Dr. Mabuse The Gambler
He’s back and more diabolically ruthless than ever! Berlin cowers under the influence of a gambler-mastermind, the secret architect of an ‘Empire of Crime.’ Restored to near its full length (4.5 hours!), Fritz Lang’s monumental pulp masterpiece is a Euro-classic lover’s delight.
Dr. Mabuse The Gambler
Kino Lorber Classics
1922 / B&W / 1:33 flat Full Frame / 270 min. / Street Date September 13, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker,
Bernhard Goetzke, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Paul Richter
Cinematography Carl Hoffmann
Art Direction Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Stahl-Urach, Karl Vollbrecht
Writing credits Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou & Norbert Jacques from the
novel by Norbert Jacques
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by Fritz Lang
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fritz Lang really upped his game, directing-wise, between his 1921 fantasy epic Destiny and his next thriller extravaganza Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Transcending contemporary notions of a popular release, the two-part Mabuse became a cultural phenomenon in Weimar Germany. As William Bayer once explained, certain films capture the spirit of the moment they were made, nailing the exact fantasy a public wants to see, answering needs they didn’t know they had. This show ‘said it all’ for the agitated Berliner of 1922. It spoke to the conditions in Germany just after the war — all was chaos, and the public was eager for answers. The movie was so lengthy that it was shown on consecutive evenings. Audiences came the first night to see “Dr. Mabuse der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit” (Dr. Mabuse The Gambler: A Picture of the Times), and returned the next night for the finish, “Inferno: Menschen der Zeit” (Inferno: Men of the Times). Fritz Lang told his biographer Lotte Eisner that the initial showings bore a docu prologue about the Spartacist Uprisings, the
murder of Rathenau and the
Kapp putsch. Lang’s crime & intrigue fantasy is rooted in real-life political upheaval.
Economic and political chaos was the rule in Germany of 1922. The Weimar Republic consisted of a starving working class, a wealthy uber-class that could afford the highest luxuries, and a growing criminal underworld. With society falling apart and people searching for answers, author Norbert Jacques took the lead of the popular French serial Fantomas, and concocted the German arch-villain Dr. Mabuse. Initial posters show Mabuse, in guise as a fat-cat stock trader, standing astride the city like a colossus — the same imagery associated with Feuillade’s Fantomas. Fritz Lang’s film version so popularized the character that the average German still knows exactly who Mabuse is, even though his last official film incarnation was over fifty years ago.
The last time Savant reviewed the silent Mabuse was in 2001, two days after 9/11. Its hysterical view of terror seemed horribly apt: Mabuse promotes himself as the leader of an ‘Empire of Crime.’ That Image Entertainment DVD was 229 minutes in duration, whereas the Murnau Stiftung had even then just completed a restoration that was at a minimum forty minutes longer. (One never knows how varying projection speeds factor into these comparisons.) Kino’s new Blu-ray is listed at 270 minutes in length. In terms of continuity, the film is finally accessible to modern audiences in something like its original length.
The devious criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) moves through society wearing one of many clever disguises. He uses hypnotism to enforce his will on individuals, while a few chosen aides carry out his instructions to commit audacious crimes. These loyal minions follow orders without knowing their exact purpose; Mabuse is feared and respected like a God. He engineers a daring train robbery that helps him to commit stock fraud on a giant scale. In the posh gambling houses of Berlin he hypnotizes people to lose at cards, and then blackmails them. He manipulates a number of characters, such as the foolish playboy Edgar Hull (Paul Richter). The exotic dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) seduces potential victims for him. Mabuse uses his influence to control the weak Count Told (Alfred Abel) and eventually to kidnap and imprison the jaded Countess Told (Gertrude Welckler). Only Prosecutor Inspector von Wenk (Berhnard Goetzke) gathers enough information to realize that a single intelligence is behind the crimes and destabilizing schemes; he gets close to the disguised mastermind, but is foiled by Mabuse’s incredible skills of mind control. The criminal genius has the power to ‘cloud men’s minds’ when necessary.
When I first saw Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1980, it was a mangled version only just over two hours in length. Yet I felt as if I’d been hit by one of Colonel Kurtz’s diamond bullets of enlightenment. Lang’s film seemed like the fountainhead of pulp fantasy for the twentieth century, a source story that connects Batman to James Bond to Cody Jarrott to Judex to Sherlock Holmes to Darth Vader. It’s as if Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces had advanced to include the modern pulp theme of totalitarian control through technology, and the use of fear and terrorism to subdue resistance. Way back in 1922, the cinematic puzzle pieces had already been put in place by the great genre-innovator Fritz Lang. His The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, a second sequel made almost forty years later, summed it all up. The ultimate aim of its evil mastermind is not power or riches, but to destroy the world itself – the only possible ‘ultimate threat’ after the creation of the A-Bomb.
