on 20 June 2013
This is an outstanding release of Fritz Lang's 1922 silent classic, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Eureka have done a great job with the remastering. The picture is pin-sharp and comes with a highly effective 2001 musical accompaniment by Aljoscha Zimmermann. Only four musicians are deployed, but the theme and variation scoring works brilliantly as we see (and hear) the title character metamorphose into a miriad of different disguises. The only caveat is that this DVD is now also available as re-released by Masters of Cinema in a complete Mabuse package which also contains the later The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. There is no reason to think the mastering is different, but all films in the package do come with commentaries by David Kalat. The version under review lacks a commentary, which is a shame as the circumstances of the making of the film are somewhat complicated and need explaining to a modern audience not well versed in the history of the Weimar Republic. It does come with an illustrated documentary which is good on the music, but less thorough on the historical background. In fact it comes over as more of a plug for other Eureka releases of films from this period. I shouldn't grumble though as I only paid a fiver, making the DVD great value and a must-buy for those not wanting to go to the expense of getting the complete package.
Before I get into the film proper I'd like to attempt an explanation of some of the background missing in the presentation of this DVD. The key to understanding Dr. Mabuse is to pay attention to the titles of the two parts of the film. Part I is entitled Der grosse Spieler - ein Bild der Zeit (The Great Gambler - A Picture of the Time. Part II is Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit (Inferno: A Play About People of our Times). When audiences first saw the film in Germany in 1922 they were shocked and enthralled to see a direct reflection of what surrounded them - "A mirror of the age" screamed the newspaper Das Tagebuch, "A Document of our time" proclaimed Die Welt am Montag. The film hit a nerve and as a result became legend. Germany at this time was a deeply divided society. They had lost the war in 1918 due to the collapse of the home front and there was a lot of bitter resentment against whoever would step into the power vacuum left in the wake of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Those on the extreme left wanted a Soviet Republic proclaimed. The Spartacists' revolt was put down in 1919 and Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg became martyrs to the communist cause forever after. A separate Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Munich only to be put down by the far right Freikorps. The far right were of course embittered as they had to surrender the war while German troops were still on French and Belgian soil. They felt nothing but disgust for those 'traitors' involved in the November Revolution which saw the transition of German society from Wilhelminism (society as organized under the Emporer) to a republic under President Friedrich Ebert. The statutes of the republic were drawn up in Weimar and it paved the way for a decade of instability with the Kapp-Luttwitz Putsch of 1920 and the Munich Beerhall Putsch of 1923 just two examples of the politico-economic instability which led eventually to Hitler seizing power in 1933.
The years 1919-1923 were the crisis years and it is this period which forms the background to (even to some extent the subject of) Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. It was a time of extreme wealth and extreme poverty existing alongside extreme excitement and extreme gloom. It's no exaggeration to describe society as manic-depressive during this time. The German economy was in a ruinous state which led to wild speculation on the stock exchange and hyper-inflation as the mark dwindled in value. In 1919 a loaf of bread cost 1 mark. By 1923 the same loaf cost 100 billion marks. The fact that a day's wages could disappear overnight due to inflation led to many trying to spend everything they earned on a daily basis, living hand-to-mouth existences. All of this is faithfully caught in Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang's Mabuse script. The first act of part I sees Mabuse engineer the theft of an important document which delays information from reaching the stock exchange so that he can manipulate the prices, buying and then selling for a huge profit. The sequence ends with the face of Mabuse super-imposed over the empty exchange floor, in Tom Wolfe's term, a Master of the Universe. The day-to-day manic-depressive frivolity of the Weimar Republic is depicted by numerous scenes showing night-clubs, gambling dens, drinking establishments, dance halls, magic shows and exhibitions of mesmerism, hypnosis, illusionism, and of course movies just like Dr. Mabuse itself. Dr. Mabuse moves through this crazy urban euphoria and scores where he can, when he can. Lang shows the essence of this fragility in the status of the rich and the poor by the short film within a film showing Herr. Schramm (Julius E. Herrmann) transformed overnight from street vagrant to restauranteur thanks to a loan from a Jewish money lender. The Weimar vulgarity is exaggerated to point out the sickness that lies behind the society which of course is fuelled (and to an extent symbolised) by the Mabuse character himself.
