Gunfights. Exploding buildings. Car chases. Murder. Insanity. One tough cop and one diabolical, unstoppable criminal mastermind — perhaps the world’s first super villain.
And all this in 1933, thanks to the vision of Fritz Lang.
Yes, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is in black & white, and in German, too. Sure, it is the sequel to a four-hour film, also about Mabuse, a character who sprang from the pages of pulp fiction. And, indeed, the verisimilitude of its special effects may pale against those of Jurassic World, but that’s only if you compare them without emotion. As examples of film making prowess, of dramatic command, Dr. Mabuse wins.
Dr. Mabuse will fell your giant, bio-engineered dinosaur with half a crazed cackle. He and his dastardly minions will smite your cities unto dust. They will travel through time to skull fuck you and then chortle contentedly as chaos consumes us all.
If you thought Heath Ledger’s Joker was an agent of nihilistic madness then come meet that yegg’s great grandpappy — who’ll school him. Dr. Mabuse has already won because Dr. Mabuse can’t lose.
From its first frames, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse makes it clear that it’s not going to screw around. Disgraced detective Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) hides out in a cacophonous storeroom, seeking evidence and barely clinging to his sanity. Before he can report back, he is attacked with bullets, with barrels full of explosives, and with all the evil the dark conceals.
He, and perhaps you, go mad. That is the intro to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, a film that puts the effects-heavy, international-box-office focused modern monstrosities to shame.
Fritz Lang knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing is making a blockbuster before there was such a thing. What he’s doing, concurrently, is pissing of Josef Goebbels — yes, everyone’s favorite Nazi propagandist — and tearing your shithouse down.
In sequences that have been ripped off, remade, and rebooted for almost a century, Lang and his co-screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou lay out a complex web, so try to keep up. The head of the local asylum, Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.), fills us and his students in on who this Mabuse character is — or was — in case you missed both parts of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. A brilliant logician capable of flawless planning, Dr. Mabuse hatched evil plots that would make Drs. Doom, No, and Fu Manchu feel feckless and inferior. When finally cornered at the end of The Gambler, this mad, hypnotic genius confronted the ghosts of all those he did in and slipped into catatonic insanity. Now he sits mute in Professor Baum’s asylum, scribbling nonsense on loose paper.
But something diabolical is brewing and it’s got Dr. Mabuse’s signature affixed.
Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) jumps on the case, just the man to stop the unstoppable. He follows the leads left dangling by Hoffmeister’s psychotic break. As the audience, we watch Lohmann stalk a criminal gang led by an unseen leader. We watch these gangsters struggle with violence and love. We witness otherworldly possessions and encroaching insanity and hunger — ravenous hunger — to watch the world burn.
Lang’s punches land time and again in Testament. He combines action and suspense and romance and horror with the skill of a saucier. I lost count of the times his shots, his set ups, and his surprises stole the thunder from films as varied as A Clockwork Orange, The Drowning Pool, and The Dark Knight. Everyone, knowingly or not, has ripped off The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. What is now a cliché or a genre trope first found its footing in the films of Fritz Lang.
Come to bask in Lang’s command of camera and light. Watch the mastermind behind Metropolis and M and The Big Heat drop blocks of excitement and tension and mystery like a Jenga master. Boggle at how a little make-up and some century old effects can create more wonderment than all the computers in Northern California.
And enjoy Lang’s (and novelist Norbert Jacques’) nose thumbing at the Nazis, who were just then climbing to power. Goebbels banned the film, fearing it would inform audiences of the illusory power of the government — power that could be undone by violence. It was partly because of this censorship that Fritz Lang left Germany and ended up in America.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the second film in a trilogy. The first, Mabuse the Gambler (1922), was split into two parts (and is streaming on Netflix). The third, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, wasn’t released until 1960. It was the last film Lang directed.
Remade once (in 1962) and inspiring countless others — including, without question, The Dark Knight — Dr. Mabuse lives on. He is a character that cannot, should not, die. He is the Dread Pirate Roberts of devilish deeds. His will commands you. You cannot resist.
You must watch The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Available from the Critereon Collection.
Turns out I haven’t seen this. But it’s been sitting in the middle of my netflix queue for I don’t know how long. Think I’ll move it up to the top.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I’m planning on watching Mabuse the Gambler as soon as I can find a spare 4 hours…
I have watched the three Dr. Mabuse films several times and will happily revisit them any time soon. Lang’s characters, even if “over-accentuated” (not sure this word exists in English sorry) in the typical manner of silent movies, still become alive in the way theater confronts us with archetypal people. His Ubervillain Dr. Mabuse appears the essence of a universal villain, the genial yet evil mind that moves many strings in the society for understanding how society works. The strength of the presented characters seems exemplary and I would reckon that still today many directors and actors could pick up some ideas and secrets of trade from Lang’s films.
Fritz Lang has always been an inspiration ever since I first watched Metropolis (the original version). I find his work truly modern despite the aged visual effects. Not long ago I got my hands on a copy of his Nibelungen and felt staggered realizing how incredibly modern visuals from the 20s can look. There was something very advanced and timelessly modern-ist in art from the 20s and early 30s which unfortunately all ended with the rise of the Nazis. I never stopped wondering where German cinema would have gone without the damn Nazi regime. There was a lot of great talent working in Babelsberg by then and I like how distinctive the language of this cinema is. Our modern film industry with its established distribution lines provides the vast majority of people with cinema which lacks individual, national or ethnic language, all which make cinema so rich and fascinating. I am grateful for having the means to go beyond Hollywood’s blockbusterism and I enjoy your blog for you doing precisely that! Always an inspiration to find your views about these “rarities” which form part of cinema treasures.
Lang is fairly amazing. Watched his The Big Heat recently and that’s started me off on another jag through his work. I’ve got Dr. Mabuse the Gambler lined up, but with a 5 month old, finding 4 hours is a bit of a challenge. Might have to watch it in a few sessions…
I watched this and yes indeed, it’s amazing. There’s so much going on in it, from the story to the filmmaking. Feels very ahead of its time.
Glad you agree. I still need to watch the other two Mabuse films…