For anyone interested in the history of film making then the name of Fritz Lang looms large as one of the most innovative and influential directors of the last century. Born in Vienna in 1890, he produced arguably his best work in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s in collaboration with his then-wife Thea von Harbou, but when Adolf Hitler came to power he decided it was time to get out of Dodge. Although he would never again have the same freedom to work in Hollywood that he had previously enjoyed in Germany, he was able to carry on working until 1960 and along the way added an unmistakable stylistic hallmark to films as diverse as Western Union, Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street and Rancho Notorious.
His final film as writer/director was Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, made back in West Germany and the third in a loose trilogy that had begun in the silent era with Dr Mabuse, der Spieler. One of his earliest breakout hits as a filmmaker, that film presaged a run of expressionistic masterpieces that included Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spione, Frau im Mond and M. The purple streak ended with his final film to be made in pre-war Germany, which coincidentally was the middle instalment of the Mabuse trilogy. Das Testament des Dr Mabuse was a dangerously sly critique of Hitler’s rise to power and was promptly banned by the Reich, which is what got Lang packing when he saw the way that the wind was blowing.
If you’re a serious cineaste then pretty much every single film I’ve cited in that introduction will have sent you into a state of near-religious fervour. I’ve been meaning to revisit and/or see for the first time some of these legendary works of the cinema for years and figured the best place to start was with the first of the Mabuse series, which in its English translation is usually called Dr Mabuse, The Gambler, or sometimes “The Player” instead.
Dr Mabuse himself is a fictional character originally created by Norbert Jacques in a pulp novel, a German equivalent of Dr Fu Manchu or the French arch villain Fantômas. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind with a particular talent for hypnosis and mind control by which he is able to bend anyone to his will; he’s also a dab hand at disguises and not bad at coming up with cunning and convoluted plans. The film adaptation begins with a particularly fine example of his work, as clockwork precision strategy allows him to briefly intercept a commercially sensitive document and plunge the Berlin stock exchange into momentary panic during which time his agent makes a fortune through insider trading.
After this bravura opening, Mabuse’s activities strangely roll back to a much less grand state of affairs as he resorts to using his mental powers to dupe rich and bored socialites out of their money in Weimar Berlin’s illicit backstreet gambling dens. His latest victim is Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), the son of a millionaire industrialist, but ultimately Mabuse doesn’t press for repayment on the promissory note for a small fortune in gambling debts. Instead he sets Hull up with Folies Bergère dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen) who is secretly a member of Mabuse’s criminal inner circle as well as his lover. To what end? Well, to be honest, it’s never entirely clear – perhaps because Mabuse’s plans come unstuck when State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) sets his intractable sights on bringing down Mabuse’s gang once and for all. Both men end up in the thrall of the same woman, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker) and soon events are spiralling beyond even Mabuse’s control as the body count starts to rise sharply.
I’d heard so much about this film that I expected something absolutely spectacularly brilliant, and if I’m honest it doesn’t quite manage to deliver at that level. Instead, it’s a fascinating evocation of the period and place in which it was made as it plays with the themes of decadence, corruption and decay that were rife in Germany after its defeat in the Great War and humiliation at Versailles and which would soon end up in economic disaster and the rise of the fascists. At four and a half hours, the film’s script isn’t as gripping or as well constructed as it really needs to be if it’s to fully hold a modern audience’s undivided attention throughout, and the meanderings and loose ends – while entirely typical and characteristic for the age in which the movie was made – have a certain disappointing naivety to them as well as plot holes you could drive a cart and horse through with little trouble.
The film does at least use its mighty running time to build the characters, although it’s Mabuse and his gang who largely benefit from this process while nominal good guy von Wenk comes across as a stony-faced humourless sourpuss who uses people in his crusade against crime almost as cruelly as Mabuse uses his lackies to commit them. There’s Spoerri, Mabuse’s cocaine-addicted manservant played by Robert Forster-Larrinaga ; Georg, his chauffeur and sometime assassin played by Hans Adalbert Schlettow ; Pesch, an inept goon portrayed by Georg John; and the grossly obese and grotesque Hawasch (Charles Puffy) who runs Mabuse’s counterfeiting operation.