The time's hyper-inflation is dealt with in the sequences depicting Mabuse's counterfeiting operation. Just like the Weimar government, he makes money by literally making it himself. The film's final section has Mabuse going crazy clutching at all his forged bank bills and promissary notes in a manner many audiences would have associated with the Ebert administration. The picture Lang paints in the film was so accurate that there is even the feeling that he is predicting events to come. On June 24, 1922, Jewish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walther Rathenau was assassinated by a right wing group in similar fashion to the government minister in the train at the beginning of the film. At the end of the film one of Mabuse's henchmen writes "Gotz von Berlichingen" on his cell wall before topping himself. This is a reference to a medieval nobleman who sided with peasants in Goethe's play of the same name and for audiences in 1923 a possible reference to Hitler's stay in Landesburg prison following the 1923 Munich Putsch. Siegfried Kracauer in his book, From Caligari to Hitler, makes his central argument the idea that many of the 'Expressionist' films of the 20s were in fact premonitions of the rise of Hitler and that Mabuse was probably the best example of this after Caligari himself in Robert Wiene's 1919 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Dr. Mabuse is a master of disguise and in the film he appears as many characters. This suggests to me that Lang was making Mabuse into a metaphor for Weimar society itself. All the characters represent different types which audiences would have recognized - he's variously a gentleman of the stock exchange, a Russian diplomat, a drunken sailor, a Dutch professor, an English gentleman of leisure, a professional gambler, a Jewish street vendor, a psychoanalyst, the conjuror Sandor Weltmann, and finally, basically a common Al Capone-like gangster. He is Lang's first great Master Criminal and he is also the Weimar Republic itself. Central to the main story of the chase between Mabuse and Detective von Wenk is Mabuse's use and abuse of Count and Countess Told. They represent the old upper class Junker tradition, a tradition that is depicted as lazy and slothful, and which lays itself wide open for unscrupulous operators to exploit. Following Kracauer I'd like to suggest that this prefigures the way Hitler insinuated himself into the upper echelons of German society to gain power. Harbou and Lang as early as 1921 (when the script was written) were able to pinpoint the central flaw in German society which would lead the country eventually into the abyss.
Also part of the times in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was Lang's use of Expressionism. It's important to realize that Expressionism had been restricted during World War I to operating only within German borders. During that time Hollywood had claimed clear leadership of world cinema. In the immediate post-war period with the mark's devaluation, the making of films became cheaper, and inspired producers like Erich Pommer saw that to gain a foothold back in the industry, German cinema had to offer something different. That difference was German Expressionism. It fed especially into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film that was very successful in the States. Pommer had originally asked Lang to direct Caligari, but he was too busy on Die Spinnen at the time. They eventually agreed to make a Zeitbild (a Picture of the Times) with the same techniques. This became Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. In the film Expressionism is much more than just a clever marketing ploy however. The themes that fed this strand of the modernist movement were central to both the film Lang was planning and (I'd say) to the whole of Lang's cinema, extending forewards throughout the later American phase of his career. Central to Expressionism is a conflict between the backwards view to the Romanticism of E. T. A. Hoffman and Goethe and the forwards view towards visual expression of one's inner mental state. Therefore in both Caligari and Mabuse you have very clear logical storylines which look backwards, but you also have a fierce illogical presentation (in both mise-en-scene and the acting) which clashes as a consequence. It is this clashing which is the most exciting aspect of cinematic Expressionism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deploys a series of bizarre sets which on first view don't seem to have anything to do with the story. Mabuse's sets are much more traditional, but this was because Lang was going for a depiction of the times and had to keep the setting recognisably 'Germany' rather than going for abstraction. Expressionism is felt in the constant jarring between dull, cramped exteriors to buildings which open into unlikely wide spaces where people dance, gamble and drink. The designs, especially perhaps Schramm's restaurant and the Tolds' home is full of Expressionist painting and sculptures. Dark street scenes such as Hull's assassination and the shooting of one of Mabuse's henchmen in the prison wagon have the flavour of Georges Grosz or Ludwig Kirchner. The night scene where Told goes mad is especially Expressionistic with ghosts materializing before him to drive him crazy. Madness is central to Expressionism, not only with Told but also with Mabuse himself who ends up as deranged as Stephen at the end of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There's even a scene where von Wenk (rendered temporarily mad by Mabuse) chases the mysterious word 'Melior' across the screen in the same manner as Caligari chases his name across the screen. Characters are motivated by their inner desires which are made visual by the simple device of super-imposing words on the screen around them - pure Expressionism. Central behind Lang's use of Expressionism is the idea that Weimar society may have been rather jolly on the surface with people enjoying drinking, eating, dancing and gambling, but underlying everything was people's fear of authority, gloomy paranoia, and disquiet caused by a dirth of central power in society. The feeling was one of intense angst which at the least little jolt could rise and threaten social chaos - such was the nature of both Expressionism and the Weimar Republic. And such was also the nature of Lang's cinema. All his most personal films posit a seemingly calm surface undercut by a neurotic (usually urban) angst-ridden complexity which threatens at any given moment. Expressionism was a perfect match not only for the Weimar society that nurtured it, but also for Lang's cinematic universe.
