Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Based on Characters by: Norbert Jacques
Starring: Oscar Beregi, Otto Wernicke, Gustav Diessl, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Producers: Fritz Lang, Seymour Nebenzal
Running Time: 116 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
We whinge about sequels and remakes a lot these days, but they’ve been around since the beginning of cinema. The earliest films would be simple things like trains coming towards the screen, moving on to simple single-gag comedy shorts and back then these would be ‘recreated’ by various companies ad nauseam to show to punters desperate to see these moving pictures in action. People forget that even a handful of renowned classics were actually remakes of films or second adaptations of plays or books such as Ben Hur and His Girl Friday. Alfred Hitchcock even went as far to remake his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. When it comes to sequels, most critics dismiss these as lazy cash-ins that came into proliferation after the late 70’s and 80’s with the critical and commercial success of films like The Godfather Part 2 and The Empire Strikes Back. Sequels and film series have of course been around a lot longer than that though and even the greatest of filmmakers weren’t immune to dabbling with the format.
This brings us to Fritz Lang. In 1922, he made Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, an epic crime thriller about a criminal genius. It was very successful at the time, helping boost his already quite successful career even further forward. His upward trajectory was cemented by following this up (not directly) with two of cinema’s all time greats, Metropolis in 1927 and M in 1931. After all this success, he was approached by executives who made a request for him to make a follow up to Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. As Lang puts in his own words:
“For me that sonofabitch was dead, out of my life. In ’32, I guess someone came to me and said “Look, Mr. Lang, we have made so much money with Mabuse…” I said “Yes, much more than I did…” He said “Can’t you give us another Mabuse?” So I started thinking about it and I said “All right, what shall I do? This guy is insane and in an asylum – I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible.”
So Lang saw it as a challenge and, with the help of his wife and long-time writing collaborator Thea von Harbou, decided to build upon his groundbreaking thriller. In doing so, he even incorporated elements of M into the story, bringing the character of Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) from that film into the world of Dr. Mabuse, turning the three films into a kind of trilogy (Lang actually revisited the character again in fact with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960).
In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (a.k.a. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), the titular doctor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is seemingly comatose, sat rigidly in bed as he has been for years without moving or speaking. He eventually begins to move his hand and his doctors discover that he is actually writing in his seemingly brain-dead state. These writings are collated by Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi), who is in charge of the hospital in which Mabuse resides. Around this unusual phenomenon we move through various strands that piece together the jigsaw of the film’s plot; following a disgraced police officer that goes missing whilst tracking down a counterfeit money ring, the investigation into this disappearance by Lohmann and a love story between a member of the criminal gang being hunted and his good-natured girlfriend. As the film moves on it becomes apparent that Mabuse’s seemingly crazy written ramblings are actually being used to advise and control the criminals in question. The evil genius is still running things from another plane of consciousness!
It sounds quite preposterous on paper, but by God does Lang turn it into something mightily impressive. Most notable is how well it still holds up today. For all the Bonds, Bournes and Batmen we have these days, here’s an 80 year old thriller that is still exciting and innovative. Always a technical genius, Lang pulls out the stops for the set-pieces here using a multitude of clever and stylish tricks. In one scene a hunted man’s assailant turns off the light and we catch mere frames of the setting, lit by the flashes of the desperate man’s gun as he shoots out into the darkness. In another scene, an assassin trailing his victim by car uses the honks of neighbouring vehicles to hide his successful gunshot. As well as several action and thriller tropes that have since been ripped off, Lang exhibits moments that would still be deemed notable if they were included in the latest Nolan blockbuster.
A regular technique that really stood out for me as an editor though was the clever tying together of scenes. As mentioned before, the plot is quite a varied and complex affair, yet Lang ensures that each scene ties into the next in some way. This is done through visual or aural match-cuts or a witty use of dialogue in pretty much every scene break. As well as giving a wonderful ebb and flow to proceedings, these remind us that everything is part of the puzzle of ‘what is going to happen?’ and ‘who is really behind it?’ The only minor grievance I had with regards to editing though is that, as exciting as it is, the film does feel a little long and slow by today’s standards. Judging by the length of the first Mabuse film (five hours in its complete form) and others from the time like Metropolis, these lengthy epics were all the rage back then and audiences weren’t as restless as they are now though, so it’s not worth criticising, especially when the content is so strong.
The film isn’t just a technical marvel either. As well as the cleverly constructed plot, the characters within it are strong, with Lohmann striking a particularly memorable figure, visually and figuratively. The actual content is very dark too (and not just for the time), with Mabuse’s ultimate goal being to create an ‘Empire of Crime’, spreading fear and chaos around the city and beyond. He doesn’t want money or power, he just wants to turn the world insane. The idea of the doctor’s writings inspiring mass crime and evil of course was symbolic of the work of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Bearing in mind the political party had only just risen to dominance in 1932, this was an extremely risky move for a German filmmaker. Of course the film was promptly banned by the government, but strangely enough, Hitler, obviously realising Lang’s powers over an audience, requested that the director work with the party to produce their propaganda films. Rather than take up the offer, Lang fled the country for France that night. From there he moved to Hollywood and found his feet making classic film-noir titles and hard-boiled thrillers.
Alongside M and Metropolis, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is proof that Fritz Lang was one of the finest cinematic craftsmen of the 20th century. What is unusual for such a highly regarded film of its age though is the fact that on paper it is the type of film that generally gets shunned by critics these days – an action-packed blockbuster which is an unnecessary sequel to a previously successful film.
Das Testament Des Dr. Mabuse is out in the UK on 24th September on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray edition and the picture quality was stunning. A few scenes are a little worn, but as explained before the film starts, some of the scenes have been reinstated from a lesser source to ensure the film is as complete as possible. The audio, which is generally very strong, suffers from time to time for the same reason. I doubt we’ll ever see a version as complete as this look and sound as good though.
For a special feature we get a commentary by film scholar and Fritz Lang expert David Kalat. He is clearly reading from a script, so the delivery of this is a bit dry and stilted, but the content is strong. In particular he discusses at length the differences between the various versions of the film that came to be.
Of course, the package comes with a 50-odd page booklet as with all Masters of Cinema releases and as ever this is an excellent addition, with essays on the film as well as notes from and an interview with Lang himself.