Fritz Lang’s Silent Evil Genius in High Definition



Language:  Silent, with German Intertitles and English Subtitles

dr. marbuse posterBefore any Bond villain; before Mrs. John Iselin or Hannibal Lecter or Keyser Soze; before the Joker was watching the world burn, there was Dr. Mabuse – perhaps the earliest cinematic super-villain and still among the best.

Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler is a 1922 masterpiece from director Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M); the sprawling, episodic tale of one dogged cop’s quest to take down a criminal mastermind.   The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray is mastered from a 2000 restoration, the longest version available.  This new release is stunning to look at:  sharp, rich, vivid even in black and white.  It also has a terrific score by composer Alijoscha Zimm.  In a movie so concerned with hypnotism and the power of the human will, Zimm’s score works like its own kind of spell, drawing the viewer deeper into Dr. Mabuse’s nightmarish world.

The basic premise is familiar to us now,  having been repeated so many times through film history.  One earnest but human-sized police officer pitted against a genius with seemingly unlimited resources.   State Prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) has chiseled features and a ramrod spine.  He commands his staff with authority and pursues justice fearlessly, but he still seems over-matched by Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge).  Mabuse is a psychoanalyst, hypnotist, card sharp, and master of disguise.  Wherever someone is being being cheated, betrayed, or destroyed, you can bet that Dr. Mabuse is there, pulling the strings.  He relishes big scores (manipulating the stock market) and small (hypnotizing a rich young man, Hull, into losing a large sum at the card table).  But it’s not about the money:  Dr. Mabuse prints his own counterfeit bills, and never even collects on Hull’s gambling debt.  What drives Mabuse is playing games with people’s lives, manipulating the weak willed in order to glory in his own power over them.  He does what he does simply because he can.

Seance Scene in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler...22 May 1922, Germany --- Seance scene in the German silent film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (in English Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler) directed by Fritz Lang and starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge. --- Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler is connected to other great German expressionist films of the period – films like Nosferatu, The Golem, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  And yet, the visual style is actually much less expressionistic.  Lang said that he wanted Dr. Mabuse to be more realistic, more obviously rooted in the real world of the Weimar Republic.  Still, the hallucinations that Mabuse both inflicts and experiences himself, and some of the bizarre settings (a casino in which the entire room is a gaming table, a seance set in the midst of an expressionist art collection) give the film an otherworldly quality.

Film historians have made much of the number of Weimar era films about evil men exerting their wills over the masses.  Was this somehow a foreshadowing of the rise of Hitler?  Lang himself denied this theory, saying that he wanted Mabuse to represent “the Nietzschean ubermensch at its worst”.  But one might argue that Hitler was, himself, that Nietzschean ubermensch.  Perhaps Lang didn’t see Hitler coming, but that doesn’t negate the parallels.  Weimar Germany was in economic, political and moral chaos.   That was rich soil for the rise of despotism,  just as Mabuse finds the bored, lonely and morally bankrupt upper class in the gambling dens to be fine targets for his “games”.

dr. marbuse 3The restored version of Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler is 270 minutes long, a significant time commitment.  But it’s divided into two halves and each half is divided into several acts, making it easy to watch the movie in parts (if 4 1/2 hours straight doesn’t work for you).  Kino Lorber’s release also includes a 52 minute documentary in three parts.  Particularly valuable is interview footage with Lang discussing the film.