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Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler

(German, 1922, 100 minutes, b/w, silent 16 mm)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Rudolf Klein-Roggue . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Mabuse
Aud Egede Nissen . . . . . . . . . . Cara Carozza
Gertrude Welcker . . . . . . . . . . Graefin Told
Alfred Abel . . . . . . . . . . Garf Told
Bernhard Goetzke . . . . . . . . . . Von Wrenk

Live piano accompaniment provided by Mike Schiffer

The shimmering decadence of Weimar Germany masked terrible uncertainty about whether -- and how -- the authoritarian past of the nation would reassert itself. Perhaps no other film from this distinguished epoch in film history so deftly captures the heady mix of thrills and impending darkness as Fritz Lang's 1922 DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER. What claims to be a melodrama of a mysterious professional gambler is in fact an allegory for a Germany that was just as mysterious to itself, tragically impelled to move from anarchy through democracy to fascism.

Although Lang had made other films, DR. MABUSE would commend him to the world as a unique and gloomy voice, a master director who paralleled his films' frequent recourse to a master criminal or a master detective. Lang, a dedicated anti-fascist, would perversely find his great success at depicting the mind of the tyrant, most famously in METROPOLIS. Just as frequently, though, he found bitter fascination with the mind of a mob, converted in its zeal for `justice' into becoming the mailed fist of the dictator. This was the humane Lang, who belied his monocled, imperious manner with some of the most outspokenly anti-fascist films ever made, films such as M, and his first American masterpiece, FURY.

DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER is nominally the tale of a man of many faces, a suave gambler, a prestigious physician, and a magician. "Dr. Mabuse" is literally a hypnotic individual, who mesmerizes all he meets, from bored, disengaged Junkers like "Count Todd" and "Countess Todd" to a bewildered young American, "Edward Hull." Only "Prosecutor Wenk" seems able to resist Mabuse's powers, but his investigation is stymied by Mabuse's astounding transformative powers, and by Mabuse's dedicated gang of cutthroats and thugs. Murder, sex, jazz, idle aristocracy, sensual nightlife, insanity, psychoanalysis, magic, hallucinations, spiritualism, quackery, drugs, bizarre medical experiments, elegant gambling hells, and sumptuous city skylines pierced by rays of light and pounding with the insistent pulse of the contemporary; DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER is an intoxicating modernist nightmare, in its own way as disconcerting and intriguing as anything by Bertolt Brecht, Lang's only real rival as a chronicler of the enlightened lunacy that was Weimar Germany. Astoundingly, Lang worried that when the limpid Count Todd asks Mabuse, "What do you think of Expressionism, Herr Doktor?," that audiences would find the reference too obscure. In fact, DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER has come to personify German cinematic Expressionism, a textbook in both form and content of this most academic and yet perhaps most socially aware mode of cinema.

But, as the Frankfort School analyst Siegfried Kracauer was to argue as the ashes of World War II settled, DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER, was concrete evidence of the growing influence of `the authoritarian personality in German life' during the political Indian summer of Weimar. In his years working at the legendary UFA studios in Germany, Lang became more than an exquisite designer of labyrinthine narratives and a maestro of the camera. He became as well an acute observer of the kaleidoscopic domestic political scene. DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER originally opened with a prologue depicting the explosive events of recent German history. There was the Spartacist uprising, the Kapp putsch, the murder of the political figure Rathenau, the whole violent stew of post-1918 `politics of the street.' It was a stew in which a recently demobilized soldier, an incipient madman named Adolf Hitler, simmered and waited... The film then asked the urgent question, via a title, "Who is behind all this?," evidence of a vain struggle to find human, or perhaps supernatural agency, in Germany's torment. This was the cue to introduce the film's urbane, sinister master criminal, the elegant Dr. Mabuse.

That montage went missing sometime after the film's initial release, transforming the film from an explicit social critique to a brilliantly elusive allegory that now functions as a generalized investigation of the mind of totalitarianism. Was it excised in the late 20's, because it reminded Weimar of its own recent, deadly prehistory? By the Nazis, because it depicted a Germany ruled by anarchy, not by a deadly fascist consensus? By the East Germans (who owned the remaining print of the film), because they were ashamed of the violence committed by early Communist factions? Three generations of Germans, it seemed, had good reason to bury DR. MABUSE, and the fact that each may have seen the film as an indictment of their own particular ideological program is a great compliment to the universal warning that is DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER.

Lang would flee Germany in 1933, after being offered the post of head of Germany's national filmmaking program, on the strength, said propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, of Hitler's admiration for METROPOLIS. Who more than Lang, smiled Goebbels, so conscious of the ways in which the cinema could manipulate consciousness, was more qualified? Lang thanked Goebbels, and said he would consider the offer. The next morning, he left by the first train, without even a change of clothes. The world Lang had prophesied in DR MABUSE, THE GAMBLER was coming to pass, and its greatest critic wanted no part of it.

It is no wonder that the film's original press material claimed:

The world which opens up before our eyes in this film is the world in which we all live. Only it is condensed, exaggerated in detail, concentrated into essentials, all its ingredients throbbing with the feverish breath of those years, hovering between crisis and convalescence, leading somnambulistically just over the brink, in the search for a bridge that will lead over the abyss. This gambler, Dr. Mabuse, was not yet possible in 1910; he will, perhaps -- one is tempted to say hopefully -- no longer be possible in 1930. But for the years around 1920 he represents a larger than life-size portrait, is almost a symbol, at least a symptom. Mankind, decimated and trampled under by war and revolution, takes its revenge for years of suffering and misery by eating its lusts and pursuing pleasure..."

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER is the eight-reel version of Fritz Lang’s twenty reel, two-part silent thriller, DR. MABUSE. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) a sinister mesmerist/psychiatrist, toys with the weaknesses of the rich and influential. He worms his way into the confidence of wealthy men, plays cards with them, hypnotizes them into cheating at their businesses, then puts them in a position to be blackmailed so that he can corner the stock market. A devilishly ingenious plan—but Mabuse is up against the plodding, methodical police detective Wrenk, whose subconscious is not so easily swayed, at least not at first. In its original form, DR. MABUSE provides a tantalizing, near-documentary peek at the sort of perverse delights available to the wastrel class of Germany in 1922, especially in a scene at an illicit cabaret where all manner of vices can be served up with a few well-chosen "code" words. In 1932, Lang directed a talkie sequel to DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER—THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE.

—Hal Erickson from All Movie Guide

A far more accurate premonition of conditions in 1984 than George Orwell’s novel, Lang’s film was originally received as a realistic portrayal of the situation in a corrupt, inflation-ridden Germany. The Spartakist rising in 1919 had been defeated with the brutal murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and political as well as entrepreneurial gangsterism ruled virtually unchallenged. According to Lang, the film was first shown with a prologue: a dynamic montage of scenes of the socialist rising and the murderous right-wing backlash, organized under state control, which eventually triumphed. This would suggest that the world depicted in the bulk of the film is a consequence of the Spartakist’s defeat. With the elimination of this introductory sequence from all the surviving prints, the Mabuse film now stands as a dystopia: a total breakdown of law and order, ruthlessly exploited by an evil genius combining in himself all human knowledge, psychological and scientific, not so much for profit as for the sheer pleasure of wielding absolute power.

Loosely based on the novel by Norbert Jacques, (serialized in the Berliner Illustrierte), and on newspaper items of the day, the figure of Mabuse has become one of the few film characters to have achieved the status of a cultural concept, as well known in his day as James Bond is today. Sequels were still being made more than 40 year later.

Part I of DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER tells of how Mabuse (Klein-Rogge, also the mad scientist in Lang’s METROPOLIS, 1926) amasses a fortune manipulating the stock market, ruining a weak Count Told (Abel, the industrialist in METROPOLIS), mercilessly exploiting the Countess (Welcker) and his own girlfriend (Nissen), ruling by terror over his gang of forgers and murderers, able to strike anytime, anywhere at anybody, including his antagonist, the public prosecutor Von Wenck (Goetzke, who played Death in Lang’s DER MUEDE TOD, 1921). Having dominated a world of depravity, corruption, addiction, charlatanism and unrestrained "free enterprise," gambling with human lives, Mabuse finished totally mad and is carted off to an asylum at the end of Part 2 entitled INFERNO: MEN OF OUR TIME.

As in all Lang’s work, the exercise of power is signified, appropriately for a film-maker, in terms of the power to "see" and to control through a technology as well as a mystique of vision. The mise en scene of looking, initiated in the monitors used in DIE SPINNER (1919) and further elaborated in METROPOLIS and SPIONE (1928), culminates in the two Mabuse sequels Lang directed himself, DAS TESTAMENT DES DR. MABUSE (1933) and DIE TAUSEND AUGEN DES DR. MABUSE (1960), his last film. In his first Mabuse, Lang reserves most of the bravura sequences and effects around the theme of vision as Mabuse hypnotically influences or controls his victims, or conjures up visions of them. Lang was so pleased with his cinematographer, Carl Hoffmann, that he used him again on his next project, the massive two-part epic DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924). Apparently, Sergei Eisenstein and Esther Shub learned their editing skills analyzing and attempting to re-edit the Mabuse film.

—The Overlook Film Encyclopedia Science Fiction

From contemporary reviews:

The first big applause which spontaneously arose in the large auditorium during the first public showing of DR. MABUSE occurred at the night scene in which the cars are racing through the streets, the lights of which can be seen stretching for miles into the darkness like stars.

The same applause was repeated during a similar scene whose effect was heightened by an elevated train that passes over a dark viaduct in the foreground, with its windows lit up and flashing out in the dark . . . In these terms the film of DR. MABUSE constitutes a success of German film technique of the arc light.

— Berliner Lokalanzeiger

In this film the techniques of the film camera (Carl Hoffmann’s brilliant photography) are brought to perfection. The problem of how to film lit-up streets at night has been solved for the first time. It is unbelievably impressive to see the glaring lights of speeding cars flash through the night or the rapid passing of an elevated train of the initially blurred, then gradually focussed glimpse through a pair of opera glasses on to the variety stage, the nuances of light and shade—these things alone prove the value of film documentary.

— B.Z. am Mittag


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