All four are terrific and memorable characters, but they’re still completely overshadowed by the man himself. Rudolf Klein-Rogge puts in a towering, magnetic performance as the criminal kingpin and is utterly the star of the show; he would go on to play the mad scientist Rotwang in Lang’s Metropolis and Haghi in Spione to similarly strong effect, although in the former it’s inevitably the special effects that end up stealing the dystopian show on that occasion.
Naturally we’re talking about 1920s acting here, and there’s accordingly still more than a whiff of the broad overdramatic histrionics that were common at the time as actors moved from the stage and struggled to downsize their performances for the more intimate medium of the movies. That said, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler contains some of the better attenuated performances that I’ve seen in a film of this vintage and is certainly streets ahead of what actors in Hollywood were generally doing at the time, with maybe only half a dozen occasions where I was at all distracted by the oversize pantomime gesturing.
And to be honest, when you’re talking about a Fritz Lang film you’re not really focussed on the script or the performances. Instead it’s the look and feel of the production design, the sets and lighting, the optical effects and all the innovative editing and directorial touches that really matter here. Whatever the shortfalls that the rest of the film may or may not have, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler certainly doesn’t let us down in these areas and the movie looks utterly spectacular throughout. Whether we’re in the glamorous gambling clubs and parlours of the rich and famous, or out in the twisting crumbling backstreets of a ramshackle, restive Berlin, there’s rarely a time when you can’t pause the film, take a snapshot and easily come away with a work of art worthy of hanging on the wall.
Inevitably there are moments when Lang simply has to point the camera at a scene and get it down on film, but you can sense him continually straining to find new and interesting ways to present things whenever possible. There’s the moment when he photographs Mabuse (in disguise) as a disembodied head against a black background during his first confrontation with von Wenk; or the way he cuts between a circular table at a new gambling club and a simultaneous seance at a spiritualist meeting to slyly present parallels between both activities. The way he positions the camera to film the dealer at the centre of the gambling table while the rest of the room spins around us is a show-stoppingly sublime moment.
In other places Lang is throwing in every special effect in the book and some he doubtless came up with himself, such as the moment we get an X-Ray vision into a briefcase to see the commercially confidential contract within, or the way that Mabuse’s hypnotic incantation of “Tsi Nan Fu!” causes the words to be superimposed everywhere von Wenk looks. In the second half of the film, Lang uses double exposures to summon up a terrifying gathering of ghouls and phantoms that drives one character to suicide and another into insanity.
It’s brilliant stuff, showing just how inventive directors of that era were in overcoming the lack of sound while working in the movie medium. That skill would continue to serve Lang, Hitchcock et al well for the rest of their careers, even with the advent of sound after The Jazz Singer, since they always remembered that cinema is primarily a visual medium and that being able to rely on sound as well is really something of a luxury that can make a director lazy if he’s not careful.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that there are an awful lot of intertitles to read through while watching Dr Mabuse, der Spieler. One of the drawbacks of this generally outstanding Blu-ray release of the film from Eureka is that the disc’s English subtitles are frequently overlaid directly on the original German captions, and reading white characters superimposed on different white characters is a bit of a nightmare. There’s also something clumsy about the use of the language in the English version which suggests that a literal translation has been done by someone with little knowledge of English colloquialisms, which makes for some awkward phraseology – but never so bad that it affects the viewer’s understanding of what’s being said.
Since we’ve moved on to discussion of the Blu-ray rather than the film itself, how does it look? A huge amount of work had been done on a restoration of the film and it definitely shows, but at the same time the picture does look every one of its 90-plus years despite all the hard work. There’s quite a lot of brightness fluctuation and picture movement throughout, and at its worst it’s very distracting and headache-inducing although there are also balancing moments of astonishing stability. I’m sure a lot of cleaning up has been done but you’ll still find a lot of dust and speckles and scratches on display, even hairs in the camera gate and the imprint of adhesive tape used in the editing process.
