Fritz Lang’s influential and ever-relevant silent classic examined.
There are those who would, understandably, be a little unsure about the prospect of a four-and-a-half-hour silent movie – if nothing else, it demands a commitment to a large chunk of viewing time. But if you are having any doubts about the wisdom of sitting down to enjoy Fritz Lang’s 1922 epic Dr Mabuse – Der Spieler, let me dispel them immediately. This film is a masterpiece and rarely will 281 minutes go by so effortlessly.
Admittedly, the opening ten minutes or so are a challenge, as the film introduces characters and events at a pace that often leaves the situation confused, but it soon settles down into the central plot, which revolves around the criminal mastermind – and master of disguise – Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). This arch criminal has his finger in various pies – counterfeiting, blackmail – but his favourite method of making money is through gambling. Once his spies identify a likely mark, he uses his hypnotic powers to convince the hapless sap to accompany him to one of several illicit gambling dens dotted around Berlin, where the victim will be routinely fleeced – even when they hold a winning hand, they are convinced they have lost, thanks to Mabuse’s hypnosis, which forces them to be increasingly reckless.
For Mabuse, the game is as much about control and the destruction of lives as it is the money, and few lives are wrecked as thoroughly as that of Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), playboy son of a millionaire industrialist. Once he has fleeced Hull of money – with a huge amount still owed – Mabuse sends Folies Bergère dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), a member of the Mabuse gang and a woman in love with the evil genius, to romance the pliable Hull, in order to get a greater hold on him. But State Prosecutor Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) has been alerted to the string of unlikely gambling wins by mysterious characters and is determined to investigate, using Hull as bait. Things soon spiral out of control when Mabuse attempts to assassinate Von Wenk, but instead kills Hull. Carozza is arrested and jailed, but Mabuse has already set his sights on another – bored aristocrat Countess Told (Gertrude Welckner), who has been helping Von Wenk with his investigation of cocaine and gambling dens. Using hypnosis to make her husband (Alfred Abel) cheat at cards, Mabuse spirits the Countess away, knowing that it will be assumed that she had left the Count because of the shame.
The second part of the film sees Mabuse holding the Countess prisoner, while at the same time ‘treating’ her husband for depression – in reality, he is worsening his condition in order to induce suicide. But Von Wenk’s net is closing in on Mabuse, even though he has no idea that the Doctor is the man he is looking for. When Mabuse suggests to Von Wenk that he investigate a stage mesmerist called Sandor Weltemann, the prosecutor attends one of the man’s shows – but Weltemann is Mabuse in disguise, and he hypnotises Von Wenk on stage, sending him off to drive off a cliff. However, Von Wenk’s men manage to save him, and realising that Weltemann is Mabuse, the prosecutor leads an assault on Mabuse’s house, resulting in a dramatic gun battle, which is the equal of any modern action sequence.
Despite its length, Dr Mabuse – Der Spieler rattles along with tremendous speed, mixing high drama, spectacular visuals, sinister horror and some cynical humour in a story that barely lets up. There is nothing superfluous here, no padding or needlessly extended scenes. Instead, this is a relentlessly gripping tale, with the cat and mouse battle between Mabuse and Von Wenk proving to be highly intriguing. Mabuse’s varied and impressive disguises keep the mystery alive, and the various subplots involving his victims – including the members of his gang who are disposed of once they cease to be useful – never feel like distractions. As Mabuse, Klein-Rogge sometimes chews the scenery – hardly a criticism, given the necessity for over-egging the pudding in silent cinema – but he makes for an impressive villain, thoroughly corrupt yet oddly personable. Goetzke is less impressive as the rather stiff (and surprisingly useless, given the number of people who die while in his custody) prosecutor, but nevertheless manages to be solid enough to pass as a hero.
Lang fills the screen with remarkable visuals, his sets ranging from the run-down to the ultra-modern. Rarely has a film captured the decadent spirit of Weimar era Berlin as well as this. Mabuse may be a villain, but his victims – wealthy, bored thrill seekers who move from cocaine binge to illegal gambling den in search of sensation – are not particularly sympathetic figures, too obsessed with their own pleasures to see the corruption and dangers lurking in the shadows. Mabuse often seems like a pestilence stalking this world, acting as the conscience that will finally bring it crashing down. Of course, a decade after this film was made, Germany really was in the hypnotic grip of a Mabuse-like megalomaniac leader, sending Lang into exile – and it’s this cultural awareness of things to come and the conservative anger lurking behind the new freedoms that make the film so fascinating. A quick look around the current world shows that the warnings of this film about the forces of repression poised to seize power remain as pertinent as ever.
Lang would return to the character of Mabuse throughout his career – most notably in The Testament of Dr Mabuse, a more pointed satire of Hitler, and the outrageous 1960 krimi film The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse – and it’s easy to see why. This is the ultimate supervillain, a master of disguise and expert manipulator, who seems more bent on world domination than simply making money. Other filmmakers followed Lang’s lead with more Dr Mabuse films in the 1960s, including krimi master Harald Reinl and Jess Franco. It’s rather surprising that more filmmakers haven’t chosen to explore the Mabuse character, because he seems a character ripe for rediscovery and one that still feels all too authentic.
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