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5.0 out of 5 stars A Testament to Fritz Lang's genius, 24 Oct 2012
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This review is from: Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format SteelBook Edition) [Blu-ray] [1933] (Blu-ray)
Convention has it, that by the mid to late 20's, silent cinema had reached its zenith in storytelling style and artistry. Then sound came along, and overnight, movies became stagebound, static, with none of the flowing camera movements, and actors who had to stand or sit conveniently next to a vase of daffodils or a bush, wherein lay the microphone.. it arguably took decades for Hollywood to rediscover its style, once it found its voice. Compare that version of history to what was happening in Germany - or at least with Fritz Lang, who had demonstrated himself an artist of the silent screen, with his classics Dr Mabuse The Gambler, and of course Metropolis. And yet, here in only his second sound movie, the imaginative use of sound is both and surprising and enjoyable in its inventiveness.. the misdirection of the audience with sound, the inability to hear seemingly key conversations due to carefully constructed background noise, or indeed due to delicately woven silence, is seemingly the mark of a director who had mastered sound over a lifetime. Examples abound, but the hunt in the opening scenes, ending in a silent explosion, or the wonderful segue from ticking bomb to man tapping an egg in identical sound and rhythm, made this movie a treat for me.
But to revel in the sound is only one facet of this surprising movie. The plot, for example is for its time both complex and enigmatic. On one level it is about a hunt for a mastermind criminal. A mysterious figure is head of a network of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers, and his goal seems to be chaos, not profit. All the evidence points to Dr Mabuse, however he is in a mental asylum, secure and cut off from the world. And yet, somehow, he has extended his reach beyond mere body, to leave a legacy, a testament, if you will, after he is gone. It's not just a crime thriller then - there are genuine moments that enter a more mystical level. And then there are the politics.. the movies politics have long been debated.. was Lang really making a point, when he developed a maniacal leader, who could through ranting and persuasion by violence, use chaos and currency problems to overthrow the state? Certainly Goebbels seemed to think so, and the movie was banned by the Nazis, and Lang left for Europe.
And then of course there are those signature Lang visuals. I loved the moment for example, when we see a lady waiting in the gloom on a wonderful set of sweeping pure lines of art deco stairs, only for a light to come on, changing the image instantly. The scenes involving the spectre of Mabuse were groundbreaking effects for the time, and yet Lang knew exactly how to use them, without it dominating or distracting from the movie (although apparently later he regretted their inclusion). And Lang did know how to wring tension out of a scene through visuals as much as through the setup or the plot device. The stairway shootout, the room filling with water, the assassination in the car are all memorable set pieces.
This particular edition comes nicely restored, though not to the same level of perfection as Metropolis was restored, and a somewhat dry but nonetheless informative commentary, along with a nice little booklet which delves into the movie in surprising depth.
Of course this is a movie almost 80 years old, and so needless to say it has dated.. it's not often now that the speeding vehicles in a chase have to overtake a horse and cart. The acting styles certainly can seem overegged and histrionic compared to more modern style.. though Otto Wernicke's Kommissar Lohmann (The same character from Lang's previous movie, `M') is simply a wonderful creation. But despite the issues that come with age, thanks to Lang's unique talent, this is indeed a testament, a fitting tribute to remind us of the care and imagination that can go into making movies, without cgi, without huge budgets, and yet still create something both exciting and of artistic merit. Worth a shot, even if the thought of an octogenarian movie makes you nervous.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 30 Oct 2012 10:17:45 GMT
tsacky says:
Will Masters of Cinema release the 1st and 3rd part of Dr Mabuse on Blu-Ray?


In reply to an earlier post on 4 Nov 2012 15:03:46 GMT
Hi Tsack - sorry, I have no idea, I have not heard of any plans. Probably that's something you'll only get an answer to if you ask them directly.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Nov 2012 03:15:13 GMT
tsacky says:
Thanks Stephen.

I contacted them yesterday and here's the answer :"Not any time soon unfortunately - not until proper HD masters are made."

Posted on 26 Nov 2012 22:27:24 GMT
A. S. Potts says:
While your point about Lang's sophisticated use of sound is well made and while I concur with your generally positive view of the film and this release, I would take issue with a couple of points.

With regard to Lang's difficulties with Goebbels; your comment seems to perpetuate the idea promulgated by Lotte Eisner that due to the regimes disfavour Lang immediately fled Germany for France [incidental, Nazi Germany was in Europe, so he didn't leave for Europe, as you say]. In fact, Lang was preparing a film in France, and he spent the best part of 1933 going back and forth between Paris and Berlin gradually removing his huge fortune to safety without any problem. It is Lang's own myth making once in the USA that tells us of his hurried flight from Germany after his undocumented encounter with Goebbels, that's to say the meeting is not in Goebbels diary. One can't say it didn't take place but there's no evidence that it did. Whereas, it's now an historically documented fact that Lang was travelling back to Germany well after the incident was supposed to have taken place.

Next, I really would have to dispute the assertion that the simple double exposure of Mabuse's spectre, however well realised, was a groundbreaking effect in 1933. I believe that even Lang wished in hindsight that he hadn't used such a cheap trick. Far more sophisticated visual effects requiring far more expertise can be found in his and almost any other German film of the 20's.

Finally, a more subjective point rather than an issue of fact, but I really don't find any merit in invoking the criterion of datedness when it comes to critiquing works of art, including films.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Nov 2012 08:52:02 GMT
Thank you, A.S. Potts, I bow to your greater experience in 1920's European cinema. My comments were based almost entirely on the material provided on the disc itself. It was from Lang's interview I made the comment about his departure from Germany, but as you say this was a myth perpetuated from him, and by all accounts he was notoriously unreliable in telling the truth. As far as the spectre, I know that Lang subsequently thought better of including the effect,. but not because the effect was not relatively cutting edge, but because he felt narratively it was a poor device. Would you agree with that..? Finally, as for datedness, I couldn't agree with you more in terms it has no place in determining whether a film is 'good' or 'bad', hence taking the time to review such films and my growing appreciation for silent cinema. However, it's always worth putting the movie into its historical context, and acknowledged where attitudes and styles have changed, without necessarily thinking less of the film itself for that. In short, the age of the film is just as much a part of the character of the film and should be brought into a review of the film. I would say particularly so, since writing a positive review of a film such as this I would hope to encourage someone who may not have watched such an old film before to consider it, and acknowledging the source of their likely reservation is then valid. Any thoughts..?

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Nov 2012 02:38:19 GMT
A. S. Potts says:
Hello, thanks for your positive response.
Well, I think we've put the Lang/Goebbels issue to bed.

With regard to the spectre I would still contend that the super-imposition was a tried and tested effect, being present almost at the inception of cinema in the 1890's or pretty soon thereafter. The audience at the time of Mabuse would have been very well familiar with such an effect however disconcerting the image. I would agree that it is a poorly conceived narrative devise in this case and I feel that even in 1933 it must have looked rather old fashioned by comparison with the modernity of the film. On the other hand the sequence in the his cell where Hofmeister is seen in a deranged state talking on a non-existent 'phone and where the furniture and equipment of an office appears, but all made of glowing transparent glass; this is an exceptional use of super-imposition both in its conception and design. Much more impressive than the Mabuse spectre and beautifully executed.

