. The full retail copy of this set features a booklet detailing the restoration process that the films have undergone but, sadly, my check discs do not. It is also true that, having never seen any of the features before, I have nothing to gauge their transfers against as a means of comparison.

    Yet, for a film from 1922, Dr. Mabuse, framed at 1.37:1, looks stunning. Naturally there are instances when damage flares-up - pops, streaks, tears etc - and when the grain-field increases in volume, and some darker elements can vary in integrity, but this SD image is, for the overall majority of this leviathan feature (spread, as it is, over two discs) very robust, surprisingly smooth and consistent in terms of detail, shadow delineation and contrast stability. Not many American films from this period look this good, that's for sure. Karl Hoffmann 's deep-focus photography is well maintained. Backgrounds can appear quite clear and sharp, the sets, streets and crowd scenes agreeably detailed. Close-ups, which, of course, are nowhere near as “close-up” as more modern fare, reveal plenty of finite information. By far, it is Klein-Rogge's face and his many disguises as Mabuse that most impress. Hair, eyes, skin-tones - from pallid to swarthy - and some good examples of texture definition mean that this is an extremely well restored print. Short of a full hi-def makeover, it is difficult to believe that the film could look any better than this.

    1933's Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, framed at 1.19:1, comparatively, has much more overt contrast wavers, but far less damage, wobbles or debris. But the film still looks fine and detailed. There is more fluid camerawork to be savoured this time out and the transfer handles this well. The opening scene, when a mysterious man cowers in a basement room whilst machinery roars all around him and crooks search for him, immediately marks this image as being considerably better and sharper than many American counterparts from the same time. Light and shade is very reasonably maintained, with whites less prone to blooming than its predecessor and blacks more consistent in their depth and delineation. Shadows, naturally, play a large part and in many scenes, they look terrific, though, in others, they can be infiltrated and diffused by too much grey. Detail is great on street scenes, with wanted posters, cobbled roads, brickwork and cars standing out well. Interiors - offices, asylum cells, warehouses and studies - offer up objects with variable clarity. For the most part, things such as faces, clothes and writings have a very clear distinction, but there are times when items on the edges of the frame can appear quite blurred and out-of-focus. Of course, I would put this down to the actual photography rather than a defect of the transfer, though it can be quite noticeable on occasion.

    As is probably expected,1000 Eyes, at 1.66:1, being the more recent movie of the trio, by a long way, is the best looking. There is still some damage in evidence, but this a very clean, reasonably sharp but nicely detailed image, otherwise. Once again, blacks are fairly deep and cleanly edged, but the contrast has a flat feel that is reminiscent of television of the time. Of course, it should be argued that this was what Lang was intending and has not been created or bolstered by Eureka's transfer. Grain provides texture and even if the film has a sort of smooth appearance, I doubt that too much noise reduction has been brought to bear.

    All three film in the set have edge enhancement, though I noticed this more on the first two. However, despite some instances of quite glaring haloes, I was not bothered or distracted by any of it.

    These are all very fine transfers, all things considered.

    The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset Picture


    Well, the restoration for all three films means that the Mabuse set probably sounds as good as it can be until possible lossless tracks are approved and applied - although, even then, it is debatable just how much cleaner and clearer they could get.

    Starting with Dr. Mabuse, which is silent but carries a score from Aljoscha Zimmerman, the sound is already slightly artificial and removed from the visuals. But the 2-channel DD track is certainly crisp enough to be enjoyed, with a wide, full sound that comes across with energy and some slight degree of warmth.

    The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has plentiful hiss and a few little pops, but is mainly free of drop-outs and volume variance. Some of the voices, especially when raised and shouted in moments of action and tension, sound a little harsh and grate against the track, but dialogue, on the whole is discernible and untroubled by the vintage of the track. The score lacks presence but the action scenes have some small but appreciable life to them, thanks to the clever design that Lang created.

    The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse comes with both the German and the English dubs. Now, to be honest, even though the film was also meant to be heard in English, it doesn't sound quite as properly authentic to the characters or the story. If you check the subtitles with the spoken English dialogue, you will notice, also, that there are some discrepancies - Marion actually getting called a “slut” at one stage being altered to the line “You're not going anywhere!” even though the speaker plainly says one word. Otherwise, the English sounds clean and clear enough. But the German language track is the one that makes the most sense to listen to. It is also clean and clear of damage, other than a few small pops and elements of background hiss here and there. Dialogue can occasionally become clipped and a few raised voices can, once again, bark, but this is, overall, a reasonably effective track that features some shrill metallic echoes, sharp gunshots (and a few wildly implausible ricochets), screeching tyres and shattering glass. Oh, and listen out for the wonderfully overdone bubbling water that envelopes a car that has crashed into the river - definitely some Lang-inspired overkill there, methinks!

    All three tracks present the films with understandable and enjoyable quality considering their respective ages.

