The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)/The Crimes of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933/1951)

by Douglas Buck September 3, 2018 9 minutes (2017 words) DVD

A series of high-profile heists and murders around the city keeps leading the bemused cigar-chomping Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) frustratingly back to the brilliant criminal mastermind known as Dr Mabuse (played again by the great cinematic figure of Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has been languishing in an institution for the criminally insane for nearly a decade after the events of Lang’s silent 1924 epic Dr Mabuse, The Gambler left him a near-catatonic state.

After almost a decade absence (both in the narrative and in the production time-frame), the mind-controlling megalomaniacal madman is back… and in fine form. He’s not always physically present this time around, as, in a clever building on the Mabusian mythology, Lang and his collaborator and wife Thea Von Harbou have him now able to pass on his nihilistic ideology not only through mind-transference and seemingly quasi-supernatural abilities while alive (with Lang and Klein-Rogge creating the profoundly iconic image of the wild-haired, intense-eyed, never speaking, only furiously scribbling, nefarious doctor carrying out his schemes of societal annihilation from his institution bed), but even, it seems, after death, as the good inspector Lohman begins to suspect the sweaty and hand-wringing psychiatrist Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr) who cared for Mabuse… and whose unique obsessions with the evil genius seem a bit… excessive.

While the plot seems simple on the surface, in typical Lang/Mabuse fashion, it’s entirely labyrinthine when inspected closely, with many of the narrative elements just not quite adding up… however, these inconsistencies don’t play out as mistakes, but instead deepen the paranoid perspective of unknowability, reinforcing the sense of all-pervading unbeatable evil hovering over both these Mabuse films; yes, the police may catch up to Mabuse (or his sheep doctor disciple, in the sequel) and capture him/them (in both cases, not really because of any of the police investigation work, but because of the utter nihilistic lunacy of their intentions finally driving them over the brink into sheer madness – reminding me yet again, with things such as the bravura camera angles and the clearly fevered commitment by the director in achieving some of these incredible shots – of the links I see between Lang’s early great German films and much later genre legend Dario Argento’s oft-masterful and cinematically breathtaking gialli from the late 60’s and early 70’s in which the police procedural is often foregrounded to equally little success), but they’ll never really have a rational explanation for all that’s occurred. The pervasive sense of doom Lang creates is too thick to allow that (and, man, do Lang’s characters feel it – and not just the ones in the Mabuse world… you can include his fantasy films like Die Nibelungen, as Lang has to be up there as far as the number of suicides he’s created on-screen…. and it’s not just the German ones! Just look at that, again, Argento-like suicide at the beginning of what has been argued as his greatest American achievement, the 1954 noir The Big Heat, in which he basically puts us into the position of the officer committing suicide, raising the gun to our own temple to pull the trigger… yep, you could say there was a dark soul lingering inside that Mr Lang).

Mabuse, presented as an omniscient power mad egomaniacal genius (changed from the novel where his goal was simply to make enough blood money to retire to a self-created kingdom in South America, a country where, in one of the many Mabusian ironies shadowing the reality of the horrors soon to come in Germany, many Nazis after the war actually took hiding in) who comes close to financially toppling all of Europe through both his brilliant and daring underworld crimes as well as his unmatched abilities at hypnosis (and being an über-master of disguises, jeez, he’s got everything) in Lang’s 1924 original, two-part, nearly 4 and a half hour long epic Dr Mabuse the Gambler and evolving in this first sequel to the level of the supernatural, a now nearly-catatonic (who surprisingly turns up dead, not even halfway through this much shorter, though still just over two hours, entry) apparition in a cell, who, while physically mostly sidelined, is still the omniscient controlling ringleader, speaking in terrifying whispers through the hallucinations of those he mind-controls (in another reminder of how close to a horror film sensibility Lang had Mabuse is unforgettably realized in these mind-deliriums as this great nightmarish demon, with large disturbing insect-like eyes and an exposed brain) or sitting quietly in his isolated room, with a sense of intense madness flowing off of him as he furiously scribbles down his testament (echoing the writing of Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf, which that early violent rabble-rouser wrote as he languished in a cell, having been jailed for fomenting discord) rabidly marking down his ideological goal of, through a proliferation of crimes and acts of terrorism, sowing the seeds of discord and terror to ultimately tear down the existing corrupt police state from which an ‘empire of crime’ can emerge (don’t quite know how that’s less corrupt or quite how it would work, but I guess you can admire the lofty ambitions).

Mabuse as presented by Lang, Harbou and original novelist Jacques, is, in many ways, a reactionary figure, through which ‘evil’ can be subscribed in paranoid fashion to a kind of larger-than-life supernatural force, rather than the more troubling reality of evil being fashioned through a much larger scale of human complicity, stemming from self-interest.

