- Director: Fritz Lang
- Writers: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, based on the novel Doctor Mabuse by Norbert Jacques
- Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede-Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Alfred Abel, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, George John, Charles Puffy, Grete Berger, and Julius Falkenstein
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app)
Before there was Lex Luthor, Thanos, or Ernst Blofeld, there was Dr. Mabuse, sort of the the prototype supervillain. He is a criminal mastermind with his fingers in a hundred different pies, a master of disguise, and also a mind-controlling hypnotist, which I am given to understand in 1922 was about as badass as you could make someone. The great director Fritz Lang opens his movie with a twenty-minute sequence that’s not particularly related to the rest of the movie except it introduces the characters, a trope I didn’t think was a thing until much later, and before he’s done Mabuse has sort-of-but-not-really stolen an economic agreement and kind of brought down the economy of Switzerland, I think? Given its date and its running time (a total of four hours, though it was meant to be shown in theaters in multiple installments), I found Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler to be not only watchable, but remarkably exciting. I did not know that there was a movie this old with a straight-up action sequences, like a car chase, that genuinely work the same way one would today, but here it is.
Mabuse is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who was one of several actors in the movie who also appeared in several other films from Lang. Klein-Rogge, for example, also played the seminal “mad scientist” role in Lang’s Metropolis a few years later. The main plot of the story concerns the pursuit of Mabuse by a local Prosecutor (I found it interesting that he was doing this and not, say, a policeman), Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). Von Wenk seeks to take down a criminal he calls “the Great Unknown,” who is responsible for a series of weird hypnosis incidents at card games, among other problems. He eventually (stupidly, in my opinion) enlists the help of a local heiress named “Countess Told” (Gertrude Welcker), which ends badly with Told being captured by Mabuse and her father (Alfred Abel) completely disgraced after Mabuse forces him to cheat at cards with his friends. This development serves as the “cliffhanger” at the end of one of the installments. Dr. Mabuse seems like an example of what the Criterion Channel (promoting its addition of another crime serial of a similar time period, Les Vampires from France) recently called “Vintage Binge Viewing.”
Von Wenk continues his pursuit of Mabuse, including repeated interrogation of Mabuse’s sometime-girlfriend, a Folies Bergére dancer named Cara Carozza (Norwegian actress Aud Egede-Nissen), who refuses to talk because she’s just too hung up on him. Cara is a somewhat deconstructed version of a “Vamp,” a classic 1920s type that would, to some degree, sort of evolve over the years into what we’d call a Femme Fatale, though it’s not quite the same thing. I say deconstructed because it’s more that Cara sees herself as a “Vamp” than that she actually is one, and in the end her continued devotion to Mabuse is her downfall. He, meanwhile, is spending his time trying to seduce Countess Told, who mostly seems to want to strike “I’m about to faint” poses. In the end, after some actually decent action sequences, Von Wenk corners Mabuse in his basement and takes him away, giving us a sense of finality but not so much so that there couldn’t be multiple sequels (there were).
Lang’s command of the medium is much more involved than what most people’s stereotypes of silent movies would look like. Some of this is obvious to us today, and some of it isn’t. One car chase blew contemporary audiences away because it took place outdoors at night, which was something movies just weren’t doing in 1922 because of the lighting difficulties involved. More showy today are some of the hypnosis sequences, which Lang communicates by having his characters fade into otherworldly backgrounds and flashing words on the screen in different sizes. In one very memorable sequence, Mabuse (in disguise as an old man named “Tsi Nan Fu”) plays cards against Von Wenk and tries to hypnotize him into losing. Mabuse’s repeated command, “Du nimmst!” (literally “you take,” I think he’s trying to get him to draw a card), flashes across the screen in different sizes and fonts. We see Von Wenk pick up his cards from the table only to reveal the words “Tsi Nan Fu” literally written on the table underneath them. I am honestly not 100% sure, in a world before editing software or digital effects anything, exactly how Lang did this stuff, but it works super well. In another memorable sequence, Mabuse manipulates Count Told into committing suicide after his daughter refuses him, which he does by causing the Count to see images of himself, berating and accusing him of cheating, closing in from all directions. These ghostly images reappear, of Mabuse’s own victims, near the climax of the movie, indicating Mabuse is losing his mind.
If this sounds like a bunch of weirdness surrounding some card games, I mean, yeah, it is. But I just had a great time with this movie. On the idea that this dude hypnotizes his card game opponents this movie has poisonings, bombings, shoot-outs, mind control, damsels in distress, and a bunch of other things besides. Much has been written on its underlying meaning and what Lang intended (he based it on a novel that wasn’t actually finished yet, with a plot that was apparently much-changed). In the sequels, which came out during the rise to power of the Nazis, it was fairly clear that Lang was analogizing Mabuse’s hypnotic power over his victims to that of Hitler and other similar dictators over the masses. In 1922, the explanation may be simply that he was delivering this image of a Weimar society that had descended into chaos and immorality, wrapped up in an easy-to-swallow thriller package. This is a portrayal of Germany-as-dystopia, a world where it was possible for madmen to build themselves empires. With car chases.
The title of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is usually translated as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. I can report that I have been very vaguely trying to learn German lately and the word “Spieler” is doing an awful lot of work all through this movie. It literally means “player,” as in someone who plays a game, but I am told that it can also mean “player” in a more figurative sense, as in a “playah,” so to speak. And, while obviously he is literally portrayed as a guy who plays cards a lot, I think the movie wants us to know that it means the term in basically every sense possible. Mabuse is basically “playing” everyone in this movie, and if I’m understanding correctly that is part of the intended meaning.
A word, finally, on Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife and frequent collaborator. She is credited with co-writing several of Lang’s most famous works, including not only this movie but also Metropolis and M. She was actually first romantically involved with Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the actor who plays Dr. Mabuse, and he suggested her to Lang to work on the screenplay for this movie. After the success of Dr. Mabuse (and the death of Lang’s first wife), he and von Harbou married later in 1922. She was also an actress, who played prominent roles in several of Lang’s films, most prominently Metropolis, and also became heavily involved in protests against the criminalization of abortion in Germany at the time. Then, in 1933 (by coincidence during the filming of a Dr. Mabuse sequel), Lang caught von Harbou in bed with a much younger man and immediately divorced her, never mind that he had been sleeping around on her for years. While Lang soon fled the Nazis to America, von Harbou remained in Germany and did join the Nazi party, though she always claimed she did so in order to attempt to protect Indian immigrants in Germany (such as her second husband). Though held in British prison camp for several months in 1945 as a Nazi sympathizer, she was later released and even wrote the 1951 Hollywood remake of M. She would die after breaking her hip in 1954, and five years later Lang would direct a film based on one of her novels, Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb).