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Home / Film / Feature Articles / Smooth Kriminal: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, Fritz Lang, and The Krimi

Smooth Kriminal: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, Fritz Lang, and The Krimi

So far in Smooth Kriminal, our column dedicated to German krimi films of the 1960s, we have regularly mentioned how the sub-genre relates to the Italian giallo of the following decade. This is true enough, but an observation we don’t mean to lean on too much, as there are many other valuable facets of the krimi. But a more general observation between the two–which relates to how genre cinema works at large–is how each follow a set of rules to be followed and eventually broken. Some spectators and critics might not consider a film like Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in The Country (1968) to be a giallo because it is too dreamy and abstract, with no quintessential stalker creeping around and killing people. With the krimi, purists might say that only adaptations of Edgar Wallace stories need apply, as opposed to a more blanket perspective that uses the term as a way to categorize all German crime films of that period and budget, such as the one in question today: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960).

Instead of Edgar Wallace, the infamous character of Dr Mabuse can be traced back to the Luxembourgish author Norbert Jacques and his 1921 novel Dr Mabuse, der Spieler. As far as cinema history goes, Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) is associated with the director who initially adapted this character to the screen, Fritz Lang. Lang is one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, particularly concerning epic crime sagas, and he also directed The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) as his career continued.

Yet who is this character that takes a seat among the other mad doctors of German history, both real and fantastic? The borderline cartoonish qualities of Mabuse align him perfectly with the villains of Edgar Wallace–a contemporary of Fritz Lang–and the following krimi adaptations of the 1960s. Mabuse is highly intelligent, skilled in psychoanalysis, a master of disguise, and able to manipulate his henchmen with ease. He is, of course, a gambler and on top of that a hypnotist, and a mad scientist. He isn’t psychic per se, but given his almost supernatural abilities, he might as well be. The way he deals with women is often pimp-like, although he deploys them in the name of crime, not necessarily sex. Originally played by heavyweight actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Testament of Dr Mabuse, Wolfgang Preiss takes over the role in the much later 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse. Lang does a good job of developing the character in the first and second films, that there is little of this in 1000 Eyes, making it jive with the feel of other krimis of the time. While Face of the Frog (1960) and The Red Circle (1960) may be highly entertaining pictures, the super villains of these titles are virtually portrayed as mythical beings, with no significant development applied. Yet this works for the genre–these villains are supposed to be mysterious and long, wide-open back stories could quash the feel of that.

At one point about halfway through Dr Mabuse the Gambler, Count Told (Alfred Abel), one of the doctor’s victims of manipulation asks, “What do you think of Expressionism, Herr Doktor?” Mabuse replies, “Expressionism is just an idle game! But then again, why not? Everything today is an idle game!” This almost self-reflexive turn develops further in Testament, which doesn’t necessarily take place in a world of crooked architecture and painted shadows like the definitive German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), but is concerned with apt subject matter like madness and ghostly apparitions inside and out of mental institution walls. These films inhabit a dense, oneiric, frantic headspace. Mabuse has spent ten years in an institution, scribbling words that eventually begin to make sense by the time Testament begins. However, it is Dr Baum (Oskar Beregi), the man in control of him there who is possessed by Mabuse and carries out numerous crimes with a group of hoodlums. The “empire of crime” repeatedly referred to in Testament takes on quite a foreboding meaning when taking into account the film’s release shortly before World War II and the Third Reich assuming power in Germany. By 1960, when 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse was released, the world was a vastly different place, and the allegorical doctor embodied new meanings.   

The confusion over how 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse fits into krimi history and film history at large starts with the fact that the eponymous character is not even in the film, as he already died in the earlier sequel. This says a lot about marketing and how films like the later slashers of the 1980s had no issue with resurrecting characters that draw audiences to the silver screen. By the 1960s, Lang was an aging director in Hollywood and beyond, and producer Artur Brauner had a lot to do with a new Mabuse film occuring. Essentially 1,000 Eyes acts as a greatest hits from the previous films in the series. As these were liberally influenced by detective stories and mystery series’ in the first place, this goes to show you the circular and lending nature of the genre, which is in keeping with the krimis at hand. 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse opens with a man behind the wheel of a car being shot by another car-bound man (Howard Vernon, credited only as “No. 12”) with an awkwardly large gun, a scene taken right out of the earlier Testament sequel. From there we have other familiar Lang and thriller fixtures including: doctors, a psychic blind man, mention of plutonium, a seance, psychologically manifested physical handicaps, hypnosis, rockets to control the universe, and so forth.

Howard Vernon in a bit part as “No. 12” in 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960).

