❉ The first film in Fritz Lang’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ trilogy is one of the great master-works of silent cinema.
Created by journalist Norbert Jacques as the thinking man’s Fantomas, and first appearing in a novel serialised in ‘Berliner Illustrierten’, Mabuse (pronounced Ma-boo-ser) is part criminal mastermind, part supernatural figure. What makes Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) unique is that he’s a weird Nietzschean mix of Dr. Fu-Manchu and Al Capone; both mystical villain and gangland boss.
The subsequent trilogy of film adaptations by Fritz Lang have proved massively influential. A series of krimi sequels followed in the 60s, and Mabuse casts his shadow over films as diverse as The Usual Suspects (1995), SPECTRE (2016), and even Police Accademy 6: City Under Siege (1989). Sometimes merely a moniker for a criminal using the same methods as the original Mabuse, other times a body-hopping evil spirit, Mabuse even pops up in such unlikely places as Jess Franco’s dose of psychedelic tat, Dr M. Schlägt Zu (1972), and is incarnated in the female form of Delphine Seyrig’s evil media mogul in Ulrike Ottinger’s gorgeously bonkers Dorian Gray im Speigel der Boulevardpresse (1984).
The first film in Lang’s trilogy consisting of Dr Mabuse, the Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, (1960) is a massive, two-part, four-and-half hour epic, which introduces its anti-hero in the very first shot using the same device as Louis Feuillade used to introduce the title character played by Rene Navarré in Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913); we see all his disguises at once so that we can keep track of who Mabuse is at any one time. But while Feuillade opens his film with a series of cross fades displaying Navarré in the various personae he will adopt before commencing the narrative, Lang elects to make this device part of the narrative itself; the opening shot of the film is a hand of playing cards, each displaying one of Mabuse’s various alter egos. Mabuse is then seen to shuffle them, and select a disguise at random before handing the card to his cocaine addled make-up man, Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga).
As Lang expert David Kalat (whose book The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse is the last word on the subject) points out, the German title, Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler literally means, Dr. Mabuse, The Player; a pun on the fact that he is both master gambler and master actor. One can go even further; Mabuse is playing a massive strategy game with the police, the criminal underworld, and the very economy of Germany itself, and for the most part, he is winning. He has eyes and ears everywhere in the form of war wounded beggars and the ignored homeless, he accumulates millions from gambling and stock market manipulation, and has an army of the blind literally printing money for him. He takes advantage of social systems by giving the unwanted work, and exploiting fundamental infrastructure.
Both parts (The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Times and Inferno: A Game of People of Our Time), demonstrate Mabuse’s power with a series of spectacular set-pieces. Since there was no need for heavy, sound blimped cameras (which would make the early talkies so stagy), Lang could employ rapid fire cutting to bombard us with a whirlwind of action and information. Therefore, Mabuse’s gang pulls off a daring train robbery to seize a vital trade agreement, engineer a traffic accident just to pass it along, which enables Mabuse himself (in disguise of course) uses to contrive and profit from a stock market crash and subsequent recovery, all in the space of ten minutes.
This is an indictment of the real-life activities of the profiteers in the Weimar Republic at the time; industrialists and financiers who would turn the dire post-war economic conditions to their advantage, whist the useless aristocratic ruling classes were busy enjoying themselves, and the public at large would suffer the effects of a worthless Deutsche Mark. In the book, Mabuse is doing all this to finance the foundation of his own South American republic, Eitopomar. In the films, all reference to this is dropped. Crime itself is the cinematic Mabuse’s ideology.
The aristocracy is represented by worthless playboy Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), fey art collector Count Told (Alfred Abel), and voyeuristic Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). They all fall victims to the Mabuse in various ways; Hull is seduced by exotic dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), an agent of Mabuse who is in love with her master but whose love is never returned; Count Told falls victim to Mabuse’s mind control powers and disgraces himself by cheating at cards; Told’s wife Dusy is romantically pursued by Mabuse, and later held hostage by him when he can’t win her over.
As with every good pulp villain, Mabuse has a dogged detective hot on his trail. Here, it’s State Prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), yet even he is suckered by Mabuse; Since Count Told can’t explain his own bizarre behaviour, von Wenk suggests he see the best psychoanalyst there is, and recommends the seemingly respectable Dr. Mabuse. Naturally, this doesn’t end well.
The mystical side of Mabuse’s operation ties in with his methodology. His mesmeric powers allow him to not only win every card game he plays in the numerous clubs and casinos he infiltrates, but cause people to destroy themselves as well. Indeed, the aura of toxicity that surrounds him leads to a chain of infectious self destruction; Hull works with von Wenk and they become suspicious of Carrozza (which is what Mabuse wants), yet Hull continues to court her and ends up killed in a shockingly off-hand manner, whilst Carrozza herself willingly commits suicide in custody to protect Mabuse’s identity. Mabuse even provides her with the poison via his agent Georg (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). Von Wenk himself falls under Mabuse’s power twice; once in a seedy gambling den during a bravura special effects sequence of hallucinatory camera trickery and later, at a performance by stage hypnotist Sandor Weltmann (actually Mabuse) , resulting in him almost driving himself off a cliff.
Ultimately, everyone who has contact with Mabuse, be it is cult of followers or his victims, become their own worst enemies, and ultimately, he brings about his own downfall and subsequent descent into catatonic madness, pursuing his obsession for Dusy Told long after he should have left with his loot. It’s easy to see why many of the 60s, Artur Brauner produced sequels were dubbed into English with Mabuse’s name mispronounced “M’abuse;” as in “je m’abuse” (“I abuse myself”). Jacques actually named the character after the painter Jan Gossaert, aka Jan Mabuse.
These days, outside of Germany, Mabuse has fallen into semi-obscurity, with only cinephiles possessing more than a passing knowledge of his adventures. Two recent American adaptations, Doctor Mabuse (2013), and Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014) were micro budget affairs that utilised distracting digital backdrops and not only managed to mispronounce their titular character’s name but misspell and mispronounce Eitopomar as well.
Mabuse, still an iconic character in his homeland, deserves so much more, but the film that started his cinematic career is one of the great master-works of silent cinema.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022