However, Lang (and his collaborators), while warning us that while Mabuse can be captured and even physically annihilated, the danger of his frenzied ideology can live on, as long as the conditions are ripe, makes efforts to add a complexity to the overarching Mabusian world. The scene of Kent (Gustav Diessl, a ringer for a young Patrick Magee), the romantic ‘hero’ of the film (one of the numerous subplots) shrieking in helpless rage as he is carried along in a swarm of just as equally desperate men at the unemployment office (just another scene showing Lang’s brilliance navigating mass crowds of extras) does a profound job showing us the environment of boiling anger created from economic despair from which a madman leader can rise. Even many of Mabuse’s henchmen in the first film are fraught with guilt over what they’ve done but are too afraid to pull out. And Kent and his lady love do manage to escape at the end (into, however, what we’ve come to know as an uncertain world where the madness of Mabuse isn’t ever really vanquished – thankfully, I say, allowing for all the sequels I can’t wait to see!).

This is the director’s second sound film and, as with his first, the classic M, Lang followed the path of Hitchcock in immediately crafting brilliant uses for this new technology. With the opening earth-rattling industrial pounding, rhythmically shaking everything around, that’s never really explained, adding immeasurably to the suspense as the hiding Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a twitchy disgraced policeman-turned-snitch, is slowly discovered by the criminal thugs, to the brilliant, darkly ironic moment (worthy of the best of early Hitch) of an assassination carried out by the assassins stopped at a street intersection by leading a series of cars into a cavalcade of horn-blowing (including the unwitting victim) and through the various drops-in and -out of sound heightening the sense of unease, it just becomes more apparent with each film how innovative and ahead-of-his-time Lang as a cinematic craftsman was.

Testament is a fascinating amalgamation; really one-of-a-kind. It’s part stoic police procedural (a big part, as with M, is showing us the various fascinating and fastidious – to the point of tedious, for the officers, not the viewer – methods with which they go about uncovering crimes) part supernatural tale, and even part hopeful romance… with a dash of gallows-style levity thrown in with the presence of the cynical, yet sharp-witted inspector. What a great idea by Lang to have Testament not only a sequel to Mabuse, but to M, by not only putting the wonderful Lohmann character from that film on the case, but even more to the fore – with his slovenly ways working to disguise his keen sharpness, Wernicke competes for me with Klein-Rogge as the greatest amongst Lang’s actor ensemble. While Bernard Goetzke playing the weary Death in Lang’s silent Destiny was wonderful, he was a bit bland as the lead inspector on the case in the original Mabuse film. Wernicke, on the other hand, blessed as he was with a ton of character built into his physical form and crumply face, isn’t capable of being dull.

As it was sitting right there on the disc (requiring only a simple click of my remote), I figured, while I was at it, why not delve into the English-dubbed version of Testament, chopped down to a sparse quick-flying 75 minutes, re-titled The Crimes of Dr Mabuse and released in 1951 (American audiences wouldn’t get to see the original version until the 1970’s)? So I did.

And, as suspected, it was a butcher’s job (I mean, they carved out 46 minutes!). Most of the mood and powerful worldview Lang so brilliantly crafted was gone (other than being present in the inherent power of much of the imagery that remain). Regardless, it was interesting to note some of the differences and tweaks done, most likely with an American audience in mind. For instance, where Lang’s film is clearly set a few years before the outbreak of the war (Hitler and the Nazi’s takeover from the Weimar Republic didn’t actually happen until the film was in production), added opening narration in Crimes sets the film smack dab in the middle of the war, directly linking Hitler with the Mabuse figure. Gone is Kent’s moment at the unemployment office, as well as much but the most perfunctory dialogue between the henchmen, leaving it the simple reactionary tale of the vanquishing of an all-evil Mabuse/Hitler figure that the misanthropic Lang (who generally, as much of his films bare out, including his early American pre-noirs, like Fury and the brilliant You Only Live Once, thought of humanity as a shrill irrational lynch mob waiting to happen) had worked to subvert and explore (reinforcing the deliberateness of this approach, the 1954 theatrical poster sold Mabuse as a new entry into the legendary pantheon of iconic Universal horror figures like the Wolf-man and Frankenstein!).

There’s also a few of those odd dialogue revisions that’s more amusing than anything – in the German version, for instance, a suddenly jovial Lohmann, shaken from his oft-cantankerous mood by a sudden new lead in the case, bellows out that if the lead ends up important he’ll get ‘high as a kite tonight!’. Okay, I’m assuming that means he’ll get really drunk. Fine. The American version, on the other hand, has the inspector blurting out that he’ll get ‘stiff as a board’… I mean… how exactly are we supposed to interpret that? I can only imagine that in one way… and somehow I don’t think a double-bill throwaway 1950’s B-feature was quite thinking what I’m thinking. In another revision, they change Lohmann’s ill-fated night away from police work for a night at his beloved ‘Opera’, instead, to a night at the ‘fights’. I guess the American distributors didn’t think the Opera was quite manly enough for their audience, while a good ol’ boxing match was just right.

As an editor myself, there was some intrigue in seeing how the ‘re-editors’ went about shortening scenes (taking out shots, cutting down heads and tails, etc. – I mean, along with removing whole scenes, they chopped everywhere to get this down!) but overall… it feels like a film for an audience just looking to pass a quick 75 minutes.

If you wanna experience Lang’s first Mabuse sequel in all its magnificent, evocative pre-noir, pseudo-expressionistic glory, watch the original Testament. Crimes is for completist’s only.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)/<i>The Crimes of Dr Mabuse</i> (Fritz Lang, 1933/1951)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   expressionism   fritz lang   german cinema   spy cinema