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Surveillance, Performance, Terror: Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

The January 1919 death of socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is often read by postwar historians as a sort of turning point in the Weimar Republic, a symbolic line drawn in the sand between a possible Communist future in Germany and the fascist government that quickly emerged. She was murdered — not by the National Socialists, though they loosely formed around this time — by the Freikorps, a sort of mercenary army made up of typically young, disillusioned WWI veterans who were hired to battle communist and leftist dissent from Germany to the borders of what was once Eastern Prussia. They were sometimes hired to fight against emerging democratic governments and were often anti-Semitic or anti-Slavic; many future Nazi leaders were among them. Polish-born, Jewish, and sharply antiwar (not to mention female), Luxemburg represented everything they hated. It is probably not surprising that she didn’t last long in a nation plagued by poverty, inflation, and political corruption, with violent left- and right-wing paramilitary groups fighting constantly (and often in the streets) for supremacy, while disgruntled, disillusioned citizens blamed external forces for their collective plight.

It is in this environment that Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), known to English-speaking audiences as Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, was released. Based on a novel by Norbert Jacques and penned by Lang’s wife (they were married in the same year as the film’s release) and collaborator Thea von Harbou, this was to be the first of Lang’s three-film Mabuse series, followed by one of his masterworks, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), as well as a variety of other sequels like Harald Reinl’s The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1961), Jess Franco’s The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse (1971), and Chabrol’s Docteur M (1990). Though he has a primarily European reputation, Mabuse is one of the early cinematic examples of the arch-villain, following characters from film serials (and earlier serialized fiction) like Fantomas, Fu Manchu, and even that Napoleon of crime, Moriarty. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler actually has a serial-like approach towards realism and logic, which is to say that surreal elements creep in, and nearly everything works to Mabuse’s advantage… until it suddenly doesn’t.

A fascinating reflection of the growing role of fascism and terror in Weimar Germany, this lengthy (clocking in at more than four hours) film feels much more like a compiled serial — in the best way possible. It doesn’t slow down for a minute and, to those skeptical of the length, it’s never anything less than fascinating throughout, complete with everything from a scene of mass hypnosis, a train heist, cabaret performances, detective work, and so much more. As Nicole Brenez wrote in A Companion to Fritz Lang, “The figure of Mabuse presented in 1922 is in fact so fantastic and archetypal that, for both Lang and his audience, it could have consequently referred to the most menacing of real-life autocrats, to the master of the historical moment. For what first mobilizes Lang is not a man, a singular being, but a phenomenon” (64).

This two part film follows Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who uses his powers of disguise, hypnosis, and mind-control to spread his web across Berlin. He uses a network of henchmen — including murderers, drug addicts, brainless thugs, and even a cabaret dancer — to further his ends, which include everything from elaborate stock market heists to cheating and entrapping locals at the gambling dens, over which he has near total control. He targets a young industrialist (Paul Richter), the heir to a fortune, just as a prosecutor, Nobert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), begins to string together some of Mabuse’s crimes and built a case that centers on two women: Cara Carozza (Aude Egede-Nissen), a cabaret dancer under Mabuse’s control and besotted by him, and the Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker), who becomes the latest object of Mabuse’s insane desire…

Rudolf Klein-Rogge — a Lang regular who the director cast in everything from his Mabuse series to Spies and Metropolis — is perfect as Mabuse. Visually striking, if a bit mad looking, Klein-Rogge effortlessly captures the character’s essence and is generally always the focal point of the film. Mabuse is a master of disguise, psychoanalysis, and hypnotism, and he is obsessed with counting — it’s not that Mabuse is obsessed with money, but it’s a way to keep score in his games of manipulation and control. People are reduced to objects quite often (as they are in some of the director’s other films), while Lang shows an almost obsessive devotion to detail and fixation on objects that I can’t help but think influenced Walerian Borowczyk — food, flowers, jewelry, objet d’art, even stained glass windows — particularly the way Lang uses them in this film.

Much has already been written about Lang’s emphasis on vision, seeing, and blindness throughout the Mabuse trilogy and nearly every one of the characters is visually captivated by someone; even Mabuse himself is eventually done in by the Countess, whose beauty is described as “spellbinding.” It’s a bit difficult to contextualize this once you’ve seen the later Mabuse films, when he’s an arch-villain seemingly not bound by the confines of human flesh, but here he’s effectively hoisted on his own petard. As in Spies, women are often mere tools of manipulation, which is how Lang and von Harbou use them here, particularly the Mabuse’s cabaret dancer, Cara Carozza. Mabuse’s attempts to have other men seduced and brainwashed by her — though she herself is in love with Mabuse — is more or less what happens to him; as a result, he goes mad.

