Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler”

Fritz Lang’s silent thriller from 1922 is 280 minutes spread over two discs, but so entertaining that it seems to go by faster than many 90-minute movies I’ve endured for my Movie Analyst job. Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is the movies’ first supervillain, a gang leader, master of disguise, mad scientist and, not least, psychologist.

His ingenious schemes involve, among other things, a daring heist of business contracts that subsequently causes turmoil on the stock exchange, from which he profits handsomely, and bilking the idle rich out of their fortunes in the city’s underground gambling dens. (His mastery of hypnosis and mind control come in handy here.) The doctor’s fingers are in every vice: Cara Carozza (Aud Egde Nissen), the city’s It Girl nightclub dancer, is Mabuse’s mistress and also his personal Mata Hari, seducing playboys when it suits Mabuse’s schemes.

Mabuse is not just the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of his day, he’s the embodiment of all the anxieties of his age. All of the common man’s fears of powerlessness, of sinister unaccountable forces pulling the strings, are transferred onto Doctor Mabuse. The extras on the Kino DVD note how Lang and his co-writer Thea von Harbou drew on immediate cinematic forerunners such as Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari in fashioning Dr. Mabuse’s villainy. (Other critics have noted how Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant arch nemesis Professor Moriarty is an even more obvious precedent.)

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, banned by Goebbels in March 1933; Lang left Germany shortly thereafter.

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, banned by Goebbels in March 1933; Lang left Germany shortly thereafter.

But Mabuse’s diabolical manipulation of the stock market and his skill at duping the public through PR stunts and mass hypnosis mark him as a distinctly 20th-century evildoer. Perhaps most alarming in the context of 1920s Germany is his ability to whip a mob into such hysteria that they attack a police wagon to free a prisoner.

Mabuse’s most telling line comes when he admits that he views himself as “a state within the state.” As such he makes his own laws. Not surprisingly film historians have had a field day reading Mabuse as a precursor to Hitler, and it’s uncanny how Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, almost as much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, can be seen as a prophecy about the coming rise of Nazism.

This helps account for the frisson that each movie provides today, obviously. Even apart from the allure of the films’ production design and overall ambience, the viewer can’t help but be aware of the ominous historical currents swirling around them.

But in a 1960s interview included in the Dr. Mabuse DVD extras, Lang dismisses the idea that Mabuse was any kind of Hitler-like figure. What interested him, he says, was Mabuse as a Nietzschean superman, which in his view had nothing to do with Hitler. In contrast, 10 years later Lang would deliberately have Mabuse echo Nazi Party slogans in the sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

(The interview on the DVD is quite entertaining; with his monocle, which was always purely an affectation, Lang is not just the definitive European film director — an image he was surely aware of, and encouraged — but an archetypal old-school European, period.)

Dr. Mabuse, playing with the money you lost on the stock market.

Dr. Mabuse, playing with the money you lost on the stock market.

The Norbert Jacques novel that provided the basis for Lang and von Harbou’s screenplay was originally serialized in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung. Accordingly, the movie plays like a serial, full of chases, escapes and killer cliffhangers, with chapters lasting about 20 minutes or so.

Watching it, I felt anything but jaded. How novel and exciting this must have been in 1922, when Lang, von Harbou, et al. were unwittingly creating a template for so much crime drama to come, not to mention film noir, pulp fiction, James Bond movies, etc. The film builds to a peak of intensity near the end of the first half; the subsequent lull in the action allows time for some great vampy moments from the two female leads, before the story speeds toward a climactic shootout that’s a blast to watch even today.

Granted, the plotting is rickety at times. Dr. Mabuse’s greatest triumph comes when, heavily disguised as a Rasputin-like mystic, he hypnotizes an auditorium full of people, so it’s not clear why, the next day, he doesn’t try to at least cloud the minds of the dozen or so cops who initially show up to arrest him. But the action-packed climax is so entertaining I was willing to forgive the movie’s occasional lapses in logic.

And who watches silent movies for logic? Critic Dave Kehr has likened the more elliptical plot turns in Dr. Mabuse to Dada, speaking of the prevailing Zeitgeist. Besides, the shootout contains my favorite-ever silent movie intertitle. As the cops close in, Dr. Mabuse’s most weasely henchman starts to lose it, until another member of the crew barks at him,

“Eat some cocaine, you weakling!”

This would be the perfect time for a German filmmaker to bring back Dr. Mabuse; he could embody all the fears stoked by the financial crisis, and the paranoia of our age. Is it too obvious to suggest that we already had the perfect modern-day Dr. Mabuse in Dick Cheney?

For more on the 1920s Berlin of Dr. Mabuse, click here.

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