The Testament of Dr. Mabuse Review
Under the banner of their Masters of Cinema label, Eureka have already produced a lavish 4-disc DVD set in a very handsome box boasting wonderfully eerie cover-art for three of the classic Fritz Lang crime-fantasies revolving around the elusive and mysterious Dr. Mabuse. I reviewed that exciting set that some years ago, and with Eureka now releasing the second and, arguably, greatest of the three films on region B Blu-ray, I have unearthed what I said previously about Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and modified it slightly for the occasion.
“The Empire of Crime …”
The father of SF movie-monolith Metropolis and the architect of the classic psychological profiler M, Fritz Lang was also the craftsman behind the highly influential, though little seen, crime/supernatural/paranoiac, decade-spanning thriller trilogy of Dr. Mabuse, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse and The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse. Together, they form a bizarre and compelling saga of the effects that a criminal mastermind, the titular Dr. Mabuse, has upon the socially fractured environment of decadent Berlin after the First World War, throughout the rise of the Nazis and then as it faced the surrounding frost of the Cold War. Mabuse, himself, is an enigma. A shaman, a hypnotist, a murderer, a gambler of souls, and a veritable whirlwind of perpetual scheming whose very name strikes fear into the heart of Weimar Germany. Much more than just a cunning underworld kingpin, he is an entity that is ruthless by nature, demented with ambition and demonic in influence. Indeed, he even seems able to transcend death, his mysterious powers bleeding through the generations that follow his initial reign of terror, selecting, initiating and honing disciples to further his endless campaign of selective anarchy, his ultimate goal to create an Empire of Crime.
No amateur, this guy.
The concept may have been straightforward, but the execution was unbelievably convoluted. The saga is chronicled via mystery, superstition, modern folklore and dogged detection. It mimics the legacy of Al Capone, John Dillinger and even the likes of Dick Turpin, Jesse James and Matthew Hopkins - all personas that grew exponentially with the telling of their deeds until they attained mythic status. In a Germany torn apart by crippling war reparations, yet festering with unholy and unwarranted wealth and driven by a surging undercurrent of dangerous idealism - a land in which prejudice and a burgeoning New Order were seething into the open wounds of a failed conflict - Mabuse loiters in the shadows, his own army lying in wait, literally carving out his own legend with evil confidence, whittling away a state that he considers ripe for the taking. What could have been just an ungainly socio-political observation and detached musing on class corruption was, in the hands of the great Fritz Lang, a mind-bending assault on the establishment and a perfect valediction of organised Chaos. And, just as importantly, an exercise in the most profound of cinematic styles and narrative indulgences via thriller, horror and Sci-Fi schematics.
Spin-off productions were made, a whole slew of them in the sixties, that just used the character and the name to weave some very James Bondian-type yarns, but Lang's three films remain the genuine troika of murder, madness and megalomania. With Eureka already securing what looked to be a definitive boxset of Lang's labyrinthine opus, we can now examine how one of the greatest, most fiendishly complex and outrageously epic crime dramas that Cinema has ever produced is beginning to infiltrate the hi-def market.
The groundbreaking and audacious “Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler” (1922) is one of Silent Cinema's shining glories. For a very long time, this film, for me, was consigned to intriguing stills in horror movie tomes alone, the images bold, frightening and demoniacally intense. Set in two parts and with a mammoth combined running time of almost five hours, this legendary drama stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge (the obsessive inventor, Rottwang, from Lang's earlier Metropolis) as the titular criminal mastermind. Based upon the popular detective story from Norbert Jacques and then screen-written by Thea von Harbou, who would go on to form an association with the director that would go far beyond the artistic, the crafty and often visceral adaptation would deviate considerably in some ways, yet also remain quite faithful to the source in others. Clearly influenced by earlier serial capers like The Vampires and other vintage Feuillade escapades, the vast film is entertainingly episodic and, at the same time, driven by a painstakingly concocted arc that builds steadily in momentum and sweeps along an occasionally deranged path that many an American gangster epic would essentially come to endorse as their own. The three films that Lang made about this maniac’s society-disembowelling deeds inspired and influenced the likes of Batman, Bond and many of TV’s darker espionage, SF-tinged thrillers such as The Avengers or The Prisoner.
