Even though many silent films are regarded as classics these days, it’s worth noting that many of these films still share a lot in common with your typical B-grade and exploitation picture. Both feature sex and violence, sexism and subjugation, nipples and nudity (remember this is before the Hays Code) and most of all, a desire to put as many bums on cinema seats, and make as much filthy lucre as possible.
One of the most lauded directors of the twentieth Century was Fritz Lang, and many of his films are considered the finest examples of cinema ever created. Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis has been in the headlines quite a bit recently after a complete print of the film was found in Buenos Aires. Prior to this though, Lang directed another of his triumph’s, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Unlike Metropolis, which was a flop, and was subsequently butchered, Dr. Mabuse was a massive hit. It could be considered The Lord Of The Rings of its day. There was a huge advertising campaign leading up to the film’s release. Norbert Jacques’ novel, on which the film was based, was serialised for magazines, and the novel was released twice in hardback and paperback. There was a great deal of public awareness about the Mabuse character.
Another comparison between Dr. Mabuse and The Lord Of The Rings (the book) is in the way it was originally presented. The argument still rages, is The Lord Of The Rings three books or is it in fact nine books? Similarly, people cannot decide if Dr. Mabuse (the film) is one long film, or two films. There is no doubt that the film was shown in two parts as The Great Gambler (which first screened on April 27, 1922) and Inferno (premiering on May 26, 1922). But every source I look up, seems to have differing opinions. Some poorly researched sources, even imply that they are three different films. In the end though, with the DVD age upon us, what does it really matter? If you want to watch it all in one sitting – go ahead. With a running time of between 242 and 297 minutes (depending on the version you’re watching), I feel a break is required.
With a film of this age, many reviews tend to look at the restoration of the film, or even the multitude of DVD releases available. I guess this is understandable as so much has been written about director Fritz Lang and Dr. Mabuse. Covering such a well respected director and well documented series of films almost seems like an exercise in futility. But you’ve got to go with what you love, and by now, my penchant for spy films is well documented (mostly by me). So is Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler a spy film? The short answer is no. But in the Mabuse character, a lot of the seeds for the villain in films from the great sixties spy boom were sewn. In Mabuse, we have a master of disguise, whose almost super human powers allow him to control an evil organisation, that in the confines of the universe created for the film, attempts nothing short of world domination.
Mabuse’s progeny is Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE, Tung Tse and Big O, and many of the operatives of THRUSH. Even Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films is the bastard child of Mabuse. Naturally, I could branch off onto a tangent about the role of the Mad Doctor or Mad Scientist in cinema – but I’ll leave this for another day.
Dr. Mabuse: The Great Gambler – A Picture Of Our Time
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein Rogge – yeah, he was Rotwang in Metropolis) looks at a selection of photographs, which appear to be different men. But each of them is Mabuse in different disguises. He shuffles the photographs, as if they were a deck of cards. He chooses a photo from the deck. It is an old man. He hands the photo to his valet, Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga) It is Spoerri’s job to transform Mabuse into the old man in the photo. But Spoerri’s mind isn’t on the job. He is a cocaine addict and pretty rattled. Mabuse warns that if he catches Spoerri in such a state again, he will drive him out like a dog.
Meanwhile a steam train rattles along the tracks. Onboard, in a compartment, a man is carrying a commercial coffee contract between the Swiss and the Dutch. Also in the compartment is a scruffy looking workman who is dozing in the corner. At exactly twenty-five minutes past eight, the sleeping workmen, who happens to be one of Dr. Mabuse’s henchmen, awakens and stands to stretch his tired limbs. Then he pounces on the courier, snatches the contract and hurls it out the window, as the train crosses over a bridge. At that exact moment, another of Mabuse’s henchmen drives his car under the bridge and the contract lands in the back seat. Obviously the theft has be planned and timed to perfection.
While the robbery has been taking place, Spoerri has been completing Mabuse’s metamorphosis. Now with the countenance of an old man, Mabuse gets into his car, and is chauffeured into town. At a ‘T’ intersection, another car runs into his, rendering it useless. The other car though, is fine. The driver of that vehicle offers to drive the irate Mabuse to his destination. What seemed like an accident was actually planned too. The car that Mabuse is transferred to, is the car with the stolen contract inside. Mabuse reads the contract, and then gives orders that the briefcase is to be found intact, half an hour before the close of the stock exchange.
Next through the winding city streets and back lanes, we see the same car. It stops at a street corner and a drunkard practically falls from the vehicle. The car races off as the drunk staggers along a path, using the wall to hold himself up. The drunk though, as you may have already guessed, is Mabuse in one of his cunning disguises. He stops at a building and is abused by an old women sitting at the front. She throws a ball of knitting yarn at him. Hidden inside the ball is the key to Mabuse’s top secret counterfeiting works. Inside a forger is running off dollar notes, and a team of blindmen are counting and bundling the fake money.
