#235 (tie) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), dir. Fritz Lang

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Driven ’round the bend. Madness, fear, and the looming spectre of Nazism drive the twisted criminality in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the last film Fritz Lang made in Germany before fleeing to the United States.

“Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is fear and terror. Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime.” So reads the scribbled ravings of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind driven insane before his arrest a decade earlier. In the aftermath of horrible events like the Boston marathon bombing it is a sobering (if not distressing) thought that director Fritz Lang was addressing the same sort of dreadful activity 80 years ago as the Nazis began their meteoric rise to power. This was the final film that Lang, whose mother was Jewish, made in Germany before fleeing the country. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) is nominally a sequel to Lang’s very successful silent film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), but it is also a semi-sequel to Lang’s previous movie, M (1931, we’ll get in to that below). Confined to a mental institution, the insane Mabuse endlessly pencils out complex criminal schemes which appear to be replicated in the real world by a criminal gang that uses terror and fierce loyalty to reach its destructive ends. Not just another crime film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse delves into strange realms of madness in a Germany that was itself on the verge of insanity. (122 min.)

S. – You really get thrown right into the action on this one and lord knows it is one jam-packed story, no time to waste. A trembling man with a gun is hiding among machinery, his desperation palpable and very effectively communicated with some darting camera work. He appears to be in some kind of work room where two other rough-looking gents enter with purpose. Even though they observe the cowering man they leave him be and carry on with their business. The reprieve is short-lived, however, as our distressed protagonist narrowly escapes a number of quite thrilling attempts on his life as he leaves the building. And so begins a crime gang psychodrama, 1930s style.

J. – Like M, the movie does a great job of establishing the mood early and through the use of unusual and indirect means. The opening scene you mention is almost like a silent movie — certainly not a single word is heard — but instead of quiet, all sounds are eliminated by the rhythmic pounding of some unseen machinery, the overbearing clanking of which manages to ratchet up the tension without any particular plot points being communicated to the audience. As with M, the audience is left in ignorance after the opening scene but well aware that nasty things are afoot.

Seeing as I’ve brought up M already, we may as well address one of the interesting features of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: that it is a sequel (or is it a spin-off?) of two earlier Fritz Lang movies that were previously unconnected. The movie features Dr. Mabuse, who first appeared in the 1922 Lang film mentioned above, but it is even more of a showcase for Inspector Lohmann, the grumpy, frumpy detective of M — and both characters are played by their original actors (Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Otto Wernicke, respectively). I thought this was a fascinating gambit, sort of an Avengers of early German crime films. I had no idea Inspector Lohmann was in this movie; I would have picked it up years ago if I’d known.

S. – I think we were both close to cheering when Lohmann appeared on the screen as irascible and hard-nosed as ever. And does he have his hands full! Not only is the criminal gang adept at money counterfeiting it becomes apparent that the mysterious head of the organisation is somehow linked to the infamous Dr. Mabuse, whose body may be locked up in the sanitarium but whose powerful mind is somehow influencing events outside his cell. Throw into the mix some star-crossed lovers and a psychiatrist of dubious character, and my favorite German Inspector (Inspector Rex is from Austria) has some fearsome detective work ahead of him. Aside from the representations of psychological events, which will no doubt come up later, I was quite impressed by the action sequences Lang choreographs. There was an explosion early on that was captured brilliantly and the scene with the lovers trapped in the room rapidly filling with water was terrific.

J. – There are a number of great action set pieces, and in that regard the film is much more akin to the original Dr. Mabuse than to the somber grimness of M. That is also true of the fantasy elements of the film as well, but before we get into any of that, I’d like to stick with Lohmann. He really seems like the prototype for police detectives in subsequent cinema, and Wernicke plays him up with obvious relish. He’s a wonderful mix of intelligence and tenacity melded with slovenliness and irascibility. He seems like the kind of person that would wake up violently hungover in yesterday’s clothes and then beat you at chess before breakfast. I love how he has some sort of super-cop reputation among the city’s criminal element, who will note that “Lohmann and the rest of the police” are outside — clearly he is above and beyond the rest of the force. But as in M, he’s no Sherlock Holmes, just a really solid police officer who makes use of actual investigative techniques. His real skill seems to be knowing exactly when to throw his weight around, and it was great to see him really have the chance to do so in this movie to a much larger degree than he did in M.

