The Testament of Dr Mabuse (aka, The Terror of Doctor Mabuse) (Werner Klinger, 1962)
Having (somehow) survived the raging laboratory fire at the end of the previous entry, The Invisible Dr Mabuse, released earlier in the year, the titular megalomaniac (Wolfgang Preiss) might be locked away in an insane asylum, spending his waking hour scribbling furiously away in his notepad, yet rumpled raincoat wearing Inspector Lohmann (Gert Fröbe) has had enough experience with the seemingly ubiquitous crime-lord to strongly suspect he’s somehow behind the elaborate large-scale crime sprees that have enveloped the city, if only that obstinate head psychiatrist, Professor Polland (Walter Rilla) would be more cooperative…
Wait a minute. The locked away, wild-haired madman scribbling frantically away at his notes in his cell? A feverish psychiatrist who seems just a tad too obsessed with the crazed doctor (getting alarmingly outraged anytime anyone daring to refer to Mabuse as ‘crazy’)? A group of underlings carrying out robberies and working counterfeit operations with no idea who that silhouette is behind the screen that they’re taking orders from? A disgraced cop trying to make good again by outing Mabuse who leaves a clue etched in glass at the time of his death?
As fast and furious as these Mabuse films were coming (this was the fourth entry in three years! Obviously producer Artur Brauner had no reservations about wringing every last cent out of the mystery and myth that is the mad Doctor – then again, who can blame him… in the turbulent economic times of the 60’s German film industry, any financial reward was likely hard not to exploit), if the narrative of this one feels even more familiar than usual (amongst a series of films that were already starting to feel a bit too formulaic in nature), there’s a good reason for that – the labyrinthine, at times meta-, maze of the Mabusean world had grown ever more complex… as this “Testament”, while being a sequel in chronological lineage (though how Inspector Lohmann could appear first as the great German actor Otto Wernicke and, then, three decades later, as about-the-same-age Gert ‘soon-to-be-“Goldfinger” Fröbe is anybody’s guess) is also, mind-twistingly, a direct remake of Fritz Lang’s original 1933 The Testament of Dr Mabuse (starring the brilliant Rudolf Klein-Hogge as the near catatonic Mabuse, frantically writing his plans, and the aforementioned Wernicke as the suspicious Lohmann) which mucks up the whole universe of the films into either total nightmarish absurdity… or idiotic nonsense. I’ll happily vote for the former.
With some wonderfully expressionistic lighting and effective staging in a number of moody scenes inside the insane asylum, switching to a decidedly fast (and exciting) pace detailing the violent crimes being committed (showing us much more than the original, or the earlier sequel, or whatever you call that original “Testament”, which discussed the Mabusean-like crimes without actually showing them) and a stand-out brilliantly realized discussion between a swinging hypnosis pendulum of Mabuse turning the tables on Doctor Polland and revealing exactly who is in charge here (with the sharp-featured Preiss, already perfectly cast as the rarely ever seen, but hard to forget when you do, titular megalomaniac, impressively raising his game to a whole ‘nother level of fevered menace in this scene, helped along by some great lighting), “Testament”, coming after the first relatively flaccid “Invisible”, was just the stimulating shot in the arm the franchise needed to re-invigorate itself.
Even the ending, with the now frantic Polland, veering along the nighttime country roads, with Lohmann and the police in high pursuit, while an almost exact replica of the first film (which makes you wonder, how did Lohmann not know right away it was the psychiatrist behind it all after the first time?), ends up excitingly done (with the ghostly apparition of Mabuse over his shoulder, however, no surprise, far more expressionistic and hallucinatory feeling in the first film).
Speaking of hallucinatory, missing is that palpable sense of despair and angst – that particularly Germanic expressionistic worldview – that Lang’s early Mabuse films drip with, including the first “Testament” (even as the director claimed to dismiss the movement at the time). Where Lang’s Mabuse films speak hauntingly of the demonic Doctor Mabuse as a mere symptom of humanity (with his death, there are any number to replace him), the new film (as well as the entire Brauner run so far) has far less challenging portends on its mind. Lang’s film, after all, came as the country was in the throes of economic despair that would lead directly to the rise of a madman leader who started a world war leading to the deaths of over fifty million people, while the later “Testament” came when that same country was still trying to forget that traumatizing time and enjoy a new ‘financial rise”.
In Lang’s “Testament”, for instance, the head psychiatrist is revealed to believe in the world-dominating schemes of Mabuse (he’s just the latest to pick up the Mabusean mantle), while in Klinger’s version, however, the psychiatrist is simply a schizophrenic, long before Mabuse meets him and twists him with his manipulative schemes. Also, in the subplot of the reluctant underling who joins Mabuse that’s carried into the second “Testament”, Lang’s tale sees the man as a typical example of German destitution – out of work and desperate to survive, he seeks out and joins the Mabuse underworld for at least some hope (forecasting, to a certain extent, how an entire desperate nation could be led to fall behind a madman) – while the new film has him as a successful prize fighter (Helmut Schmid) who gets simply duped by the gang into joining.
While the Mabuse films haven’t always shined brightest in the way of strong female protagonists, to be fair, they usually at least had some hot feminine beauty in a key role with initially mysterious intentions (such as the insanely gorgeous Daliah “The Whip and the Body” Lavi in “Return”); “Testament, however, gives us the beauty Senta Berger, pre-Hollywood renown, in the most thankless female role so far in one of these Brauner “Mabuse” entries as Schmid’s boxer character’s permanently pouting-with-concern lover.
The “Testament” remake, or sequel, or both, might not be nowhere near as deep, as profound, prescient, or as nightmarishly hallucinatory as Lang’s epic silent Mabuse films, but, hey, how many films are? But as a weirdo potboiler crazily mashing together scifi (I mean, where did they suddenly pop up with that laboratory brain-transference idea that comes out of nowhere near the finale?), crime, supernatural horror, spy thrillers and melodrama, as it continues the nefarious plans at world domination of a crazed barely seen villain, it’s a lot of fun… and a well-timed addition to the 60’s Mabuse output. With two more Brauner entries to come (and then a few unofficial ones, from the likes of Jess Franco and Claude Chabrol), however, let’s see where it goes from here.