Back at the stock exchange, news is breaking about the stolen coffee contract. It is feared that the Swiss will pull out of the deal if the contents of the contract are revealed. The rumours cause Dutch coffee prices to plunge. Everybody begins to panic, and tries to rid themselves of their quickly diminishing stock – all except one man, Sternberg. Once the price bottoms out – he buys!
Then with only half an hour till the stock exchange closes, a report comes in that the secret contract has been found – unbroken – by a railroad attendant. The contract is subsequently returned to the Swiss consulate. The Dutch coffee prices begin to rise again – sharply. On this day, Sternberg has made an absolute killing on the stock market. Sternberg, of course, is actually Dr. Mabuse, in another of his clever disguises.
The second act opens with Dr. Mabuse chairing a lecture about psychoanalysis. After the lecture, the story cuts to the Folies Bergeres. Here we have a sequence encompassing two themes that Lang frequently explored and revisited over his career. The first is voyeurism, and the second is surveillance. In the scene, a drunken male crowd leers at a female striptease artist as she performs. The sequence is repeated in Metropolis when mechanical Maria performs a Mata Hari style dance. In both instances, Lang really plays on the ugly voyeuristic side, showing the men viewing the show as drunk lecherous men. Mabuse is different from the other men. He doesn’t leer. He sits in a booth at the back, watching. Rather than witnessing a performance, Mabuse is watching the crowd. it’s almost like surveillance. In fact, in Lang’s last film, The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, the eyes are not his evil minions out on the streets, but a series of cameras he has hidden in a hotel.
At this point we are introduced to Miss Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen). She is a dancer at the Folies Bergeres. Mabuse is watching her perform. But as I said, it’s more like surveillance. He is in fact watching, and sizing up his next victim, Edgar Hull (Paul Richter). Using his mind control techniques, Mabuse convinces Hull to go to the Pontoon Club and engage in a friendly game of cards. At the club, as the game progresses, Mabuse sends out telepathic signals so Hull tosses away winning hands, and keeps losing cards. Meanwhile it is revealed that Cara Carozza, the dancer, is one of Dr. Mabuse’s evil minions. In her dressing room after the show, she receives orders to go to the Excelsior Hotel and await further instructions.
Hull loses a filthy amount of money at the card table. Under Mabuse’s power of suggestion, he plays and bets recklessly, even when he has a winning hand. Eventually he loses 170,000 marks to Mabuse. Hull does not have the cash on him, so he arranges to meet Mabuse later so he can repay his debt. Mabuse hands Hull a business card, with a fake name and an address at the Excelsior Hotel.
Later, Hull goes to the Hotel to repay his outstanding gambling debt. In the room that Mabuse said that he was staying in, there is another man with a hangover. He has no knowledge of the debt. Hull leaves, relieved that he does not have to shell out his cash, but on his way out of the building, he meets Cara Carozza. This meeting is not a co-incidence. Soon Hull and Carozza are an item – but as we know dear reader, the strings are secretly being pulled by Mabuse.
State Prosecutor von Wenk (Berhard Goetzke) is investigating illegal gambling in the city. It seems that Hull isn’t the only innocent young aristocrat to have lost an obscene amount of money in unusual and in an ‘out of character’ fashion. Von Wenk, in an attempt to catch the ‘unknown’ fiend who is behind the spate of gambling crimes, enlists the help of Cara Carozza. From her he obtains a list of all the illegal gambling dens. Another ally that von Wenk collects along the way, is Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker). The Countess is a bored rich housewife. Very little in life excites her, as she has everything. She attempts to add excitement to her dreary life by spending each evening out at the city’s nightclubs and gambling dens. She offers to help von Wenk – but maybe not because she has a social conscience, but because she craves drama and excitement.
On the third night of his investigation, von Wenk comes into contact with Mabuse in an illegal gambling den, but neither man recognises the other as they are both in disguise. After von Wenk pulls a huge wad of cash from his pocket and places it on the table, he becomes Mabuse’s target for the evening. Mabuse attempts to use his hypnotic powers on von Wenk, but he isn’t a weak minded fool like many other of Mabuse’s victims. Mabuse’s attempt at mind control leaves him drained and he almost collapses. He leaves the game and the table. Von Wenk chooses to follow. He trails him to the Hotel Excelsior, where Mabuse makes a quick change and escapes once more. But before leaving, Mabuse arranges for one of his minions to pose as a taxi driver and collect the State Prosecutor as he leaves the building.
In the taxi, Mabuse’s evil minion gasses von Wenk who passes out. When von Went awakens he finds himself, minus all personal possessions, in a small wooden dingy in the middle of a lake. As von Wenk awaits rescue, Mabuse goes through von Wenk’s notebooks and other personal effects. Inside the notebook, Mabuse discovers how close the State Prosecutor has come to tracking him down and stopping his operation. He orders both von Wenk and Edgar Hull assassinated. Luring both men to their doom is Cara Carozza.