Back in 1922, Lang’s thriller is one concentrated conspiracy. Familiar Lang actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge takes on Mabuse in all of his disguises, the most fanciful being a wild-haired cardsharp, the one that hypnotizes Count Told to cheat, and be caught cheating. In some guises Klein-Rogge wears the patented crooked Mabuse nose — it goes sideways and makes a point. It’s an energetic, commanding performance. Mabuse is a charismatic strong man and tyrant, the main figure in Siegfried Krakauer’s theories that expressionist films predicted the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Author Norbert Jacques’ brilliant idea is to gather up all the ills of his dysfunctional society, and blame them on a common source, a single monstrous villain with super-normal skills and powers. It’s as if we’re watching the first (fictional) conspiracy theory that takes in everything that makes people lose sleep. During a blindingly fast (for 1922) initial montage of daring crimes, inter-titles repeatedly ask, “Who is responsible?” The answer soon comes with our first view of the villain: “Ich!” The basic dilemma, still alive and well today, is the fear that the world is spinning into chaos, that nothing can return it to order. Norbert Jacques’ formula for holistic anxiety has been a pulp fantasy staple: most of the world today actually believes that the problems and conflicts of our modern world are caused by evil individuals and groups, instead of being the result of conflicting ideologies and power-based inequities. Mabuse causes stock market crashes, destabilizes governments and undermines the rule of law and order. 007’s adventures imply that evil ‘other’ foreign arch-villains are responsible for abominations like germ warfare (Goldfinger) and hi-tech weapons trading (Goldeneye).
Thus we have one of the most original villains of all time, an Al Capone possessed of the ruthless pragmatism of Machiavelli and the grandiose strategizing capabilities of a Napoleon. A speculator might want to corner a commodity, but Mabuse manipulates the market as a whole. He moves among the rich, selecting his victims from among those weak enough to fall for spiritualist schemes, or already weakened by vices like drugs or sex. Mabuse has the ability to be many people at the same time to avoid detection. When von Wenk threatens, Mabuse hypnotizes him into driving his car off a cliff and into a lake.
Behind the expected pulp-oriented elements like trap doors and secret identities, is a rich interweaving of characters affected by their decadent surroundings. The cast of Mabuse are imperfect individuals that have made dramatic life choices. Prosecutor von Wenk is more of an elitist politician than a cop, and can command an army squad at a moment’s notice. Mabuse’s henchmen exhibit various degrees of loyalty and honor. They include some stuffy servants, a drug addict, a strongman chauffeur and a thug who oversees a sweatshop of blind forgers (!) that manufacture the counterfeit currency with which Mabuse floods the market. The exotic Cara Carozza is crazy for Mabuse, who uses her to ensnare first Edgar Hull and then Count Told, who is such a weakling that hypnosis is almost unnecessary to defeat his will. Countess Dusy Told hangs around the gambling dens to soak up the atmosphere of risk and ruin. Both ladies have specific character qualities of failed romantic idealism, tainted by their experiences; writer Thea von Harbou has not yet succumbed to romantic sentimentalism. The ladies’ gowns in the film are credited to special designers. Unlike the somewhat plump heroines that show up in many early-‘twenties European thrillers, Carozza and Told cut impressively stylish figures.
The show is still best watched in halves — it’s longer than Gone with the Wind. After an exciting opening, the story settles into a slow mood for most of the first part. The movie is naturalistic in style. Its reputation as an expressionist classic is based on several extravagant sets for the nightclubs where the main characters pursue their various vices. There’s also the art collection of the dissipated Count Told. At one point Mabuse poses before a large canvas picturing a Satanic figure. Finally, in a final sequence where a character goes mad, we see the décor in a secret publishing shop morph into living mechanical monsters — a press becomes a weird human figure, etc.
Lang carried these expressionist flourishes into his terrific early talkie The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. ‘Madness’ signifiers transform an office desk into a glass construction holding strange glass creatures, but it’s a strangely subtle effect. Later on, the specter of Mabuse is a ghost-like demon with huge eyes, like one of the cabalistic gods seen back in the 1920 The Golem. Along with Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang would never entirely abandon these silent era techniques.
Lotte Eisner reported that German audiences of 1922 regarded Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler as a mirror held up to the chaos the nation was enduring. Who knew what kind of government would ultimately seize power? Reviews treated the tale as an expression of crazy forces at work behind the scenes. Mabuse can be anything — a sinister capitalist schemer, a mad anarchist, a ruthless bandit.