Lang's second film in the Mabuse cycle is regarded by many to the best of the three. Made eleven years after The Gambler, in 1933, the story depicted in The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse actually does take place a full eleven years after the riotous events of the first film. Mabuse (played by Klein-Rogge again) is now incarcerated, Joker-style, in an Arkham-like asylum for the criminally insane. Almost supernaturally, the arch-fiend's will seems to stretch out from his confines to envelope, ensnare and possess the minds of those who will succumb to his hypnotic powers. Re-fashioning his old league of unscrupulous legions by-proxy seems to be his motive, some insidious prime directive hidden amongst the compulsive writing that he undertakes. But the code is as elusive to his enemies as it is commanding to those in his thrall. Someone “becomes” a new Mabuse. A dangerous cartel of crooks and killers carry out the dire orders of this new crime lord. One amongst their number has reservations about these missions and becomes a loose canon, a danger to Mabuse's desperate plan and a possible resurgent hero. A Renfield-like witness babbles terrified lunacy and a strange message scratched on glass adds further mystery, reminding the authorities of the obsessed Mabuse's previous epic and society-smiting crime-spree. Another gun-battle and another, much more exciting and protracted car chase will ensue and the crazy, unbelievable extent of Mabuse's sinister influence will be revealed.
Testamentalso works as a sort of semi-sequel to Lang's tremendous, gut-punching M, in that it features the same Police Commissioner Lohmann who doggedly pursued Peter Lorre's infamous child murderer now assigned to investigating the strange string of violent events spreading fear across Berlin, and, once again, he is played by the tenacious Otto Wernicke. This doesn't so much as provide Lohmann with another mystery to unravel as create a fabulously realised milieu for the films to co-exist within, further depicting Berlin as one seething pool of festering fear, suspicion and dread. It is interesting to note that the city, as in the first film, is never name-checked, although it is fairly obvious were we are situated. The population are always under threat from some form of dastardly repression. Headlines in the papers, and signs and warnings pasted on the walls keep the agitation and cloaked terrors on a slow-build of paranoia, perfectly illustrating the claustrophobic, ever-watched storm cloud under which Germany was draped at the time. Like the overbearing threat of the first film, the city can easily be seen as a proto-Gotham, or even Mega City One. The authorities may strive to be the good guys, but they, themselves, seem at the whim of, and subservient to, a greater, more demonic force than ever reckoned on.
For a long time, Testament, like its forebear, was only seen in a truncated French version, having apparently lost five reels from the German original. These were then located and restored. But Lang even filmed an entirely separate French version, himself, simultaneously - just as was the case with Todd Browning's original Dracula, which received an arguably superior Spanish version - using a completely new cast and altering the flow of the film by simply not shooting certain scenes that he suspected would not play as well to foreign audiences. History, of course, proved his story, which is clearly a very clever fantasy, to be immensely valid and prescient to a nation on the brink of radical change.
The themes, the imagery and production design are, again, all superb. Testament is not as gothic or as baronial as the first film, nor as “industrially” surreal, but deliciously atmospheric and strange, just the same. The contrast between the modern city and the darker noirish aspects of the underground lair and various set-pieces is very nicely done – Lang visually stating that no matter how fresh and clean the veneer of modern society, something beneath it still stinks. We have an imposing imperator forever hidden behind a curtain, with only his voice barking out hideous orders of evil mass destruction to devoted minions. There are the old cars racing along through eerie night-time forest lanes, the trees on either side stretching out like luminescent phantoms in the headlights. We become fascinated and fearful of the repeated patterns of Mabuse's scrawled ravings, almost as much as the sudden rapt attention of a psychology class once the mad doctor's name is mentioned. Some twists are comical. Some are profound and haunting. But you've just got to adore the scenes when Mabuse's phantasmic head – all bug-eyes and exposed brains - looms out at his intended hosts, and his astrally projected form moves across the room to inhabit theirs. Symbolic and extremely creepy, this Caligari-like ability also provides the film with some authentic supernatural qualities that go further than those we witnessed in the first adventure. Much better filmed and very stylistic - the opening sequence, alone, when a spy in Mabuse’s camp attempts to escape and deliver his anxious warning to the world, is a tour de force of suspense and action - proving just how much Lang had come on in terms of providing more dynamic, energised and personal direction.