Of course, as we have seen, Mabuse doesn’t do his own dirty work, and rather than participate in the assassination he is to attend a seance being held by Countess Dusy Told. The seance is another attempt to break away from the mundane life that she lives. At the seance Mabuse becomes entranced by her free spirit. Seances, and the occult appear to be another of Fritz Lang’s interests. In the films Ministry Of Fear and The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, Lang uses seances as the setting for assassination attempts on some of the principal characters. But nothing quite so sinister here. In fact, it is the beginning of Mabuse’s infatuation with Dusy Told. And as part one comes to a close, Mabuse kidnaps Dusy Told and takes her back to his lair.
What happens to von Wenk and Hull…ahhhh, that would be telling! You don’t want me to reveal all the story do you?
The first hour of this production absolutely rattles along, but then after that the story begins to crawl. As von Wenk begins his investigation, the story becomes very ‘talky’, which is not ideal in a silent movie. Watching the characters stand still and mouth great chunks of dialogue, and then waiting for the intertitle translation does become tiresome. Sure, there still some of Lang’s fantastic trademark visuals and extraordinary set design, but they don’t compensate for the sluggish story line.
Dr. Mabuse: Inferno – Men Of Our Time
The second part opens with a few flash backs to the end of part one, and then it focuses on Count and Countess Told. The Countess, of course, in now the prisoner of Dr. Mabuse. The Count, on the other hand, has no idea what has happened to his wife. He believes she has left him because he cheated at cards one night. In a distraught state, Count Told seeks the help of a psychiatrist to assist him with his problems. He chooses to see Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse toys with the Count and insists that he does not see anyone from the outside world, which the Count agrees to. Once cut off, the Count slips deeper into depression. The manipulation continues, and once Count Told is at his lowest ebb, Mabuse suggests that he cannot live any longer. The Count takes his own life, leaving Mabuse as the only suitor for Countess Dusy Told’s affections. Unfortunately, she does not share Mabuse’s feelings, and wishes to leave.
Mabuse’s obsession with Dusy Told slowly leads to his undoing. After the Count’s death, he is one of the major suspects, and when he attempts to kill those who get too close, the net tightens. Eventually the police and the army surround his hideout and shoot it out. One by one, Mabuse’s minions fall, and the mad Doctor decides to leg it. No doubt, you will have noticed that if you look at the Doctor’s name, it contains ‘ABUSE’. I am hardly an expert on language, but it seems an interesting co-incidence to me. First the character starts by abusing those around him, and then, once he becomes involved with Dusy Told, it could be argued that his actions turn to ‘self abuse’. It is he, who gave the police the information and clues to track him down. If he’d stayed out of it, and kept committing the cold clinical crimes, like at the beginning of the film, most likely he’d still be at large. But the man in the final frames of this movie is a very different being. After Dusy Told has been freed by the police, and his criminal empire destroyed, Mabuse has quite literally gone insane…haunted by the ghosts of the people whose lives he has destroyed.
There are two kinds of villains in this world. The first looks to improve his position in the world by obtaining wealth and/or power. Fu Manchu, Diabolik and Kriminal all fit into this category. Then there’s your villain who is just plain evil. They want to destroy the world and then rule the ashes. Villains like Fantomas and Dr. Mabuse are from this school. And like Fantomas, and all great screen villains, Dr. Mabuse would rise again, again and again. The first follow-on film, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933) was also directed by Fritz Lang and starred Rudolph Klein Rogge. It is considered a classic. Many years later, as mentioned previously, Lang also returned to the character for the film The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse (1960). This would be Lang’s last film as director as his eyesight was failing. Harald Reinl took over the reins for The Return Of Dr. Mabuse (1961), but by now the films had been dumbed down into standard crime dramas (Krimi). Next came The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), then a remake of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, Scotland Yard Vs. Dr. Mabuse, and The Death Ray Mirror Of Dr. Mabuse. Each of these films has many versions and many alternate names, but these are your core films. There are a few other foreign productions which feature the Mabuse character. One film that continues to elude me, is Jess Franco’s Spanish The Vengeance Of Dr. Mabuse (1972) . Just the thought of Mabuse and Franco together makes me giddy. I know, one day when I finally do track down the film, I am going to be disappointed, but until then, in my mind it lives as a hypnotic, psychedelic ‘mind fuck’ that has the potential to be the greatest film ever made!
Even the bizarre horror film, Scream And Scream Again (1972) was released in Germany as The Living Corpses Of Dr. Mabuse – which means that Vincent Price was Dr. Mabuse – in my lopsided opinion anyway. But that is exactly as it should be – Dr. Mabuse can be anyone, and turn up anywhere. Although details are sketchy at this stage, it appears that Dr. Mabuse will plot to take over and destroy the world once more. On IMDB it lists a 2010 Dr. Mabuse film in production. And I for one, am looking forward to the madman’s return!