Although I take rather a hard line by assuming that most readers have a certain level of knowledge, of course offering a context is going to be useful. Yes, it may sometimes be necessary to alert the uninitiated to the fact that older films, particularly silent ones contain acting techniques that are unfamiliar, which they may find hilarious, and are paced somewhat slower than modern tastes can bear. I know from experience that these obstacles are sometimes too great a challenge, even for those purporting to study the history of cinema. However, what niggles me are the many reviewer on here that use the term dated as if it were an objective criterion, a means of defining quality.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Apr 2013 00:57:53 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 Apr 2013 01:13:10 BDT
A. Holliday says:
AS Potts makes a very good point regarding the use of 'dated' as a criterion for quality - as I discovered recently when a friend told me Avatar was 'infinitely' (?) better than Citizen Kane - which was 'probably a good film in its day' but we're 'more sophisticated' now. To my mind if something's good, its good, regardless of when it was made. Context can be important (especially to explain sub-texts, comments on issues of the day, to highlight technical innovations, etc) but can't be the final arbiter on the quality itself of the work in question. Avatar for example (now why did I think of that?!) will probably stand, in historical context, for its technical innovations (although once we start calling CGI 'cartoons' this may change), but in every other regard its the sort of film and plot Buster Keaton would have parodied in 1920.

Posted on 4 May 2013 20:04:03 BDT
This isn't addressed at anyone on here, but I hate it when people say "it was good in its day". This kind of smug, generational ethnocentrism and the exceptionalist attitude it often implies about our culture (which is mostly an embarrassment, cinema and music especially being less art forms these days than forms of annoyance) is just nauseating, an inexhaustible source of vomit and despair. It as if they are saying quality accrues with time, that human culture is on a gradually ascending historical curve, and things are just getting better and better, and that social, cultural, political, economic and institutional factors have no bearing whatsoever. It is just cognitive laziness. People, ever keen to conserve cognitive energy, will believe any old rubbish, especially if it makes them feel smug and superior.

Yet in truth this teleological view of film history has nothing to do with the truth. Evolution is not semantically interchangeable with progress. Technological progress does not imply creative progress.

As far as I am concerned we have no more reason to be smug about our cinema than did the Nazis. Modern mainstream cinema in the west subsumes all artists (if mere functionaries and assembly-line workers can be described as artists) under the same creatively crippling language, as Peter Watkins has shown, yet the demotic hordes, in their limitless capacity for smugness, love to criticize and moralize with a backwards gaze, guffawing fatuously at the past, safely ensconsed in the notion that everything is so much better now, that we are the generation that got things right, our institutions, artistic figures and products being so self-evidently better than everything that came before. It is this kind of complacency and unwillingness to have an honest reckoning with our culture that allows it to degenerate.

I suppose my attitude in this regards has been conditioned by the traumatic experience I had showing some arch-buffoon Nosferatu when I was an adolescent, only to have him laugh contemptuously and with redoubtable, impregnable self-confidence (the kind of self-confidence that accrues to stupidity, rendering argument an exercise in futility) assert how objectively awful it is.

You can't argue with the kind of person that utters the kind of obscene drivel of which "it was good for its day" is a perfect example. Such people assume that the axioms of modern Hollywood cinema are absolute truths. Their emotional intolerance to films that deviate from the rigid and creatively and imaginatively stultifying codes and conventions of modern Hollywood cinema (and, given the aggressive global expansionism of modern Hollywood cinema, the same applies to mainstream cinema over the world) is a product of over-exposure to that kind of cinema, which is all constructed according to the same uninspiring, insipid standard. Just like anyone who fails to or doesn't want to live up to the normative expectations of how one should behave, think, and experience in modern society, is described as insane or mentally ill, by the same token any film that doesn't fulfill the normative expectations of modern society regarding how a film should be made is described as mad, pretentious etc..

I say it's no better than the cinema from the era of the Third Reich (and to be honest with you, I'd rather watch some piece of thinly veiled Nazi propaganda than "We bought a Zoo", or some sort of film about a cute anthropomorphic tree or something, I don't know); just like in Nazi Germany (where also the artist's latitude for creative and ideological self-expression was strictly circumscribed), everything is being made to a standard which, over and above the fact that these standards are made by philistines, is the very enemy of creativity. The same messages are being imparted in the same style and form, notwithstanding genre-based discontinuities, though most people are sufficiently ignorant (cinematographically) for this horrible lack of diversity and dissension to escape their awareness. Modern Western film culture could aptly be described as monocultural in character.

As for Avatar, I would say the rise of CGI is pretty much coeval with the degeneration of the artform itself.
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