Dr Mabuse The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922) Part I - The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time & Part II – Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age
The sinister criminal overlord Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a doctor of psychology and master of disguise, carries out his nefarious plans, with the help of a vast network of (not entirely trustable) henchmen and underlings, which includes benefiting off of destabilizing the entirety of European currency through creating counterfeit money and also visiting gambling dens in various aliases at night exploiting the nouveau rich by utilizing his mind control and hypnosis powers to beat them at cards and finance his plans. The only wrinkle is the dogged Inspector Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who is slowly growing keen to the fact that there is a single menacing figure standing, Machiavellian-like, behind the dark instability and unrest digging at the soul of Germany.
True to his wildly grandiose nature, Fritz Lang didn’t cautiously dip his toe in the water in translating his Dr Mabuse from novel (released just a year before the film went into production) to cinema, he went gangbusters (with the towering help of his collaborator, co-screenwriter and soon to be second wife, Thea Von Harbou – who first had to divorce her initial husband – that being the Mabuse actor himself, Klein-Rogge!). Over four hour longs and in two part (released a month apart), this type of mega-budget epic was apparently fairly common in Germany of the time (or at least they were to Lang – his “Indiana Jones”/espionage-style 1919 thriller “The Spiders” from a few years before – which I wrote about a few posts back — and “Die Nibelungen” which followed next up for him – and which will be the next Lang effort I take a look at — were of the same insane Peter Jackson-level of effort and time), but “Mabuse” is different from those as it entirely sets its 12 Acts (6 each per film) in a current setting, namely a post war, despondent Germany; specifically, Munich. With its shadow-filled streets marked by sinister figures and thuggish goons, Lang (as did many of that small pocket of great original European filmmakers, usually in more overtly fantastical and expressionistic ways) creates a profound sense of the dark despair and paranoia seeping out from the staggering financial insecurity, overwhelming unemployment and unceasing violence on the streets that losing the war directly led to, all as the impeccably dressed class of idle super-rich (who mostly made their gains through the spoils of war) slink quietly around the streets at night indulging in dens of large-stakes illegal gambling and all the other hidden pleasures offered only to them.
I picked up a copy of the original Norbert Jacques novel translated from the German just before embarking on my cinematic Mabuse tour (which I’ve decided I’ll also intersperse with a Lang retrospective along the way) and, have to say, while I found the story remaining fascinating for many reasons (including how scarily presciently the book and film speak to the rise of the Mabusian figure of Adolph Hitler from the despair of a broken country), the writing itself is more than a bit clunky and inelegant (which might be a problem of translation rather than original writing, though I’ll likely never know). While Lang’s cinematic version is clearly the much greater, even transcendent, piece of work (it led to ten or so sequels, after all, all of which I’m looking forward to delving into, varying quality and all) and he does adhere to much of the original narrative and many of the scenes, there are some interesting changes he and Harbou decided upon that are worthwhile looking at.
Instead of the constant inner monologues of the two main opposing figures that the book afforded, Lang relies much more on cinematic symbols, so his Mabuse and Von Wenk become larger than life characters, making them less human and far more allegorical (especially Mabuse, with his wild hair and eyes of madness, a brilliantly iconic performance by Klein-Rogge, already great playing multiple characters in Lang’s previous Destiny, who here takes the familiar broad acting style of early silent cinema to, at moments, levels of breathtaking theatricality, alternated between shorter moments of quiet piercing menace), which works great in creating the concept of two figures fighting for the soul of a Germany that, with its violently unsettled populace and spiritually barren idle rich, had fallen into a dank nihilism, with only a madman or a man of integrity being their possible saviour (unfortunately, we know which way they went).
With it’s often larger-than-life sets, shadow-play and innovative imagery (I cannot imagine that filmmaker Orson Welles, having so consistently and masterfully played with scale and size in his films they way he did, was not directly inspired by Lang’s works), which never quite reaches the level of expressionism (a filmic style Lang apparently openly rejected) still consistently evokes a sense of the fantastique. Lang’s endless fascination with circulatory is on display, both narratively (for those, by the conclusion, who can remember what happened in the narrative over four hours earlier, that is) and cinematically (man, those magnificent gambling den tables, wild industrial clocks and imposing séance rooms are simply fantastic!).
