Judge Bill Gibron reviews a masterpiece from Fritz Lang, director of Metropolis.
The plan was quite simple. The foundation was in place and the situation was ripe for exploitation. It's the years directly after the First World War. Germany is in a state of devastation and barely controlled chaos. The moral center of the nation had long since evaporated in a cloud of mustard gas. All throughout the land, a river of blood, filling and traversing the foxholes and trenches along what used to be the front lines, washes basic human decency and dignity out into a sea of suffering. It's the era of the profiteer and the pundit, the revolutionary and the reactionary. In the country, rebellious elements are building, planting the seeds of disobedience with rhetoric and promises. In the city, corruption runs rampant, from the government offices to the gangland hangouts of underworld figures. It is a time of lawlessness and unobtainable justice, an unenviable era in a society suffering the self-esteem devastation of being the world's whipped battle boy. Someone or something had to step up and offer a change. A plan had to be developed to rescue the rotting, rocky regime out from under the Hell of defeat. The German people needed a new icon, an individual who would inspire faith and fierce loyalty, a person possessed with a vision for change. Such a charismatic cad was…Dr. Mabuse.
All Hitler similarities aside, this fictional creation of writer Norbert Jacques, this madman leader of a mob of criminals, personified the pent-up rage and anarchic feeling flowing through a post-War Deutschland. Mabuse's philosophy championed an "empire of evil," a total state of bedlam where decency and principles are cast aside for the sake of power and purpose. In director Fritz Lang's brilliant dissection of the similarities between criminal and political life, Dr. Mabuse and his gang prepare the Fatherland for the rise of fascism, as he manipulates and manages his beliefs from behind the walls of an insane asylum. Dr. Mabuse is biding his time, getting his doctrine together. But once he unleashes his musings, the repercussions will be devastating. The mad doctor wants evil for evil's sake. This is his belief. This is The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Facts of the Case
Berlin, in 1933, is overrun with pointless violence. Criminals are robbing banks, then disposing of the money. Drugs are being sold at cut-rate prices, without any thought to profit or effect on the market. Police officers are getting in bed with the bad guys and the corruption has caused several decorated lawmen to leave (and lose) their posts. One such fallen figure is Hofmeister, an old friend and ex-colleague of Der Kommissar Lohmann. When he disappears, Lohmann is determined to solve the case.
Then a famous doctor turns up murdered. Suddenly, a pattern begins to develop. Crime is on the rise all over the city, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the antisocial acts. All the evidence points to a local Asylum, run by Professor Doctor Baum, a haughty psychologist. Baum has been treating one of Berlin's most infamous patients, criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse, who escaped a lengthy jail sentence after being found insane. Or is he? Mabuse spends his days writing scripts of schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness. But when his rantings seems to suggest the major crimes being committed in the city, the madman's real mania is placed into question. Is he really out of touch with reality? Or is the nuthouse the perfect front from which to control his gangland domain? It's up to Lohmann and Baum to put the pieces together and discover the true power of the devilish Doctor's demented writing.
For gang member Tom, it's time to escape the clutches of the awful archvillain. All he wants is Lilli, hoping that by loving her, his part in the plague of crime and lack of prospects will be forgiven. Tom is trapped in the world created by the intellectualized insanity of the good Dr. M., for within the pages of his perverted prose are the elements for a once and future empire of evil.
It's rather sad to say it, but the entire world has become the "empire of evil" that the deranged Dr. Mabuse predicted from the padded walls of his asylum cell. In his written rants, filled with the most vile and reprehensible acts of human savagery, lay the groundwork for the out-of-control mentality of our modern world. Multinational corporations rob from their shareholders to pay off the bosses, while simultaneously exploiting the third world to take jobs from their own workers. Governments ooze corruption like pus from an infected sore, trying to cover up their double-dealing and blatant lying with jingoism or brash band-aids of excuses. People kill each other for reasons devoid of passion or perversion. They merely have a desire to hold the decisions of life and death in their own egotistical hands. And the general consensus of the planet's personality is that there is an "us against them" mentality based in religion, sovereignty and/or ideology that is slowly poisoning the world.