With this being the first high definition release of Dr Mabuse, der Spieler in the world, there’s been a lot of attention on whether the Blu-ray manages to bring out significant extra detail and clarity than had been achieved on standard definition DVD releases. The answer to that is that this release has succeeded in those areas and massively so, beyond even the most optimistic expectations – but at a price. It’s amazing what you can now see in the frame and everything is crystal-clear and sharp, save for those few sections where damage means that they have been sourced from lower-quality negatives where things get much softer. However the consequence of the high definition being pushed to this degree also makes all those speckles and scratches much more obvious as well. In particular, the film grain has been hugely boosted and is now the most prominent and noisy that I think I’ve ever seen on any home release of a film in any medium. If this were on a DVD then you’d end up with a mush of digital artefacting, but the higher bitrate of the Blu-ray means that each and every element of grain is as lovingly rendered in precise detail as the rest of the picture behind it, and while it’s an acquired taste there’s no question that once you get your eye in the grain becomes part of the overall mise-en-scène that you can’t imagine being without. It’s on the very edge of what works – the picture can look a little ‘brittle’ at times – but it does just about get away with it. Slightly more problematic is the contrast push used on the film: while the rich black settings bring out the best of Lang’s noir-inspiring lighting and photography, the top end of the range blows out the highlight areas where there really should ideally be more details on show, especially on faces and white clothing. But quibbles aside, on balance it’s really astounding that the film looks anywhere near as good as it does here.
Soundwise we’re of course dealing with a 1920s silent film, but there’s a modern soundtrack by composer Aljoscha Zimmermann reproduced in LPCM 2.0 format. Using a small set of instruments (mainly piano, percussion and strings) allows the new score to sound quite faithful to what a cinema audience might have expected to hear on its original release rather than shoehorning in an anachronistic 100 piece orchestra, and the result is modern enough to our ears to come across as fresh and lively while eschewing any antiquated musical clichés of the era. There are only two or three main themes developed for the film, and very effective and memorable they are too, with the rest of the soundtrack sounding like an expert improvisation around those same basic themes; but most importantly, the whole thing is flawlessly shaped around the on-screen action and never once misses a beat in helping to bring the pictures to life.
Extras-wise there’s a nice 32-page illustrated booklet included in the Blu-ray case, while the two-disc set includes a short featurette on Norbert Jacques’s novel, an interview with Zimmermann about the new score and a 30-minute critical analysis at the cultural significance of the film. However the biggest extra is without doubt the audio commentary by film scholar David Kalat who comes armed with enough research material and sufficient throat lozenges to somehow manage to keep talking for the entire four and a half hours: impressive stuff which alone deserves a standing ovation.
While there’s no doubting that Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is a landmark film in the early history of cinema, it’s understandable that few people these days are prepared to spend 270 minutes watching a grainy black and white silent German film. Even at the time it was released in two separate parts at the box office, and that split is dutifully carried through to the modern Blu-ray release meaning that you can break it down to more standard durations and watch it over two evenings instead of all at once. If you need even more bite-sized chunks, then each half is structured by way of six acts duly flagged on screen by the intertitles and adhered to by the disc’s chapter points for ease of viewing.
I have to admit that it’s taken me a long time to get around to watching the whole of Dr Mabuse, der Spieler despite my own cinephile pretensions. It was always overshadowed in my mind by the astonishing, ground-breaking Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens which also came out of Germany in 1922. But the truth is that Lang’s Mabuse is far superior both technically and artistically to FW Murnau’s Dracula rip-off, so much so that at times they scarcely appear to have been made in the same generation let alone the same year.
Any complaints that the script and acting are very much of their time, and that the current Blu-ray release still bears the badges of honour of nine decades of heavy wear and tear despite extensive restoration, end up feeling less like criticisms than they are acknowledgement and recognition that this version of Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is entirely the best way to see the film that there has ever been. It’s still rooted enough in the time and place of its setting and production and yet also freed at last to be as relevant and striking today as it was to audiences who saw it in the theatres at the time. Now that I’ve finally seen it all the way through, I’m keen to come back to it for a second viewing – probably in the company of Kalat’s commentary next time to better contextualise it – and I suspect it’ll be an even richer and more rewarding experience than the first.