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Lang, particularly in these early years, was something of a reluctant moralizer; certainly Mabuse is an antagonist, but then no one in the film is particularly blameless. In this way, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler does effectively capture the sense of moral depravity that came to characterize Weimar Germany, particularly seedy Berlin, and much of the film is set in gambling dens or nightclubs. Certainly, connections between the follow up film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and the Third Reich are inevitable. Appallingly, I’ve read reviews stating that that second film foretold the rise of Hitler… but it was released in 1933, the same year he became chancellor, after more than a decade of increasingly visible (and violent) public activity. I think it’s even more irresponsible to draw a connection between Nazism and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler; rather, Lang seems to be targeting the mass confusion that allowed criminals, gangs, and thugs to take over Germany one street brawl or political seat at a time throughout the ‘20s — though, importantly, he draws no real distinction between them. In Barry Keith Grant’s Fritz Lang: Interviews, Lang himself said of the film, “It grew out of its time. Germany was a place where every type of excess was encountered and the film reflected the inflationary hysteria, the anarchistic streak, the despair and vices of the time” (89).

Mabuse, like many who would rise in the ranks of the Nazi party in the years to come, is purely an opportunist and feels no devotion for any particular political cause. Germany had been crushed by the failure of WWI — particularly by the Treaty of Versailles and the vast loss of territory dictated by that — and in 1922 the country was essentially in shambles. The feeling of national identity crisis is reflected in Mabuse himself. There is the sense that Mabuse is able to shift, chameleon-like, between so many different layers of German society, because of the lack of clear political or economic identities; everyone — from the working class to the aristocracy — had lost their place and as a result, is a likely target for Mabuse and his network of criminals.

And in German, the film’s original title, “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler,” “spieler” implies more than just “gambler.” “Spielen” literally means “to play,” and the world connotates that Mabuse is a player, a gambler, and even an actor, his crimes and machinations a grand performance, which culminate with a chilling scene of group hypnosis during a public performance. This obsession with costume, ritual, and spectacle — combined with themes of voyeurism and surveillance, needing to see and be seen — represent the gradual slide into totalitarianism that was occurring at that very moment in German society. In A Companion to Fritz Lang, Nicole Brenez wrote, “Through the figure of the arch-criminal, the film treats modern tyranny as it is, factually, at the moment Lang portrays it: a ‘conspiratorial society.’ Hitler, in a memo dated October 22, 1922, said: ‘We will create a movement that will rouse the most fanatical force and the most brutal sense of determination, that will be ready at all moments to counter a terrorism ten times greater than that of Marxism’” (64).

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Mabuse, who works throughout the film not only to impose his will, remaking Berlin as he sees fit, but also with a seeming lust to inspire terror beyond all else. A key example of his is when he poses as a psychiatrist and is charged with curing the Countess’s husband (Alfred Abel); instead, he uses his considerable powers to drive the man insane, to break him for no real reason other than a sense of sadistic fulfillment. He yells “I am the State!” as he is carried off to the madhouse and if the film has one disatisfying moment it is this sheer implausibility that such a master manipulator could be brought down by human emotion: the love of a woman and the sudden emergence of guilty when he is swarmed by the ghosts of his victims in his underground lair. Not only does this link Mabuse’s figure to the equally implausible fate of Robert Wiene’s sinister Dr. Caligari (released two years earlier than Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1920), though Mabuse has the last laugh with his far more implausible adventures in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Much like their other recent Lang Blu-rays (such as Spies and Destiny), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was restored courtesy of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and, wonderfully, this is the ultimate 270-minute print; as far as I’m aware, the most complete version you could hope to see. Silvery and with plenty of grain intact, the print quality is beautiful and does justice to Carl Hoffmann’s glorious cinematography. Kino rounds out the release with only one major special feature: a documentary, The Story Behind Dr. Mabuse, that is nearly an hour long and explores the film’s history. My favorite bit is the interview with Latvian musician Aljoscha Zimmermann, the composer for the updated score included with the film (which I believe he wrote in the ‘00s). A lot of the time I find these modern scores annoying, but it’s really a beautiful piece of music that fits the film perfectly. As I said with the Destiny extras, my only complaint is that I would love for Kino to have included a commentary track or even shorter feature from a German film historian (like the existing David Kalat track, which I wish they could have imported to this Blu-ray). And while I do consider Lang’s 1933 follow up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, to be his greater achievement — one of his greatest, actually — Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is an undeniably important film, not just in Lang’s personal evolution, but in crime cinema in general.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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