Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 February 2007
Source Kino Video DVD
No one knows who he is! But he is there! Alive! He lives above the city—big as a tower! He is the damnation and salvation! He is the greatest man alive!
This has always been my personal favourite of all Fritz Lang’s silent films, the one that gets the balance right between its pulp fiction story and its exposition through setting and character. It’s also an advantage that it doesn’t suffer from the kind of weak characterisation that you get, for example, with the juvenile romantic leads (Freder and Maria) in Metropolis. State Attorney Von Wenk is a worthy and equal opponent to Mabuse, and the fine balance of the film as a whole is reflected in the way the struggle between the two is made to hinge on the figure of Countess Told, with whom both, each in his own way, are infatuated.
Kino has now put out the second DVD of Dr Mabuse The Gambler available in the US. Previously there was an Image DVD running 229 minutes which was objectionable on two counts: a shorter running time than even what I remember from seeing the film on 16mm prints years ago; and the very dubious practice of replacing any German within the frame (documents, letters, even signs on doors) with poorly pasted-over English. (Talk about fear of the foreign!) Fortunately, now we have a version that runs forty minutes longer, which makes the development of the story a lot clearer; and all the original in-frame German text has been retained, now subtitled into English.
In the original German title Dr Mabuse is more than just “The Gambler” (“Der Spieler”), as the German meaning covers both “gambler” (“Glücksspieler”) and “actor” (“Schauspieler”). In fact, while this ruthless criminal mastermind uses gambling as one means to attain his ends, he is a never a true gambler, he never becomes obsessed with the card games he’s playing in any of the gambling dens of the film. He’s in control, and that control is symbolised in the hypnotism he uses over the gambling table on both the rich playboy Edgar Hulk and Von Wenk.
The “actor”meaning of “Der Spieler” is a more central one, as Mabuse is a master of disguises, taking on a range of varied roles in his pursuit of absolute power. The very first shot of Dr Mabuse the Gambler plays on the two meanings of gambling and acting with its close-up on Mabuse’s hand as he spreads out a hand of playing cards—but cards of the different roles he takes on to disguise himself. He shuffles the cards, cuts them, and chooses one at random to be his next role, ordering his cocaine-addicted subordinate to start making him up in the chosen disguise of an old man.
The sense here is of Mabuse at play (this is the meaning of the German verb “spielen” from which the gambler/actor “Spieler” derives), taking an artist’s pleasure in the random and ever-changing shifts of identity. This is of course how he conceals from the authorities the identity of the criminal mastermind that is hidden behind the psychologist Dr Mabuse, although in fact the doctor himself, the “real” Mabuse, is still yet another role that he puts on. The idea of “play” is central to Mabuse’s concept of the modern world—as he tells the ennui-ridden Countess Told when she complains of life either being ugly or simply dull, providing her with an insight into his credo: “Everything in the world gets boring in the long run – except one… the game – with people—and their faith!”
This playful randomness is a nice concept, but in fact each of the three roles Mabuse adopts in the opening sequence – an old man, a proletariat worker, and a wealthy financier – is carefully calibrated to play its part in the execution of one of his plots. This opening sequence is a stunning piece of filmmaking, still gripping and impressive eighty years later, as Mabuse sits in office, controlling his criminal minions before venturing out himself. There’s an elaborate plot involving the theft of a commercial contract thrown from a moving train onto a waiting car, a staged car accident (Mabuse as old man), a sidebar visit to his underground counterfeiting factory (Mabuse as proletariat worker), and the manipulation of the stock exchange (Mabuse as financier), the whole point of the contract theft being to manipulate stock prices and make a financial killing. The sequence climaxes in a tour-de-force scene of the frantically milling investors at the stock exchange, ending with a shot of the now empty exchange hall, littered with strewn papers, over which is superimposed the giant image of Mabuse-as-financier, which itself is then replaced by that of the cold, cruel face of the undisguised Mabuse.
Dr Mabuse The Gambler was made in two parts, premiered on successive nights. The first, longer part (The Great Gambler—A Picture of the Time) is faster-moving, concentrating on Mabuse’s plot to use his lover the dancer Cara Carozza to lure the rich playboy Edgar Hull and on the growing struggle between Mabuse and Von Wenk, even if, for Von Wenk, his adversary remains unknown. The turning point between the two parts is Mabuse’s kidnapping of Countess Told, with the second part (Inferno: A Play About People of Our Time) detailing, through its major set-piece of the hypnotist theatre show staged by Mabuse in his role as mesmerist Sandor Weltmann, the climax to the struggle between the two foes, with the balance of power increasingly shifting.
The subtitles of the two parts make clear Lang’s intention to offer, through this crime thriller format, a portrait of contemporary Germany—and this, indeed, is one of the great fascinations of Dr Mabuse. This is the Germany of the early Weimar Republic, born to the background of a succession of mini-revolutions and their violent suppression (most notoriously, the Sparticist uprising which led to the capture/execution of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht at the hands of the right-wing Freikorps). It was characterised by galloping inflation, violent street battles between right- and left-wing forces, and, in the collapse of the former certainties that structured their society, a frenzied search for new sensations and experiences.
All this gets a representation in the film. The stock exchange sequence is a perfect expression of the crazed speculation that took place in a financial context that was increasingly veering out of control. The assassination of a suspect under police guard, Hull’s murder in the street, and the police and army’s final siege of Mabuse’s hideout all reflect the violent social conditions of the day. And the decadence of the leisured classes, their aimless thirst for physical and sensual stimulation, is reflected in the repeated scenes in illegal gambling dens, nightclubs specialising in erotic cabaret (there’s an amusing story of Lang’s desperate attempts when shooting one of these scenes to conceal a nude dancer’s pubic hair), and spiritual seances.
Countess Told is the key figure in the film to this social phenomenon—as she herself says, “I need life, the strong breath of the uncommon. I seek the sensational. I seek adventure.” But she’s also someone who holds herself back from participating in what she observes, someone who is so drained by the anomie of her existence that she can only watch at a cool, ironic distance. This patrician stance clearly appeals to the aristocratic Von Wenk But equally Mabuse sees a reflection in her of his own worldview, as some kind of amoral Nietzschean superman looking down on humanity as so many inconsequential creatures to be played with at will.
This recognition of some kind of mirror-image in her (reinforced in the conversations they have together) is fuel to a sexual obsession which will lead to Mabuse’s downfall. He still seems in control in the film’s second part, able to orchestrate such a tour-de-force as Sandor Weltmann’s mesmerist spectacle, but he has now lost the rational control that was essential to his criminal success. Before, he could coldly sacrifice his lover Cara Carozza. Now, his schemes are as much dictated by his sexual desire. As these schemes increasingly fail and as his criminal world contracts and collapses, nothing is left to him but a rat-like retreat through the sewers to his final refuge, a locked cellar. Here, accompanied only by a group of blind workers (significantly immune to his all-powerful hypnotic gaze), he is reduced to being nothing but a shrieking madman, trembling at the ghosts of his victims who have now come to plague his unhinged mind.