    The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset Sound


    Phew - you've got to hand it to film historian, Lang specialist and professional yabber-mouth David Kalat for going the extra mile with regards to his excellent commentary tracks across all three of Lang's Mabuse movies. He simply doesn't quit. Now, considering the gargantuan length of the initial 2-parter, this is no mean feat. Rapidly delivering fact, biography, quotation, trivia, production detail, symbolic explanation, historical relevance, educated opinion and fascinating insight, he provides a truly staggering amount of information about what are clearly three of his favourite films. What this guy doesn't know simply isn't worth knowing. And yet, despite this quick-draw, breathless cavalcade of quips and lectures, his commentaries are extremely enjoyable. Having said this, I am a major fan of the usual vintage movie chatterers like Tom Weaver, Rudy Behlmer, Steve Haberman and Greg Mank, so this style of full-throttle academic enthusiasm is something that I am completely comfortable with. Truly worth their weight in gold, these commentaries would be enough to garner high marks on their own. Fantastic stuff that is definitely worth listening to more than once. An education.

    The second disc - containing Part 2 of Dr. Mabuse (Inferno) - carries three featurettes as well as the continuation of Kalat's commentary.

    The Music Of Mabuse (9 mins) is look at the compositions that silent movie composer Aljoscha Zimmerman created for the restored version of the film. Subtitled in English, the German composer sits at his piano and discusses various cues he wrote for the film, plays them for us and we get to see the scenes in question from the finished presentation.

    The Motives of Dr. Mabuse is a great half-hour, subtitled documentary that slices through Lang's veiled metaphors and dissects the film with regards to the era in which it was made - post First World War Germany - and the prevailing social ills, fears and the climate of the potential for forthcoming tyranny. Clips and valid socio-cultural observation reflect upon the themes and images from Lang's exquisite trilogy.

    The Literary Inventor Of Mabuse (9 mins) gives us some background to acclaimed author Norbert Jacques and the mysterious lead character from his original story. We see pictures of the once revered author, copies of his original book and artwork for Mabuse, and hear about his life and how the era shaped the creation of Mabuse. Some authority on the writer and on Mabuse called Michael Farin talks us through the featurette - in German, again, and subtitled in English.

    1000 Eyes carries a 2002 interview Wolfgang Preiss that was held only days before his death in 2007. Conducted in German and presented with English subtitles. He considered himself very lucky to gain the title role of Mabuse, especially after he was beginning to become typecast as a German officer. He discusses the role and his relationship with Fritz Lang and how the friction between the director and Preiss's co-star Peter Van Eyck actually didn't affect the shoot. Very clear and concise, Preiss has plenty to say about his triple part in the film and his portrayal of the character in subsequent sequels and the loving remake Dr. M, made the French “Hitchcock” Claude Chabrol, which also allowed Preiss to enter a Mabuse movie. This is a fine little piece from a pivotal player in the later Mabuse legacy.

    We also get to see an Alternate Ending to the film that has been taken from the French print. Actually playing as an extension to what we already see, Eureka maintain that it is not known whether or not this represents a more or less definitive “alternate ending”. This lasts for 1.03 mins.

    The full retail boxset also contains three lengthy booklets on the Mabuse phenoSIn menon. You get a new translation of Fritz Lang's 1924 lecture on “Sensation Culture”, an essay from critic and film-scholar Michel Chion on the use of sound in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, and a new piece on Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse by critic David Cairns. And all this comes with extracts from period interviews with Lang, as well an abundance of production stills, illustrations and marketing material. My review check discs came alone, but I can heartily testify that I did, indeed, pick up the full set because some of this stuff is just too good to ignore. Without a doubt, this is a terrific set of bonus material that easily rivals Criterion for comprehensive all-round fan and aficionado nirvana, but it is the fantastic commentary that really seals the deal. Well done, David Kalat!

    The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset Extras


    A momentous collection from Eureka, this set contains practically all that a Lang/Mabuse-fan could wish for, except for the continuous line of lesser sequels.

    Controversial and almost as notorious as the title character, himself, the three films majestically capture the eras in which they were made. Dr. Mabuse heralds the social upheaval of Weimar Berlin. Testament wryly observes the foreboding encroachment of the Nazi Party and the trouble that would spell. 1000 Eyes very presciently opens the floodgates to Youth Culture, hip identity and media manipulation through technology. But all three films depict, with accomplished directorial zeal and terrific atmosphere, the rise and fall and rise again of a dark character whose influence would ripple through both the horror and the thriller genres, nudging Ian Fleming into creating his nefarious organisation of SPECTRE and influencing the style of a multitude of iconic sagas, from The Godfather to Scarface to Marvel's Kingpin and DC's Lex Luthor and the Joker in their respective universes. Now you have to admit - that's some pretty powerful seed-sowing, isn't it?

    Graced with fantastic performances, wild imagery and massively complex plots that often defy you to unravel them, the Mabuse films weave a spell that is potent and addictive. There is also something essentially traditional about the way that no matter how convoluted and twisted the scheme may be, they always end up with car chases and gun-battles. Each film is rich with dialogue and menace and all are superbly satisfying.

    Eureka's restored collection looks and sounds extremely good, all things considered and the boxset comes very highly recommended, indeed.

    Long Live Dr. Mabuse!

    The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset Verdict

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £49.99

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