When Mabuse, this twisted fictional titan, drafted his testament, his Anarchist's Cookbook for the disgruntled masses, he was merely tapping into a desperation, a mass hysteria of uncomfortable humbleness that resulted when Germany was defeated in the (up until then) ultimate battle. But the rotten rationales for Mabuse's musings—his unquenchable desire to destroy mankind—seems to be right at the forefront of our own modern missive. We no longer care about each other or our fellow humans. We are no longer completely capable of bringing understanding and sacrifice to the communal table. In 2004, it's every entity for itself, with the fulfillment of needs managed by whatever (and by any) means necessary. This is the foundation of Nazism: the mixture of chaos with discipline, the destruction of the social order, only to have it rebuilt under a sinister singular vision. Whether it was Hitler and his henchmen, or Mabuse and his hoodlum horde, the goal was the same. Teach society to live without rules, then give them your own soiled, spoiled words to live by.
For a film made in 1933, and only the second sound effort from the legendary Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M) The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was and still is a work of staggering brilliance, so incredibly ahead of its time that it still amazes and shocks some 71 years later. It discusses elements, both political and psychological, that were at the cutting edge of social understanding. It delves into regions much darker than your average crime thriller, and experiments with the boundaries of believability in a way that most Hollywood police films would never dare. Though it is based in a classic character of literary evil and fashioned into one of those underworld exposés that capitalize on the relative obscurity of the world of crime (at least by 1933 standards),
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is really a primer of preparation, a blueprint for the rise of the Third Reich. Lang was always a genius at forewarning. Metropolis took a rather socialist slant on the sci-fi film, cautioning that humanity would lose itself in the technology of tomorrow if it wasn't careful. The workers had to rise up and take responsibility for the world they had helped create. The same applied to Lang's first sound film, the masterwork of the murderous and macabre, M. Again striking a blow against the blasé and the non-committal, Lang lectured that the only way the people were going to make the streets safe for themselves was to usurp government control. The police were viewed as bogged down in graft and petty politics. Oddly enough, it was the criminal element, the lowest form of life on the social ladder, that came to the right hand of justice. While their actions were definitely a form of preservation, a means of lessening the level of heat on their own enterprises, it was also the final act of the people—even the most reprehensible ones—standing up for their own principles.
Dr. Mabuse represents the less concrete and more metaphysical ideal of accountability. It preaches a powerful message about losing one's identity when blindly following the leadership of an unknown, unhinged superior. The criminals working for Dr. Mabuse have never met him. They merely respond to his every whim with an unswerving allegiance. Communication between the boss and the underlings is shrouded in mystery and ritualized to the point of perversity. Anonymous typed messages offering times and dates for meetings are randomly discovered in even the most public of places. The actual headquarters is a dilapidated building, Mabuse's office a single bare space draped with a ratty, room-splitting drape. A shadow can be seen seated behind the fabric, and a dark and disturbing voice heard barking orders from beyond the barrier. Each specific element of the gang is sectioned off, with certain segments relegated to crime (Section 3—counterfeiting) and punishment (Section 2B—"internal" affairs). With all these cult-like factors and Freemason maneuvering, Dr. Mabuse's gang is steadfastly loyal and efficient, obeying his commands with unbendable allegiance. Director Lang is showing that, even under the most obtuse and obscure working conditions in which elements are suggested and not specifically stated, crimes still get accomplished and illegal order is maintained. This is because it is human nature to be influenced and to follow. Lang lectures that, when the elements of society are such that chaos reigns, and law becomes complacent, unable to handle the upheaval, irrational demagogues like Mabuse will take over. And the reason is simple: in times of extreme actions, an extreme answer is needed. And Mabuse's testament is such a textbook of terrorism.
Rationality has nothing to do with Mabuse or his methods. We are supposed to understand that this criminal genius (whose exploits Lang explored in two previous Mabuse movies, Dr. Mabuse, King of Crime and Inferno) is a master manipulator, the kind of borderline brainwasher who can completely control people with his ideas alone. What we witness in this wonderful movie is seduction by power and persuasion—the idea that one man, no matter how hemmed in by circumstances or society, can still control a legion by the strength of his statements.
