Plot-wise Dr Mabuse is little more than a crime thriller embellished with lots of ‘will to power’ stuff, not really enough story to fill four and a half hours. Fortunately the film is a game of two halves, each of these further divided into chapters. With the help of the double DVD format, the viewer can watch it in parts as if it was an art house Saturday morning serial. Although much of the acting is marked by the broad melodramatic gestures that often characterise silent film performances, the male leads in Dr Mabuse, Rudolf Klein-Rogge in the title role and Bernard Goetzke as his antagonist State Prosecutor Wenke are noticeably restrained. This is in marked contrast to the hand wringing and eye rolling of their respective female captives Countess Told (Gertrude Welker) and Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Niffen). Perhaps this contrast in acting styles between the male and female leads is meant to emphasise the parallels between the two adversaries, both of whom are shown in alternating scenes taunting the women they have incarcerated. Admittedly Mabuse’s intentions are somewhat more malevolent than those of Wenke, who is investigating the criminal activities of the seemingly untouchable Mabuse, instantly recognisable to the viewer under his various disguises because of his penetrating, hypnotic gaze. One of his personae resembles Karl Marx crossed with a Willy Rushton. Another is a revolutionary firebrand, who persuades a crowd of drinkers to form a mob to demand the release of one of Mabuse’s gang from the police; by putting it about that he is one of their comrades. But it’s a ruse so that the prisoner can be assassinated by one of Mabuse’s snipers to prevent him from squealing!
This sequence, as well as the manhunt plot, anticipates Lang’s 1930 talkie M, in which the criminal underworld form a vigilante search party to track down Peter Lorre’s child murderer. The scene also reflects the social background of heightened class conflict in inter-war Germany, between a highly combative working class buoyed by the apparent gains of the Russian revolution, and cutthroat, get-rich-quick bourgeoisie of the ‘new rich’, portrayed in the film as bloated money-grabbers in true Georg Grosz style.
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Dr Mabuse also foreshadows another of Lang’s acknowledged masterpieces in the presence of Klein-Rogge as Mabuse, who was later to play the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis.
In adapting Norbert Jacques’ novel for the screen, Thea von Harbou transferred the action of Dr Mabuse from the Bavarian capital Munich to the more decadent surroundings of Berlin. This allows Lang free reign to his extravagant vision of German society in the era of the Weimar Republic, via the story of the rise and fall of Nietzchean gangster Mabuse. This Napoleon of crime always seems to be surrounded by counterfeit money and playing cards, and the opening shots show him splaying a selection of photographs of himself in various disguises as if they made up a poker hand. The movie’s first inter-title, Mabuse to his subordinate Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larringa), immediately sets the tone of heady, melodramatic excess:
“You have taken cocaine again, Spoerri! You know that I do not tolerate that! If I see you one more time in such a state I will drive you out like a dog.” To which Spoerri replies that if Dr Mabuse carries out his threat, he will shoot himself in the head. This tone is constantly reinforced throughout the four and a half hour film by a visual style that can best be described as expressionist chic – at times even expressionist kitsch. Lang often uses long shots that take full advantage of Otto Hunte and Carl Stahl-Urach’s lavish production design, with its references to Gaudi and Bauhaus. In some of the scenes, especially those in what could be described as 1920s’ Berlin’s answer to lap-dancing clubs, there is a sense of intoxicating, hallucinatory delirium, for instance the bizarre cabaret act where a woman is chased by two giant heads, like Easter Island statues with huge, phallic noses. Dr Mabuse is full of such striking cinematic images, such as the ring of hands on the table at a séance, or the forest of top hats in the stock exchange, dissolving to the empty trading hall littered with slips of paper, with the face of Mabuse’s latest alter ego superimposed on it. Then there is the closing sequence of the film, which shows Mabuse trapped like a rat in his bolthole in the sewers, with the blind old men who have been staffing his counterfeit sweatshop, and who transform into the ghosts of Mabuse’s victims. In a scene that recalls Gloucester’s last stand in Shakespeare’s Richard III; these spectres of Mabuse’s guilty conscience taunt the defeated master criminal into playing a final hand. The police find him pathetically scrabbling around in the dirt among his among counterfeit notes, which he has strewn about the workshop in an orgiastic frenzy of despair.
The pace sags towards the end of the first disc “The great Gambler – a picture pf our time” and the beginning of the second “Inferno. A game of people of our time,” with lengthy static scenes set in Carossa’s prison cell and Countess Told’s place of confinement, but at 270 minutes, it would be surprising if it didn’t. Nevertheless, Dr Mabuse, The Gambler is not such an unassailable classic that a spot of judicious editing wouldn’t go amiss.
If four and a half hours of silent, German cinema aren’t enough for you, you can also watch documentaries about Norbert Jacques, the novelist who created the character of Mabuse, and a visual essay about the themes of the film. The most interesting feature is the piece about Aljioscha Zimmerman’s specially composed musical soundtrack, an inspired mixture of bolero, jazz and funeral tango played on piano, violin, violincello, clavier, cowbell and glockenspiel.