Monday, 2 July 2012

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
I am a sucker for early German films. It is not just that they are technically superior to their contemporaries, there is also a depth to the stories, an emotional angle to their portraits that, if not missing elsewhere is usually less pronounced.

Impressively the fertile ground for all these films was an impoverished and exhausted country with little resources to spare for something as non-vital as movie making. That is food for thought.

“Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” is not one of my favorites of these German movies, but it is not bad either. In many ways it reminds me of the earlier “Les Vampires”, only made with much more skill and expertise.

With its very long running time (more than 3 hours) it feels more like a serial with shorter cycles ending with a cliffhanger. I even get the impression that Fritz Lang may not even have decided on the second half when he filmed the first. Even then it does eventually tie up in the end.

Dr. Mabuse is a super criminal. He is Al Capone, Lex Luthor, The Joker, the spider controlling his puppets and a plague to the civil world of ordinary life. As far as I know he is the first one of his kind. The story opens with him through his superior machinations cornering the stock market, leaving everybody broke but himself. The stage is set, now we know: He is bad ass.

The dear Doctor has a special skill. The can hypnotize his victims into almost anything. It is not really clear how this works and even for an audience who take super heroes’ special powers for granted Dr. Mabuse’s super-hypnotic-mind-control skill seems a bit ridiculous. Though at the time I am sure it made perfect sense.

With this skill he controls a mighty network. How vast is not entirely clear but definitely he is public enemy number one. Oh, I almost forgot his second impressive skill: Disguise! Dr. Mabuse could be anybody around you. Nobody is safe.

Of course there is a hero as well represented by a police detective, but like in “Les Vampires” he is not remotely as interesting as the great Doctor.

Most of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two and the only really amazing thing about that is that the great Doctor does not easily eliminate this annoyance of a policeman. Instead it ends with Mabuse’s world imploding on itself and a good old fashioned shoot-out.

Given the premise of the story I was more entertained by this than I maybe want to admit. I do not fully understand why the entire charade has to last 3 hours+, but maybe we are just watching in quick succession what was intended as a serial. That is at least my theory.

Fritz Lang would go on to make great things, including one of my all-time favorites “M”, and I see “Dr. Mabuse” mostly as a practice session or a social commentary on the economic anarchy of post-WWI Germany. But that is also interesting.


  1. You are probably correct about this being a commentary of post-WWI Germany. Just imagine if Hitler's Mein Kamf had been released a few years earlier!

    What I like about all of Fritz Lang's films are their artistic designs. He had an eye for creating dark, bleak moods and that certainly is what this film runs over with. Surely not one of his best, but still an interesting product of its historical time place.

    1. Yes, I agree. Lang seems to be at heart a cinematographer. I like his designs more than anything in his movies.