Friday, 13 January 2012

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler

Used and Mabused

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler
(aka Dr. Mabuse The Gambler)
Germany 1922
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Region 2

Warning: Beware der spieler spoilers!

Unwarning: Actually, it’s really spoiler light...
but I had to get that last line in somehow!

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler is a German Expressionist, crime/gangster style of picture made in 1922 by the same husband and wife team of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou who would, a few years later, bring to the screen one of cinema’s most cherished triumphs of early cinema... Metropolis (reviewed here). Based on a novel by Norbert Jacques, the sinister Dr. Mabuse (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who would later play Rotwang in Metropolis... in fact, a fair few of the actors who are in that later film turn up in this one) is a larger than life criminal genius who is so obviously informed and inspired by the likes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and the protagonists of Feuillade’s serials such as Irma Vep in Les Vampires and, more obviously and blatantly (we’re almost into full-on rip off mode here, but not quite), the main protagonist of the Fantômas serials (and books and movies).

The reason I appreciate characters like Mabuse is because I like to follow a character over a long story arc and see different interpretations of them over a period of time... the Dr. Mabuse timeline is a really drawn out one and it appeals to me that Fritz Lang, who directed the first three Mabuse outings (if you count Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler as a single film... four outings if you don’t), came back to the character twice, each time after quite lengthy absences from the screen. This first one is, for example, the only Dr. Mabuse silent film, since it was made in 1922, but Lang made a sequel to this (starring the same lead actor!) in 1933 called The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and then, in 1960, a third outing called The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse... this has got to be a pretty long courtship with a character in directing circles I reckon.

Since then, Mabuse stories have been crafted by a number of different directors including the famous French new wave director Claude Chabrol in Mabuse’s last screen outing to date, Dr. M (actually, I seem to remember really suffering through that film back in the hey day of video rentals and regretting renting it a lot).

Even so... for a character that can have a director like Lang going back to him after many years... as if he’d been haunted by his own partial creation... well, there had to be something special about him and so I have found the proposition of the Mabuse films irresistible over the years but have never had the time to research them. That’s why Eureka Masters Of Cinema’s recent boxed edition of Lang’s Mabuse films, which I was lucky enough to get for Christmas (amongst other cinematic and bookish treasures), is such a great release.

The first film is nearly five hours long and I watched it in one sitting (with the odd short breaks for answering the phone)... if I’d have known that the two main segments (comprising of numerous chapters each) were both originally shown a month apart in cinemas, I would probably have had more of a break between the two sittings, to be totally truthful. As it was though, my stamina was good and while the film can be quite wearing in places, especially if you’re used to watching Feuillade’s Les Vampires, Judex and Fantômas film serials, the power present within the images and the sheer strength of Rudolf Klein-Rogge expressive performance as a powerful master criminal were more than enough to hold my interest.

The movie starts off strong with Mabuse shuffling a deck of cards depicting different disguised versions of himself. He cuts the cards and draws one to find the disguise he will be wearing for that evening’s entertainment and then berates his cocaine addled assistant for not being more attentive of his needs. From there on in we are subjected to a cat and mouse game between Dr. Mabuse, psychiatrist by day and criminal genius by night, and an inspector of police who eventually turns out to be the other main protagonist of this film... as all the other characters you thought were the key characters, including the young romantic lead and his dashing young lady (who is in Mabuse’s pay in order to fleece the guy out of large amounts of money), are systematically mentally abused and killed off until there aren’t all that many people left by the end of the film, if truth be told.

Dr. Mabuse, you see, possesses uncanny powers of mental control on people from a distance, using the power of his mind to force them into losing big at the gambling tables in various underground gambling establishments. However, for all its lengthy running time, there’s really not that much more to the story than that... the pacing is fairly slow (while somehow seeming quite brisk without anything much happening) but I say that not to the detraction of its imagery and the atmosphere of a criminal underworld fleecing bored thrill seekers who are mostly too narcissistic to notice they are being cunningly leached of their finances by the criminal genius who is Mabuse is thick and permeable.

Little details, like the currency counterfeiting factory Mabuse runs being populated by blind money counters (so they can’t see what they are working on and be tempted to steal it) and the strange, Bond-like machinations the Mabuse character uses to ensure he is not rumbled in any of his disguises as Dr. Mabuse make for, a certain compelling viewing. And there’s a brilliant little sequence at the end, while Mabuse is being haunted in his mind by the ghosts of those he has lead to their destruction, where his money printing presses are transformed into what I can only describe as mechanical demons from hell... in the way that they only could be in an expressionist film. It’s very similar in style to Lang’s later transformation scene in Metropolis where the machines metamorphosise into Moloch. It was worth watching, for me, for just for this one surrealistic vision.

So... this is definitely going to be a split recommendation here. Ultimately I really enjoyed watching this one and am looking forward to sitting down with the first sequel sometime soon and I would certainly say that it’s one to watch if you are a fan of Silent Cinema... especially the German Expressionist stuff like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (who Mabuse bears more than just a vague resemblance to) but I can understand that a lot of people may get bored after a while with such a long production if they are not used to this kind of stuff. In some ways it can be seen as a pale and ghostly reflection of the Fantômas character which so obviously inspired it but, then again, it’s Fritz Lang so it’s done with a certain sense of... almost iconic creativity and visual splendour and, as I intimated before, if you’re a fan of early cinema... chances are you’ll love it as much as I did.


  1. Hmm, interesting review! I've seen and enjoyed THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE (though it was too long, perhaps a trend) and have been meaning to see its precursor ever since. I had no idea it was 5 hours long, so that is good to know. I'd still like to see it, especially after your description of the surreal imagery used by Lang, but perhaps I'll break it into two parts as they did in theaters!

  2. Hi there...

    Yeah, sometimes these kind so films can be as much a test of stamina as they are a delight (and in this case both).

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.