The Testament of Dr. Mabuse Review

Review by Ryan

Fritz Lang introduced audiences to supervillain Dr. Mabuse, the creation of novelist Norbert Jacques, in his 1922 film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler; but viewers need not have made the four-hour investment of watching the original to enjoy its faster-paced 1933 sequel. A gamesman whose sport is gambling “with people and with the fates of people”, Mabuse is a psychoanalyst, hypnotist, counterfeiter, stock market manipulator, and master of disguise who considers himself “a state within a state” and not bound by any law external to himself. The character bears a thematic resemblance to his cinematic contemporaries Dracula and Svengali, but Mabuse and his entourage particularly embody the vice, nihilism, and criminality that dominated the Weimar period. Prefiguring Batman’s nemesis the Joker, the mad Mabuse languishes in an asylum at the beginning of the sequel, but still manages through his preternatural power of suggestion to inspire a cult-like network of murderers, thieves, drug dealers, blackmailers, and anarchist terrorists on the outside. It is up to the harried Inspector Lohmann, a character returning from Lang’s 1931 classic M, to ferret out the “man behind the curtain”. Lohmann will have to act with haste if he wants to prevent the brilliant madman and avatar of disorder from plunging the planet into a “state of complete insecurity and anarchy” and thereby realizing a vision in which “chaos has become supreme law”. 

Though habitual liar Lang would less than convincingly retcon the criminal mastermind as a representation of Adolf Hitler while promoting The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in New York in 1943, the radical individualist Dr. Mabuse is really fellow illusionist Lang’s “dissident, even anarchistic anti-hero,” writes critic Michael Wood, who also notes that the character has been interpreted as “the ultimately unbearable face of the anarchistic powers of capital”. Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse author David Kalat, who contributes a worthwhile commentary to the Criterion DVD, rightly observes that “it too greatly constrains the enduring power of the Mabuse myth to say Mabuse equals Hitler”, adding that “it is also a mistake to read too much anti-Nazi sentiment into the film, as many commentators have done over the years.” It would be more accurate to say that it would be a mistake to read any anti-Nazi sentiment into the film. “The cast and crew was a mix of serious [Nazi] Party members and dissidents,” Kalat observes, “with the producer, director, and editor anxious to leave the country, while the screenwriter and most of the cast were ready converts to the Hitlerian cause.”  

“If anything,” Lang “would be likely to have identified with Dr. Mabuse” from a class perspective, writes Kalat in his book, in which he also characterizes the filmmaker as a “paranoid misanthrope”. “There is enough in most of us of the wild, uninhibited creature,” Lang confessed, “to identify ourselves momentarily with the outlaw who defies society and exults in cruelty.” Lang “had a history – long, and well known – of sadistic behavior,” writes his biographer Patrick McGilligan, and some even suspected the director of having murdered his first wife. “Fritz Lang was a sadist, a bona-fide sadist,” declared German producer and director Gottfried Reinhardt. “Lang makes you want to puke,” offered Kurt Weill. “Nobody in the whole world is as important as he imagines himself to be,” the composer said of Lang’s Mabuse-like megalomania. Another component of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’s mythologization is Lang’s claim that, following a meeting with Joseph Goebbels, he narrowly avoided detention and doom when he opted to leave the country rather than accept an offer to make propaganda movies for the National Socialists. Though he enjoyed regaling those who would listen with the dramatic story of his miraculous “escape” from the Third Reich in 1933, Lang in fact was in no danger and visited Hitler’s Germany more than once after emigrating. Kalat’s insightful discussion of Lang’s “deceptive and obfuscating” approach to movie storytelling as well as to the construction of his own legend is recommendable, but viewers should probably also be on their guard against Kalat’s own occasional deceptions.  

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