Fritz Arno Wagner and Karl Vass supplied the audacious and innovative cinematography. Back projection may look a bit too obvious during the car chase, which is genuinely exciting with level-crossings and various other obstacles to be negotiated, but it is still sublimely lit and quite effective. There is some imagination in the scene transitions too. A row of lights from the ensuing sequence make their presence felt at the tail-end of the preceding one. A photograph on the wall of a man’s face appears oddly alive, until we realise that we are smoothly cutting from the picture to the man himself in the next scene. There is a shot of a moll putting her stockings on and running her hands up and down her shapely legs that would certainly have been considered extremely racy at the time, and probably not even filmed anywhere else in the world. But the optical trickery of the wraithlike and alien-headed Mabuse floating into the minds of his englamoured minions is the image that everyone recalls from this witty and inspired outing. However, there is at least one shot that makes the frizzy white-haired apparition look a little bit like the drunken Father Jack from TV’s awesome comedy show, Father Ted!
Although I've mentioned Mabuse's Joker-like potency of a corrupting influence even from behind bars, it is interesting to observe that Klein-Rogge, visibly even older looking than the mere eleven years difference between this film and the last would lead you to expect, even has a wickedly pointed nose that is now hooked like a beak making him resemble the many appearances of Batman's other notable adversary, the Penguin. Thus, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, Bond and Blofeld, Mabuse, either in person or in unknown entity-mode, needs an adversary to play off. In fact, without a Wenk (the valiant prosecutor from The Gambler) or a Lohmann to goad, pursue and harass, his grand projects would have no real meaning, or value to him, personally, or in greater essence. Quite nicely, and in-keeping with the Bond legacy that Mabuse instilled, the plots are huge and intimidating, yet reined-in and intimately destructive. Klein-Rogge may get very little to do in this outing - mute and semi-catatonic (a neat irony on the somnambulist condition that he often placed his own victims in) for the most part - but his presence hangs over the film like a pall of smoke, a grim spectre permeating the proceedings as the seat of power is passed on. Oscar Beregi is superbly intense as the recipient of Mabuse's influence, Prof Baum, but the film definitely belongs to Wernicke, who is able to combine the astute mind of Poirot with the exasperation of Captain Mannering (TV’s classic Dad’s Army) into one rotund blunderbuss of ruthless sleuthing.
That opening sequence, to which I have already alluded, recalls Peter Lorre's escape and evasion from the mob in M, and is stunningly done. We know that the runner’s foot has been spotted by the bad guys and that they are on to him, so his subsequent breather behind a closed door becomes all the more palm-sweatingly anxious to us. Plus we get a great exploding barrel gag that really fills the screen with stuntman-scaring flames and yet more real bullets being fired around the cast. Lang had used real ballistics on the first film. Working with sound for the second time, Lang purposely uses the medium to evoke some striking effects. Gunshots, bomb-blasts and the pounding and grinding of machinery are brought to the fore. David Lynch may well have been influenced just as much by the almost satanic sound of a vast printing press forever churning-away deep beneath us as by the feverish imagery at work. Lang even employs the type of overlapping dialogue - or, at least, a version of it that delivers very quick, staccato outbursts - that Howard Hawks would go on to make a trademark with. I like the way that Lohmann tricks a mind-snapped witness into divulging details by pretending to talk on a fictitious phone. There is even a nice moment when the exasperated Inspector seeks to avoid a conversation over a gorgeously real old phone by insisting his lackey “tell him I'm dead!” - mimicked by John Landis when has John Woodvine's Dr. Hirsch do exactly the same thing in An American Werewolf In London. But the best verbal gag that Lang employs comes when Lohmann hurls an abusive tirade at a slow-moving driver blocking his way during a high-speed pursuit - his wild obscenities, ironically, drowned out by the sound of the trundling truck and his own growling engine. The suspense of an assassination at a busy road junction must have had an effect on Hitchcock, with its contained set-piece realisation. And the fantastic cross-cutting between another pistol-packing gang-siege (reminiscent of the exciting finale to the first film) and our two lovers trapped in a room that has been set to explode is also something that Hitch would have taken notes from.