S. – The subject matter of M was far more serious than the set-up in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and I think that gives Lang more freedom to have fun with Lohmann. We also get to see some bumbling on the part of the criminal element, which acts as a foil for the wit and grit of the detective. I truly love the scene where Lohmann tires of a standoff with a handful of armed criminals holed up in an apartment and after striding untouched through a hail of gunfire convinces them to hand over their weapons all the while scolding them like naughty children. But it is not all bluff and bluster, as you mentioned the pain-staking police work is still there. When he learns those scratches on the window spell out Mabuse it’s a great moment.

J. – I agree, there is much more in the way of fun in this film, even if it has its fair share of creepy elements and noirish violence. In a number of ways the film dips almost into fantasy, particularly in those scenes you hinted at above wherein the psychoses of various characters are depicted by Lang through some really amazing visuals. I particularly love the scene with the man who has been driven insensible by fear wherein they place him at a clear glass table covered with a clear glass lamp and telephone, all of them warped into bizarre shapes. It took a moment to realize what was happening, but the instant it kicks in that these see-through items represent products of the man’s damaged mind, it just screams, “Cool!” And the manner in which Lang keeps the crazy going while still managing to reveal the man’s actual tormentors (as seen in the still below) is a great bit of German Expressionist staging.

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The audience gets a taste of the real and the fractured mind of a madman, as Lohmann and a doctor enter a cell only to trigger the hysterical, contorted visions of a man pushed beyond the brink.

S. – The visual expression of psychological events was obviously an interest of Lang’s, super-imposing a ghostly image over the reality of the scene was very effective. I was surprised and impressed by how good this looked in most of the instances where it was used, for example check out the opening image in this post. Once or twice the effect bordered on looking silly rather than spooky but overall it was quite well done.

However, a weakness of the film for me was the portrayal of the imprisoned Dr. Mabuse. This may be the result of not seeing the earlier film but I didn’t really get a sense of him being that omnipotent. I know we were told he is, and he was able to do the ghost thing but the scenes of him dressed in his PJs scribbling madly on his notepad didn’t really convey a suitable amount of awe.

J. – I don’t think he was able to project a ghostly image of himself, so much as the psychologist had become so obsessed with Mabuse’s writings that he created a ghost Mabuse in his head that acted as the devil on his shoulder. (Although it is implied that Mabuse may somehow have used his powers to have uploaded himself into the psychologist’s mind, which is a cool thought). But I do agree that Dr. Mabuse himself really does end up being something of a disappointing non-entity in this movie. As I mentioned in my write up of the 1922 film, you don’t need to see Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler to follow the events of this film, but it really goes a long way toward establishing Mabuse as a credible menace in a way that this sequel doesn’t quite manage to do on its own.

Speaking of the image atop this post, I loved what Lang did in that scene with the trees, shining a bright light on the leaves so they came out white in the darkness of night. The rush of those white leaves whooshing past the car was as effective as any psychedelic effect and illustrated the descent into madness even better than the Expressionist sets and bizarre camera angles.

S. – That final fraught driving scene was one to remember and like so many of the action sequences in this movie was executed beautifully. I really appreciated the staging throughout the film, it is so thoughtfully done. Once again Lang provides a visually rich landscape upon which to tell his story and this time he doesn’t restrict himself to the physical world.

J. – I found the movie to be massively entertaining and often very visually inventive. I don’t think it stands up to M, but I’m not sure that is a fair comparison to make even with the two movies sharing a prominent character. The tone and intent of the two films are quite different, and I feel like The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is really made to entertain above all. That said, the bad guys of the film really do come across as thinly veiled Nazis, and given that Lang was of Jewish descent, it was a very bold maneuver on his part (the film, as it happens, was banned by Joseph Goebbels). This is the third Lang movie we have written up for this blog, and all three deal not just with criminality but with madness. It is a theme that we are going to see again and again in German film from the interwar period, and it’s hard to imagine that this is a coincidence.

Related yammers:
Prequel: Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), dir. Fritz Lang (not on Sight & Sound list)
Prequel (sort of): #56 – M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang
#171 – Notorious (1946), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
#127 – The Last Laugh (1924), dir. F.W. Murnau
#235 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Weine
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