d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 270 mins.
alt: "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler"
Those with the slightest exposure to Fritz Lang typically identify him through his three M's: Metropolis, M (naturally), and Mabuse. The last, to be precise, is Dr. Mabuse, the literary creation of novelist Norbert Jacques, whose thriller about the morally bankrupt criminal psychologist became a best-seller in Europe between the world wars. The timing and location of his appearance, in the pulsing boom of modernism on a continent already ravaged and unknowingly prepping itself for another leveling, is important, particularly in the connection to Lang. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a classically lovable villain — a brilliant con artist who delights with disguises and hypnosis for selfish gains.
Lang made three Mabuse films, beginning in 1922 with this silent epic, whose title translates to "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler." The second film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), is generally regarded as the best, but der Spieler is important; granted, that importance translates more into its contributions to German cinema and Lang's career, as well as its influences on other directors, than for its sheer entertainment. The story, adapted by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, is more than a detective chasing Mabuse, who stalks the already seedy underworld and steals forthrightly from those at gambling tables through his use of hypnosis. It is a venture into Langian territory as an exploration of an amoral society and its general lack of salvation (insanity, it seems, proves to be an unsettling refuge for characters). It is also a question in free will and self-control; Mabuse's preferred method is the cracking open of another's psyche and controlling that person from the inside — an imperfect mode of manipulation, of course, but horrifying in its success rate.
Though actually one film, Dr. Mabuse was originally exhibited in two parts and continues to presented as such. That break is imperative for the film's enjoyment, primarily because its greatest liability is its slowness and sparsity. Size is by no means a harbinger of headache; in the sense that Dr. Mabuse upholds its commitment to the aforementioned themes and Lang's direction sustains an interest in the characters and their surroundings, the film is a success. But the thrilling moments — even the quieter moments that nonetheless can amaze — are too far apart and the story is stretched too thin to fill the film's four-plus-hour running length. The first half, perhaps ineluctably, proves to be the better half if only because the introduction of Mabuse is accompanied by self-activating mystery. The second half is more a brass-tacks police procedural and upper-class critique, with more chases and more Mabuse (this time, typically unmasked), but it lacks the general psychological depth that is introduced in the first half. The unevenness of the story is countered well by the even-handed direction from Lang. Dr. Mabuse lacks the visual surprises of Der Müde Tod, but the first half is peppered with optical delights, including a mesmerizing camera technique for a moment when Mabuse is seducing a victim under hypnosis and the lens slightly zooms toward his face while the rest of the scene fades to black, his seemingly disembodied glowing white head floating in the middle of the frame.
For contemporary lasting power, Dr. Mabuse has influence on its side. In some circles, it is referred to as the first film noir, which is a cinematic term I am dutifully careful not to overuse (I suppose you can draw the lines of your dictionary wherever you'd like). It's evident that this sort of film clearly presages the film noir style and many of the police films that would come after it; but I would wager that its more important influence, or certainly it's more apt influence, would be its lasting effect on Alfred Hitchcock, who as a young British man earned a crash course in filmmaking in Weimar Germany where he drew title cards and observed F.W. Murnau. Hitchcock claimed Lang's previous film, Der Müde Tod, as among his favorites, and Dr. Mabuse contains numerous elements that would become fundamentals in the Hitchcockian aesthetic, including: police procedural elements, the wry humor underlying or undercutting more serious moments, and the quasi-espionage angle of Dr. Mabuse sneaking around to commit his psychological crimes. The ending, and this isn't giving it away, comes down to a shoot-out the likes of which would be mimicked by Hitchcock in his 1934 career-launching classic, The Man Who Knew Too Much. And though this first Mabuse film is perhaps too unwieldy to be an unqualified success, Lang, like those he influenced, would learn later to crystallize his own filmmaking techniques and thematic explorations into condensed packages of compelling drama.
04 July 2009
d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 270 mins.