Mabuse is not really showing society a better way in his writings. He is exposing all its weaknesses and faults. He knows how to cripple the railroads. He can poison the water supply and pollute the air. His methods of "personal" destruction are far more devious, and Lang allows us an insight into how the mad Doctor can accomplish any or all of this. Using a spectral symbol of Mabuse as the entity of his influence, we watch the wild-eyed evildoer seduce and possess his prey. They read his words, they see the world through his all-viewing doorways of perception and, slowly, they are seduced by his very mind. Even at the end, when we think that everyone finally understands the effects of Mabuse and his manuscript, even reaching across existence from another realm, we realize that, just like addicts or junkies, there will always be individuals readily recruitable into the madness of maniacal manipulation.
Lang's gift, one that is definitely present in Dr. Mabuse, is the creation of a complete and concrete world, a universe unto itself with parameters and requirements clearly defined. From a futuristic megapolis to the craven code of the criminal, Lang understands that all fiction works better when the boundaries of acceptable believability are created and maintained. Mabuse begins this cosmic compilation with the basic premise—the cops and robbers reality of 1930s Berlin. Using the fraudulent and mystifying codes of conduct that existed among both thieves and the police, Lang adds an outer atmosphere—a coating of intense, incendiary philosophy to fill the air with thought-provoking figments. Then, underneath the surface, buried just below the gritty streets and the sounds of the city, is the realm of real human emotions—feelings of love and hate, guilt and rejection. In the small, seemingly insignificant relationship between Tom and Lilli, we witness the hopeful saving grace of mankind, the idea that even under the most miserable of circumstances and in the most dire of straits, passion between two individuals can outlast the most evil of empires. Together, a total dominion is crafted, a kingdom where ethics are abandoned for easy answers and that strange, near-supernatural element of outside influence flourishes undaunted. But then Lang takes the whole entity one step further, steeping it in a dark, film noir mannerism suggesting isolation, insularity, and irregularity. The world in which The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is allowed to prosper is corrupt and crocked, always almost on the verge of complete collapse. How it stays together, for right or wrong, is at the heart of this magnificent movie.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a monochrome museum masterpiece come to life. It treats its three main storylines with equal care and craft. At the forefront is the basic crime drama, the pitting of good guys against bad with the hope that justice will be done. But Mabuse is more interested in the actual work of the police, not in the iconic notions of protection and service. The scenes in which the officers actually plow through the evidence and reach their deductions are straight out of a far more modern mentality than most movies of the early era. As a matter a fact, several of the sequences wouldn't be out of place in a Law & Order-type plot. Then there is the supernatural element, one tied directly to the deranged Doctor and his ability to project his "will" (more accurately, his words and ideas) out into the world. The image of a shadowy figure behind a curtain or a bug-eyed specter roaming the asylum halls speaks volumes for the power of persuasion to absorb and permeate into every aspect of the world. Mabuse is a classic effigy, a figure as fragile as he is frightening. The final factor is the individual story between Tom and Lilli. Unlike your typical love story, this awkward acquaintance between what appear to be two lost souls quickly becomes a battle of actual life vs. the death of humanity. The couple is not just fighting for their ability to overcome their personal problems and be together. To the same degree, they are challenging the status quo, the dishonest entities of control determined to keep them apart. When all three stories blend and enhance each other, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse becomes an epic, a beautifully realized work of genius in which we witness the best of ideas, images, and incidents, all cooperating to create a timeless thriller.
Obviously, it's the direction here that sets this movie apart from other similarly themed fare. Lang—like his obvious student, the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock—is in love with the set piece, that series of shots and edits that turns a typical scene into a stylish showcase for directorial skills. There are several brilliant examples of this exciting element in Mabuse, instances where the breath actually leaps from your lungs and your heart skips a step. You can see the groundwork for many of Hitchcock's future anxious montages, all amplified by Lang's visionary variables. When the spirit of Mabuse—a visage with eyes like two huge saucers bulging before a brain itching and swelling with wicked ideas—comes to visit Dr. Baum, the entire sequence becomes a front row seat for demonic possession. When Dr. Kramm is assassinated in his car, Lang magnifies the tension and dread with his mixture of sound and shot selection. When Tom and Lilli use a flood of water to work their way out of a sealed room, the rapid movement of the manmade lake and its eventual release perfectly represents the couple's pent-up feelings. And the final chase between Der Kommissar Lohmann and Dr. Baum is Lang at his most memorable, all the ideas evident in early German expressionism applied to the simple design of two cars roaring down a dark and desolate road. Indeed, the reason The Testament of Dr. Mabuse works so spectacularly is that, melded into this complex narrative with its natural and supernatural elements, with its rhetoric and poetry is that rarest of filmmakers: a true visionary.