Critics have complained about the romantic sub-plot, something that Lang is fond of placing into his films, but I find this less distracting or pace-slowing than the wooing affair from the firstMabuse. However, in the earlier movie, the affair is an essential part of the plot and is never superfluous. Here, it may be an aside to the main narrative, but it never actually hampers the flow of the story. Like the first Mabuse, Testament thrives on an atmosphere of guilt, accusation and unwitting subterfuge. Characters constantly skirt around the truth, either knowingly and for their own ends, or under the direct influence of their “unknown” puppet-master. The film's notoriety is also, in large part, down to the erroneous claims that it was made as anti-Nazi propaganda and, after Dr. Goebbels saw it, demanded that it be banned as an obscenity, Lang then fleeing Germany with the film tucked under his arm. Well, the film was, indeed, banned, but it was Fritz Lang, himself, who made most of the sensational claims of having exposed the lunacy of Hitler's New Order and then being compelled to escape the country, fuelling the controversy and cementing his film as a righteous spark against the powder-keg of Nazism, and, of course, guaranteeing its success overseas. Lang, it appears, was his own best propaganda weapon, for the film only contains nominal references and metaphors against the rise of Hitler's Reich, remaining, first and foremost, a glorious and eerie thriller that excites and confounds in equal measure.
So, as we have seen, Mabuse is part Moriarty, part Fu-Manchu, part Blofeld, and has more than a smidgeon of the Joker thrown in. He is a Machiavellian figure of intricate villainy. Astute, conniving and sickly devious, he prowls around the hinterland of organised crime, becoming a bogeyman of almost Keyser Soze proportions. Yet, his broad and indeed international designs are always neatly self-contained and wrapped within tightly-woven narratives that threaten to constrict the films, hemming the characters all together in one single ball of delicious delirium.
If Lang is to be believed that he hadn't even wanted to make the second Mabuse film, then it must have taken some mighty persuasion for him to make a third, long after he had already made a name for himself in Hollywood with melodramatic thrillers such as While The City Sleeps, The Big Heat and Rancho Notorious. But discovering that he could still incorporate some sort of Germanic state-of-the-nation ethic, he came up with a surprisingly slick modern thriller that harked back to the plotlines, set-pieces and manipulative conceits that had made the first two films so compelling. Mabuse may not have risen from the grave this time out, but his legacy lives on with assassinations, terrorist attacks, misleading tip-offs and much skulduggery plaguing the city. With the character of Dr. Mabuse now split into several factions, and his combined motives masked by subterfuge, misdirection and deliberate goading, our attention is strung out along some narrative-twisting set-pieces.
The success of the film prompted plans for a whole series of further Mabuse adventures, but Lang wanted no part in what he feared, quite rightly, would degenerate into so much formulaic pulp. And he kept his word. Although a series of them did get made, with only Harald Reinl's The Return Of Dr. Mabuse in 1961 apparently being worthwhile and paying due respect to the character, the Mabuse name and Lang's style, Lang would not make any further films, The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse being a very fitting final swansong. It should be noted that Gert Frobe (who plays the fiend’s lawman nemesis, Inspector Kras) would go on to feature in many of the five official sequels, even going on to assume the name of Inspector Lohmann in deference to Otto Wernicke's garrulous old copper!
Ostensibly crime dramas, all bar the third film contain copious mystery, supernatural elements and potent images of horror that certainly linger in the mind, and the full trilogy still stands as a wonderfully rich and impressively imagined odyssey of the weird and the deranged. Rudolph Klein-Rogge creates a definite monster with his serpentine embodiment of Dr. Mabuse, but his clever and inspired performances in the first two movies also depict this glowering schemer as someone who can be as typically flawed as anybody - prone to rage, over-ambition and the fragile shift of confidence from power to collapse. Folks, these films burned into my imagination when I was child flicking through my treasured horror-film tomes, and I always longed to see them, if only to work out what all the fuss was about. Well, after seeing Fritz Lang's seminal trio now, I can testify that they are all very definitely well worth experiencing. The character of Dr. Mabuse reaches out from the films, precisely as he is intended to, enmeshing us in his nefarious ideals - gangster, terrorist, rebel, visionary, he is insurrection written both in blood and in the guilt-ridden grime of a world that had already gone mad and was struggling in the morass of post-traumatic stress.
All three films that Lang made about this nebulous fiend are classics of infernal skulduggery, but Testament remains the most satisfying. Its arrival on UK Blu-ray in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is most welcome indeed. I just wish the other two entries had made the hi-def leap also.