This was Fritz Lang’s last film, received scornfully by some critics and spectators, but with appreciative gusto by others. If you find Lang’s films truly entertaining beyond their artful craftsmanship or historical worth, then you will probably enjoy 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse. While it is clear that he no longer had the budget, control over the shooting duration, and unfortunately the respect of his producers, the film is still packed with technical excellence and charm. In a way, the actual plot of the film is not that important seeing as how it relies on set pieces and dramatic moments that unravel scene by scene, but for the record it is much like the others–a gang of hoodlums controlled by a manipulative mastermind is tracked down by Kras (Gert Froebe), a persistent police officer. In the meantime, we have Marion (Dawn Addams), a damsel in distress and Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck) a self-involved fellow who finds himself truly interested in someone else for the first time.   

If there is any kind of lasting theme to ponder with 1,000 Eyes, it would be the surveillance culture that informs the title. The Hotel Luxor, where much of the action takes place, is filled with tiny cameras taking account of absolutely everything that occurs there. Characters are shown looking at cathode ray tube monitors as if they are crystal balls. Indeed, Cornelius (Wolfgang Preiss) the blind man has psychic abilities allowing him to see into the future, and this is definitely related to the surveillance cameras placed throughout the film. At one point, the hotel manager (Nico Pepe) shows Travers a half-silvered mirror hidden away in an armoire, allowing them to see through it, into Marion’s room. Travers shows a distaste for the mirror, yet he still looks anyways. Much can be said about this voyeuristic gaze of a man looking in on the woman he is fascinated with and full of desire for, but in relation to the omniscient surveillance cameras, the gaze being considered is not necessarily gendered on an individual level, but in a very much larger, patriarchal kind of way. It makes one wonder if Lang had read of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, which had been published about ten years earlier in 1949.

Considering the half-silvered mirror, it is worth noting that there is a scene in which Travers saves Marion’s life because he happens to be peeping on her. During a visit, her club-footed husband is about to murder her before Travers dramatically smashes through the mirror and shoots him–or is that what really happens? Nothing is as it seems in 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, and the plot is perhaps even more bonkers than most krimis. If you think about it, the macguffin in the film is the very titular character himself. Mabuse doesn’t even exist! Yet his identity is what the film hinges on. Let that. Sink. In.

  The first two films–Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Testament of Dr Mabuse–are known for unintentionally prophesizing the rise of Hitler and the nazi party. 1,000 Eyes is not often talked about as prophetic, seeing as how it was made much more pragmatically, but if anything, it looks ahead to what we are experiencing now. In public, cameras are everywhere, capturing people’s’ every move. In public and private, we carry devices around with cameras installed, recording anything and everything. With social media, so many of us tend to give up our own privacy voluntarily, in order to be noticed by others. The 1,000 eyes of the title are literally everywhere now, and Dr Mabuse takes on the personas of government watchdogs and big tech companies. While he is not the first or only film director to take this into account around the early 1960’s, it is worth considering that Fritz Lang predicted quite well what the world would be like fifty years into the future, very much like Cornelius, the shifty blind man. This isn’t the first time he had done something like that–his film Woman in the Moon (1929) not only predicted but greatly influenced how space travel would be engineered in reality.

The trope of the blind man is another circular influence among Lang and the various krimis of the 1960s. Of course, at the conclusion of Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the evil genius is captured and driven mad by a group of blind men he was exploiting. In Lang’s first sound film M (1931), Peter Lorre’s murderous protagonist is captured after a blind beggar recognizes the song he had been whistling. Alfred Vohrer’s krimi of 1961, The Dead Eyes of Londonwritten about by Samm Deighan in the previous entry of Smooth Kriminal–references blindness in its very title, and the crimes hinge upon a cadre of blind killers.

The original Mabuse pictures were a deep influence on the krimi, and after 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, Fritz Lang’s final film, opportunistic producers kept the name going with many sequels, making it a series to rival the Edgar Wallace adaptations. The Return of Dr Mabuse (1961), The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962), The Terror of Dr Mabuse (1962), Dr Mabuse vs Scotland Yard (1963), and so on… Return and Invisible were both directed by Harald Reinl, one of the most prolific krimi directors, the latter also starring his wife at one time and krimi regular Karin Dor. A number of cast members from 1,000 Eyes return in one or more of the films including Gert Froebe, Wolfgand Preiss, and Peter van Eyck. While it often seems clear, but left up to speculation that an empire of crime has taken over the world in our contemporary moment, it is an absolute certainty that an empire of crime films were established in the 1960s and continue to be remembered today.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

One comment

  1. Jesús Palacios

    I wonder if the idea of the Hotel Luxor with his occult cameras and false mirrors was inspired on the real Palace of the Occult build in the 30s in Berlin under the command of Erik Jan Hannussen, the jewish astrologer and mentalist who works for Hitler and the SA, wich was completely filled with secret microphones to spy on the important people who attendded the inauguration of the place, among them members of the nazi party, actors and actressess, politicians and artists. Some historians are more or less convinced that this microphones and the registration of the conversations of people in the Occult Palace, including those who attended spiritualist seances, are the very reason to kill Hanusseen in 1933, maybe when he try to blackmailed or to menace some prominent members of the nazi party with this information. Realiity in Weimar Germany was more fantastic than fiction or, at least, equally strange.

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