Friday, March 4, 2016

Watch This: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Co-written and directed by Fritz Lang

The German cinema of the 1920s and early 1930s represents the artistic highpoint in the era of silent film and the transition to sound.  There was a blossoming of filmmaking talent that led to the production of numerous great films, many of them influenced by the Expressionist movement and the country's bleak atmosphere in the wake of World War I (Robert Wiene's nightmarish The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) being a prime example).  In particular, a cadre of great directors produced a nearly unrivaled string of masterpieces.  F. W. Murnau directed Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1925), and Faust (1926) before leaving Germany for a career in Hollywood, while Georg Wilhelm Pabst made The Joyless Street (1925), The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and The Threepenny Opera (1931).  However, the undisputed master of this period in German cinema was Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) rank among the best films ever made.  It is these two films that receive the most attention in discussions of Lang's early career in Germany, but one of the most underrated films of this period is Lang's innovative and influential crime film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a sequel to Lang's great two-part, silent epic Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922).

In the earlier film, Dr. Mabuse (pronounced Mah-BOO-zuh) uses his background as a psychologist to mastermind an elaborate criminal scheme involving theft, murder, blackmail, and stock market manipulation.  Mabuse himself is a master of disguise and hypnosis, controlling his victims through psychological means.  By the end of the film, after his criminal enterprise has been thwarted, Mabuse goes mad and is locked away in an asylum.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse picks up a decade later, as another vast criminal conspiracy is underway in Berlin.  The criminals have been organized into sections, each operating somewhat independently of one another, but all reporting to a mysterious mastermind, Dr. Mabuse.  We get a glimpse at the workings of the criminal organization through the story of Kent (Gustav Diessl), whose commitment to his unlawful career begins to falter after their activities start to include murder, and as he falls in love with the beautiful and innocent Lilli (Wera Liessem).  Kent and his colleagues receive their orders from Mabuse without ever seeing his face.  He issues his directives from behind a backlit curtain in a bare, dingy room.  And yet, as we find out early in the film, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) has still been locked away in the asylum under the care of Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi).  Mabuse is silent and unresponsive, his only activity being the incessant writing out of his detailed plans for an "empire of crime."  We even see midway through the film that he has died.  If Mabuse has been securely confined in his cell before his death, then who is the mastermind behind this new crime wave?

After a desperate and mysteriously interrupted phone call from disgraced ex-cop Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), followed by Hofmeister's disappearance and descent into insanity, Police Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) begins to investigate.  A series of strange clues leaves him mystified, but his rational mind and determination keep his investigation moving forward.  We see early on that the key to the identity of the mastermind may be Mabuse's writings.  One of Dr. Baum's colleagues, Dr. Kramm, notices remarkable similarities between Mabuse's scribbled schemes and a jewelry heist that has recently taken place, but Kramm is murdered shortly thereafter, before he can report this information to the police.  Eventually, Lohmann finds links between this murder and the incident with Hofmeister, and the evidence points to one man: Dr. Mabuse.

The character of Dr. Mabuse has comparatively little screen time, and his death midway through the film is rather unexpected.  However, it is Mabuse's influence over the other characters and the events of the plot that make his role the most significant in the film, and that make him such a powerful figure.  Dr. Mabuse was arguably the first truly great supervillain in all of cinema, and you can trace a direct path from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse to Heath Ledger's unforgettable portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).  In both cases, the villain is motivated not by greed or revenge, but by a desire to create chaos and destruction on as massive a scale as possible.  Dr. Mabuse's frightening criminal philosophy, advocating "crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror," finds its echo in Alfred's description of the Joker from The Dark Knight: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Fritz Lang was one of the first true innovators of the sound era.  Films like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse reveal a keen understanding of sound's artistic potential beyond simply allowing people to talk aloud on screen.  Lang's mastery of sound design is on display in Mabuse's opening sequence, as the steady, almost overpowering mechanical hum of the printing presses used by the counterfeiters adds a great deal of texture and tension to the scene.  Later, when Dr. Kramm is murdered in his car while sitting at a stoplight, the killers use the noise of honking horns to mask the sound of the fatal gunshot.

Lang finished The Testament of Dr. Mabuse just as the Nazis were taking power in Germany, and the film was banned by the Third Reich, who perhaps saw something of themselves in Mabuse and his criminal gang.  Many of Lang's fellow German filmmakers and screen actors had emigrated to Hollywood by that time, and this mass exodus of talent, paired with the devastation of the Second World War, left a gaping hole in German cinema that would last for an entire generation, until the emergence of a new wave of visionary directors like Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Volker Schlondorff.  Lang himself fled Germany for France, and later the United States, where he enjoyed a successful decades-long career that produced a number of great noir-tinged genre films like Fury (1936), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952), and The Big Heat (1953).  However, none of these American films could match the brilliance of his earlier work in Germany, and while he often worked in the crime film genre, he never again directed a film that could equal his unheralded masterpiece, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

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