While Mabuse and Von Wenk (played by Goetzke, startling to see as the weary Death in Destiny, but much less dynamic here – though, to be fair, that seems to be deliberate on the part of Lang – the perfect hero, after all, is just never as interesting as the villain who allows us to act out our greatest illicit desires) remain symbolic, the other characters throughout are fraught with a surprising complexity (as they are in the book as well); something the two-part film’s lengthy running time fortunately allowed. Mabuse’s henchmen, for instance, consist of a cocaine-addled man-servant Spoerri, the inept goon Pesch (who is terribly guilt-stricken by the acts he’s committing yet fears for his life if he would ever quit) and the famous dancer Cara Carozza, who is deeply in love with Mabuse, even though he clearly feels nothing for her. The rich characters on the other hand, such as Hull (played by a strong-jawed young man who it seems the film is going to follow before switching to the older, much less strikingly handsome Von Wenk), the first man we see duped out of his money by the clandestine Mabuse, is a vapid young man with, similar to his wealthy peers, no goals other than to wile away his time indulging in meaningless games as the world suffers around him. Most strikingly, the main heroine, Countess Told, introduced late in the first film, “The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time” (the title saying it all) is introduced to us as an unsatisfied woman escaping her unhappy marriage (to a Count who is so ghostly and frail as to be a vampire, accenting his spiritual bankruptcy) by sitting alone in the gambling dens, only ever growing interested or excited at watching the unhappy reactions of those who lose.
As with the book, the movie is a clear condemnation of the frivolous uncaring nature of the rich, too busy indulging in sin to recognize the despondently frail nature of their country. Yet Lang also layers into the film a theme familiar to much of his work, one that especially works within the context of Germany at the time and Germany soon to come – namely, the recognition of how easy it can be for a Mabuse-like figure to turn the unwashed masses into a violent irrational mob. In a brilliantly clever scene, not uncommon to Lang’s work and not found in the book, Mabuse, disguised as a street demonstrator, whips a mob into a frenzy to allow a distraction for his men to then assassinate one of his captured henchmen who he is afraid will talk.
Mabuse’s overriding goal in the novel is to make enough money to disappear into a self-contained kingdom populated by lackeys in South America (eerily mirroring the post-World War II fleeing of many a Nazi leader who found safe haven in that country). Lang (and his screenwriter and wife Thea Von Harbou) dropped that idea. Their Mabuse is about the pure God-like pleasure derived from power, manipulating others, and benefitting off creating further chaos in an unstable country.
The opening act of the film (which also isn’t in the book), is perhaps the greatest of the entire film (though the action-packed ending comes pretty close) introducing us, with rapid-fire momentum, to the country-wide evil machinations of Mabuse as he, with the help of his henchmen, steal international treaties before signature, manipulate the stock market to great financial gain, and deliberately set up and create a car accident as a diversionary tactic, with the act coming to an end on close-ups of the many faces of Mabuse’s various disguises, one after the other dissolving into each other, transposed over the now empty, ticket strewn Wall Street trading floor.
It’s inspired craftsmanship, revealing Lang’s innovative and masterful understanding of cinema at a time when many filmmakers were simply happy to capture simple medium shot images that relayed a story. Perhaps not quite aesthetically, but in many other ways, Lang’s feverish innovation and determination to capture brilliance, reminds me of a similarly crazed Dario Argento in his prime.
More than the novel, Lang’s film is about paranoia (and how easy people are too manipulate) and an inevitable sliding into destruction. Lang wasn’t the greatest believer in humanity, that’s for sure. And while novelist Jacques has the book ending with the villain vanquished and a possible hopeful return to the status quo, Lang’s film ends on an image of sheer madness. It’s a madness, that isn’t quite narratively earned (it comes awfully quickly and conveniently), yet it effectively reveals the much darker and inevitable world order as understood by Lang than the novelist… and spoke to the rise of something Lang clearly felt coming right up there in the short road ahead.