Thrillers- Silent Cinema Style 2: Doctor Mabuse the Gambler

German silent cinema in the 1920s was something of a Golden Age. Many of the genres we now take for granted were invented and made viable by the filmmakers in that time and place. Thrillers, horror films, fantasy epics, spy films, sci-fi epics, all have strong roots in Germany silent era. Indeed, most of these genres owe part of their future success to one filmmaker: Fritz Lang.

Lang was an avid reader and filmgoer who started writing scripts, only to decide “I can direct these better than the guys currently directing”. Unlike the rest of us who say this, in Lang’s case it was ABSOLUTELY true.

Doctor Mabuse started life not from the mind of Fritz Lang or his second wife/ collaborator Thea von Harbou, but as a serialized novel by one Norbert Jacques. Jacques was a writer of some note in his day, all but forgotten now. He looked at the ills of Germany after World War One, during the Weimar Republic, and wanted to write a social commentary. His problem was how best to express it in novel form. He struck upon the idea of borrowing from serial pulp fiction and invented a great criminal mastermind who, if not the cause of all that was wrong with Germany, was certainly the chief instigator in driving what was left of the country into the ground. He named this criminal mastermind “Doctor Mabuse”.

The novel that resulted was a runaway smash (ala DaVinci Code) and a movie adaptation was brokered almost before the ink on the released books was dry. Lang, von Harbou, and Jacques collaborated to make the screen version of Mabuse that was even more socially relevant and up to date. Not only did they do that, they made arguably the first of Lang’s masterpieces.

Doctor Mabuse is a criminal genius who operates in secrecy under multiple guises. The fim opens, in fact, showing Mabuse using photographic playing cards to choose his first disguise of the day.  In the first twenty minutes, we are treated to thrilling action as Mabuse’s men steal a commercial treaty from a train, stage a car wreck so Mabuse can read it, then proceed to use the treaty’s disappearance and reappearance as a means to make an illegal fortune by stock market manipulation. The overall sense is to see how fragile Germany is, and how totally in control Mabuse is.

From there the real plot begins, as we see Mabuse in ever more different guises laying a trap for a rich man’s son with  a huge loss at cards and a staged meeting with Mabuse’s seductress henchwoman. A state attorney gets involved in the case, seeking the source of complaints about cheating in gaming houses. Thus begins the battle between Mabuse and Wenk, the state attorney, a battle that includes hypnotism, ground-breaking special effects, car chases, obsessive love, abduction, psychological destruction, a gun battle at a barricaded house,  and the first example of what David Kalat (arguably the world biggest Mabuse geek) calls the Mabuse principle: Mabuse’s obssession with chaos always seems make him destroy himself in the end.

“Doctor Mabuse the Gambler”(1922) was what were called at the time “mammoth productions”. It is two movies of over two hours’ length telling the single story of Mabuse.  Lang joked he liked to corner the box office and get all the night’s money for himself.  The movie was a smash hit, and cemented Lang’s career. It also spelled the end of Norbert Jacques’ career, as he kept trying to profit from his creation of Mabuse but was edged out by the cinema Mabuse.

Lang went on to make two more films about Mabuse: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which was a shot at Nazism right when Nazism took over Germany, and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, his last film, which aimed at Cold War fears. Testament was an early sound picture and an even greater masterpiece than Gambler. Thousand Eyes created a Mabuse craze in Europe that saw several other Mabuse films made, of decreasing quality.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is a classic of silent film, a definite step up from the previous Les Vampires. Film technique had improved, the story is a single narrative rather than a collection of all but unrelated episodes, the sets are much more realistic, and the acting is much better, not so improvised or stagey as earlier silents.

This film was restored a few years ago into a near original length remastered print that can be bought in America from Kino Video, and others in Europe.  But to really “get” the film, and to hear a excellent academic-like commentary from Mabuse expert David Kalat, you might also buy the Image DVD, which has a shorter, less pretty version of the film.  As both a commentary and a Mabuse geek, I can tell you the Image DVD is a sound investment.

David Kalat is in fact something of a one man Mabuse industry in America. He contributes a commentary to the restored Criterion Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and a commentary each for Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and the remake of Testament of Dr. Mabuse, both released under his own All Day Entertainment label. Alas, many of All Day’s more interesting offerings are now sadly out of print. And if you really catch the Mabuse craze (I did! I did!) Kalat has a book out called The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse which discusses the whole series of twelve(!) films. It is also available cheaper from Kalat at the bottom of this All Day catalog.

Oh, and if you are really a completist (What?! More?!) then there is an inexpensive full frame dubbed rough-looking set of some of the Sixties Mabuse films available, the Dr. Mabuse Collection, in which Gert Froebe (Gold—finger!!) is the best thing.  And in infinitely better films and DVDs, Lang’s other early sound masterpiece, M , is a sort of tie-in to Mabuse, since it features the same Detective Lohmann, as Testament.  Criterion recently released the excellent remastered edition of that film I link to as well, also available elsewhere around the world.

Now go forth and catch the Fritz Lang and Dr. Mabuse bug. Melior!!


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