As with all great works of purposeful allegory, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a cautionary example and a wildly topical warning. With Hitler and his horrid henchmen running ramshackle all over Germany, Lang wanted to underscore the perverted policies that seemed to be seeping into the Bavarian behavior system. Fellowship and freedom were being swept aside for order and allegiance. The country was being carved into desirable and undesirable elements. What better way to symbolize the degree of insanity that Lang saw in the Third Reich's fractured philosophy than to show it coming from the crazed pen of a certified loony? Indeed, you can draw direct connections to a certain future Fuehrer, sitting in a Landsberg jail cell dictating Mein Kampf to a near-comatose Mabuse scribbling on his blotter while wearing madhouse whites. The notion of deriving order out of chaos, or creating an empire of evil out of a myopic attempt at "saving the nationality" of Germany, is Nazism in a nutshell.
But all political punditing aside, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is, at its core, a brilliant motion picture, a forward-thinking film in the sphere of such cinematic specialties as Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game or Orson Welles' Citizen Kane in its modern approach to both storytelling and narrative elements. It asks us to look at the world of crime and why some people risk their freedom (or even their lives) for the sake of some antisocial idea. It showcases how the pen can be mightier than the sword, especially when there is a criminal syndicate to back up those eloquent equations. This is a film that suggests that if we only are true to ourselves and each other, if we try to find a way out of troubling circumstances with the help of others, not through agenda-based philosophies, we can escape even the most appalling empires of evil. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one of Fritz Lang's greatest films, and a true masterpiece of early motion pictures.
Whenever film critics champion the classic look and feel of black-and-white cinema, a transfer like the one offered by Criterion for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse must be what they are lauding. Aside from a couple of minor moments and the almost indistinguishable flicker from the original negative, this 1.19:1 full-screen sensation is as magnificent as the monochrome image can get. Dr. Mabuse looks absolutely amazing—the work by the honorable Criterion Collection can't be commended enough. This company ups the ante for all other DVD manufacturers in the way they handle the transfer here. This is old-fashioned black-and-white at its most atmospheric and moody. On the sound side, Criterion also comes up aces. Mabuse uses an intricate sonic palette, a mixture of industrial and metropolitan noises, to forge a feeling of overwhelming disarray. From the opening shots, with the omnipresent thump of what sounds like the printing press from Hell itself to the scratch of Mabuse's charcoal on paper, the aural issues in this movie are miraculous. And even though it's Dolby Digital Mono (in German with excellent and easily read subtitles), you won't find a more atmospheric mix in any other 71-year-old film.
If this were where the company stopped, presenting The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in a package filled with spectacular sound and drop-dead-gorgeous imagery alone, their efforts would be worth massive commendations. But typical of the care and effort Criterion puts into all its titles, Mabuse is a delightful two-disc dissection of the movie, its maker, and the different factors and facets that went into its creation.
The sole special feature on Disc One is the full-length audio commentary by author and Lang scholar David Kalat, and it's a compelling, intricate discussion. The wealth of detail and analysis is amazing. Kalat describes how M influenced the decision to make (and in some ways, the plotting of) a Mabuse sequel. He also discusses how both the novel and the movie of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse were created simultaneously, 2001-style. We also gain insight into the elements that resulted in the movie's being banned in its homeland, and Kalat provides some critical examination of the film's perceived political bias (and how this perception was probably affected by faulty subtitles post-WWII). As a filmmaker, Lang's larger-than-life personality is also hinted at, from his tendency to embellish certain instances in his life (like a meeting with Joseph Goebbels) to his patent jealously of fellow visionary Alfred Hitchcock. Lang apparently hated how well Hitch managed his public image, and strove to get the same manner of recognition and respect. Never dull and always offering intelligent insight, this alternative audio track is a fantastic addition to the DVD presentation of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Disc Two adds even more insight into Lang and his career with several interview and featurette items. Most impressive is the excerpt from the 1964 interview segment with German documentarian Erwin Leiser. Almost a performance art piece on the director's part, Lang (in full regalia, complete with oh-so-cosmopolitan monocle) wanders around the office, circling Leiser while discussing the making of Mabuse and its eventual censoring by then-government official Goebbels. The story Lang tells about meeting the Minister in his office to discuss the possibility of Lang becoming a member of the Reich's bureaucracy is a complete tour-de-force, so mesmerizing you'll feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (the fact that it may not be 100% true makes the saga that much more intriguing). A 1984 film called Mabuse in Mind, by Thomas Honickel, focuses on actor Rudolf Schündler (he played the fey hitman Hardy). Schündler's recollection of events is startling (as is the confession that his character was scripted as a homosexual) and his connection to the horror genre (he appeared in Suspiria and The Exorcist) makes for a fundamentally interesting mini-movie. The differences between the 90-minute American dubbed version (entitled The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse) and the original German print are offered in a side-by-side comparison. Michael Farin, an expert on the literary elements of the Dr. Mabuse character, is interviewed about the history of this fictional crime boss. Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that author Norman Jacques sold the rights to his classic character for a pittance (5000 marks, in perpetuity), allowing numerous incarnations to flourish without a single bit of additional compensation.
And that's still not all. Offering us a glimpse of filmmaking in the early 1930s. Criterion unearths the badly damaged, but still quite watchable French version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, included in this DVD package in its entirety. Like the Spanish version of Dracula that recently made an appearance on the Universal release of the classic vampire flick, this faithful recreation of the movie with French actors in some of the lead roles is a strange cinematic experience. We find ourselves instantly drawn back into the movie, but we are also taken aback by some of the casting choices. Lohmann is no longer seen as a balding bulldog of justice, but as a portly dandy, gadding about the town trying to solve his backlog of cases. Dr. Baum becomes even more of a classic Freudian frightmare, his eventual descent into Mabuse's manipulation as telegraphed as Jack Nicholson's nuttiness in The Shining. But perhaps the biggest switch is the rendering of everyman Tom into a complete and utter matinee idol, all profile and polish. Tom represents the heart of the common citizen; to turn him into a pretty-boy leading man belies Lang's desires. Even though the director made this version of the film (so he must have chosen the actors), the editing was handled solely by the French. Just like the American version, we can see how the movie's message can be perverted or lost in the translation.
With the addition of several galleries, many of which showcase the German Expressionistic designs created for the film (and the incredible movie poster art from around the world), Criterion creates yet another must-own offering of a magnificent motion picture.
In a movie loaded with indelible images, the frightening, ghostly façade of Dr. Mabuse—scalp slicked in a brain-revealing manner, eyes bulbous with pinpoint pupils that seem to see nothing, body crippled and misshapen—personifies the authority and awfulness inherent in the sensationalized supervillain. Like the bumbling humbug wizard behind the curtain, or the frail, fragile dictator in charge of the Reich regime, Dr. Mabuse is an entity of evil in his words and inner sickness, not just in his outward appearance. His language is a demonstration in deception, the confusion in miscommunication, and the bully pulpit of propaganda. His influence is not based in muscle or massive physical size, but in the evil essence of his ideas. As Mabuse's writing fills page after page, thus does his sour spirit begin to fill the air. His criminal cohorts follow his formulas because they understand their impact, if not their impulse. Thus Dr. Mabuse is capable of getting the populace to betray their principles because, without direction, individuals will allow any entity, no matter how miserable or menacing, to take over their minds.
With its baroque backgrounds and art deco demonia, Fritz Lang's magnificent The Testament of Dr. Mabuse represents the craven nucleus of all upheaval, from revolution to rebellion, from crime to terrorism. The establishment of an endless empire of crime, a totalitarian state of chaos, may be a direct descendant of the Nazis' desire to destroy the old Germany only to build a new one out of their own rotten rationality. But what we learn in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is that all humanity is destined for destruction by its own inability toward self-control, leaving itself open to manipulation by even the most insane of entities. Dr. Mabuse may have been mad, but he's no more disturbed than leaders of the past…or present.
A major achievement in the realm of cinema, expertly presented by what is—hands down—one of the best digital archivists in the business of DVD, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: Criterion Collection has all charges against it dropped and is free to go. It is a masterpiece in the canon of its creator, the legendary Fritz Lang.
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• Audio Commentary by David Kalat, Author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse
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