With an understanding of Weimar history and some knowledge of Modernism (specifically Expressionism) Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler becomes a fascinating experience. What takes the film even beyond that is the way Lang outlines virtually all his thematic obsessions which were to haunt the rest of his work. First of all, the film marks the birth of the urban thriller. There had been important precursors in the work of Louis Feuillade (in Fantomas and Les Vampires) and in Lang himself (in Die Spinnen), but Dr. Mabuse was by far the most sophisticated statement of the genre to date. Through Metropolis, Spione, M, Fury, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat and to his final films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Lang would refine and redefine his view of society through the context of urban modernity. Tom Gunning in his excellent book, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity argues persuasively that Lang viewed modernity as a pattern of interlocking systems which feed one another. These systems overlook and control mankind to the extent that in a Lang picture the protagonist is never in charge of his own fate. He is always locked into a 'destiny machine' which determines his direction. All of Lang's films show characters trapped by powers that lie beyond their control so that fate, paranoia and the threat of surveillance is never far away. Mabuse starts the film seemingly in control of his fate. The killing of the minister and the stealing of the information which will influence prices on the stock exchange is depicted by Lang with several layers of technology working together (the pocket watch, the train, the car, the telephone wire) with Mabuse at the center of everything, controling to the point where he himself is seen as one of the technologies. Mabuse is locked in a machine destined to make him not only rich, but also all-powerful. When von Wenk finally makes the connection between the conjuror Weltman, the gambler who had earlier tricked him and the psychoanalyst Mabuse, this jolt in the workings of the interlocking systems of modernity results in Mabuse's demise. The destiny machine (now controled by the police detective von Wenk) grinds on to the inevitable conclusion. In all Lang's most personal films (Spione, M, You Only Live Once, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat) the same thing happens. One jolt in the mechanism and that's it for all the protagonists concerned.
Dr. Mabuse also marks the first really sophisticated statement of the Master Detective/Master Criminal chase scenario which became a Lang constant hereafter. In Dr. Mabuse, the detective is the man who knows best how to work the (in Gunning's term) 'terrain of modernity'. He has knowledge of causal reasoning, penetration into the metropolis, exploitation of disguise and the blurry boundaries of personal and social identity, scrutiny of the smallest clues, and supreme control over surveillance. In Lang's world the detective is supreme master. The Master Criminal of course is his doppelganger, the dark flipside without which the detective wouldn't exist in the first place. This duality between polarities informs all of Lang's best work. Added to the Mabuse/von Wenk dialectic we also have the Mabuse/Lang dialectic as well. For throughout all Lang's work there is a constant commentary on the role of the director in the movie. We are always aware we are watching an artificial construct which is the movie itself which frames reality through the male gaze. This obsession with framing and ways of seeing reached its ultimate expression in The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.
The last theme that I want to mention (there is just so much more than can be said, but I haven't got the space here) is that splendidly Langian sense of ambiguity which we associate with all his best work. There is a constant doubling of characters throughout, but (with the exception of Lang's American wartime propaganda efforts) there is no sense in which one man can be seen as totally 'good' and another as totally 'bad'. Lang was fully aware of the complexity of human nature to the point where characters are not allowed to be pigeon-holed. Mabuse is termed a master criminal, but he is sympathetic to a degree. He is created by circumstances beyond his control. It was World War I, the Treaty of Versailles and the power vacuum existing at the center of the Weimar Republic that created him. Also, the behaviour of Detective von Wenk (representing the 'good' side of law and order) subtly echoes and mirrors Mabuse. He too resorts to disguises to find his man, and (key to the plot) he is never beyond using others to get what he wants. Just as Mabuse uses Carozza to get at Hull, so von Wenk uses Countess Told to get at Carozza. The scenes of the film play out as each man (opposite halves of the society they embody) circle and plot around their respective desks. The film's final scene shows 'what used to be Dr. Mabuse' as a poor, pathetic creature evoking of our pity. He is not a monster after all, rather he is just a sad sorry sign of the times. This delicious ambiguity was to be polished even more in M and would extend forward to almost all of Lang's main protagonists who are trapped by circumstances beyond their control.
Finally then, beyond all the disguises, who is Mabuse? It's very easy to say he represents the Weimar Republic, but the ambiguity around him means we can 'read' him in a number of different ways. Take what he says at the end of the first part where he has just forced Told to cheat at cards and is about to carry away Told's wife. He says: 'There is only one thing that is interesting any more. Playing with people and the destinies of people.' He then goes on: 'There is no such thing as love - there is only desire - There is no fortune, only the Will-to-power'. This directly invokes the idea of Mabuse being a Nietzschean Ubermensch (Superman) - Lang's own professed reading of the character (he also later said he saw Mabuse as a kind of Al Capone). Certainly the notion of a will to power in a powerless Weimar Republic state is an intriguing one. Erich Pommer saw Mabuse as a Spartacist in an on-going war against the Liberals in 1920's Germany. Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Mabuse himself) saw Mabuse as 'a symptom of a Europe that was falling apart...a guiding force, a creator, if only in destruction'. I think Lang deliberately holds back from offering a concrete definition of Mabuse because he wanted his audiences to think and draw conclusions for and (because the film is a Zeitbild) about themselves. Such was the measure of the artist. If Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler has a fault, it lies within it's nature as a Zeitbild. Modern viewers have to make an effort to engage with the history of the times and 'decode' the film to really get into it. Its close concern with the Weimar Rebublic means that the film finally lacks the universality which Spione and M both pack in abundance. It's still an awesome work of art, one which repays close attention by all lovers of cinema and one which offers a virtual primer for understanding the rest of this formidable director's work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.