Eisner also described audience reactions to Lang’s innovations to movie grammar. A scene viewed in opera glasses goes out of focus as its user is emotionally affected. Mabuse’s hypnotized victims see images swimming in their heads. The most famous example of subjective hallucination comes during a card game, when Mabuse’s will pushes all other thoughts from a victim gambler’s mind. The effect is expressed by an image of Mabuse’s head growing from a dot to a huge close-up. Audiences reported feeling as if they were being hypnotized as well. Lang performed gimmicks with animated titles of key words representing ideas imposed by Mabuse on his victim’s thoughts. The words Tsi Nan Fu seem to assault the viewer, while the word “Melior” hangs in the air before von Wank, beckoning him to crash his car into the Melior reservoir.
Lotte Eisner said that audiences applauded ‘new’ effects that we now take for granted. Nighttime city scenes were filmed night-for-night instead of day-for-night and tinted blue. The insensitive film stock normally wasn’t up to the job of filming at night. Audiences didn’t know that some of the scenes were filmed at dawn or dusk, and enhanced with miniatures (an elevated train with lit windows). Lang got the effect of headlights sweeping the road, previously un-filmable due to slow film speeds, by mounting klieg lights on the front of a car.
We’re told that Alfred Hitchcock observed Fritz Lang filming in the early 1920s, and was impressed by the sophistication of the German studios. Hitchcock would never admit to borrowing anybody’s ideas, but the conclusion of his 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much is almost a replay of Mabuse. Lang stages a fifteen-minute urban siege, in which Mabuse and his minions (a mincing valet, a rough chauffeur, a squat henchman, a lady clerk) hold off an army with just a few guns. This must have been the height of sensation for German audiences, with details like bullet hits marring the outside of the building.
Yes, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler comes under the heading of ‘revered film classic,’ the kind of show that might be foisted on a film class — if any film studies classes still ask students to reach back to film styles that require creative thought to fully appreciate. I couldn’t fully follow the mangled 16mm print I saw in 1980, but found Image’s 2001 DVD easier to comprehend. Kino’s new Blu-ray restores needed continuity and visual integrity. The show may be for serious cinephiles, but it is truly rewarding. Like I say, Lang’s film coalesces the notion that the technology and relative freedoms of the 20th century invited new kinds of social terror.
The Kino Lorber Classics Blu-ray of Dr. Mabuse The Gambler is the best-looking copy of this show I’ve seen, by far. It’s true that it is longer. Part one clocks in at 155 minutes, and part two at 115. This time around the original German titles are present, with removable English subs. Of special mention is a jazzy, creative film score composed by Aljoscha Zimmermann. Keeping the film alive with music for a full 4.5 hours is no easy feat. After I watched this ‘silent’ Mabuse I listened to the entire first half while working, just to enjoy the music. It’s an extended concert.
Large sections of the film are in great shape, and all of it has survived in reasonable condition. Many shots have what I would call ‘digital grain’ — a texture that makes it seem as if the images had to be wrenched out of so-so film sources. But we believe that we’re seeing an intact show — there are many long inter-titles and inserts of letters and business cards to read, and sequences seem more fleshed-out than before. One famous scene that now seems whole has a croupier dealing from a center opening in a circular gambling table. To demonstrate what happens if the police should visit, he disappears into the floor on an elevator. Then a giant chandelier drops to cover the table — and reveals a semi-nude dancer, lowered from the ceiling.
Even better, shots that before were riddled with jump cuts (missing frames) are now smooth. The famous zoom of Mabuse’s head is now completely intact. The restoration is by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stitung, allied with several archives and the Italian specialists. I wonder if the free exchange of the European Union has made cooperation between these Archives easier to arrange.
The extras seem to be ported over from an earlier English Blu-ray: three lengthy documentaries. The first addresses Aljoscha Zimmermann’s music, the second the career and works of author Norbert Jacques and the third is an analysis of the film itself, with brief clips from Lang’s sequels.
Always with the subject of Mabuse, I recommend critic David Kalat’s book, The Strange Case of Dr Mabuse. He takes on the entire Mabuse phenomenon, through the sequels and quasi-sequels of the 1960s. An earlier Image DVD of a shorter version of Mabuse is available for peanuts online. It contains an exemplary audio commentary by David Kalat. It’s a highly educational listen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Mabuse The Gambler Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Three documentaries (see above)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Removable Inter-titles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2016 (Never Forget)
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson