not in our stars, but in ourselves
By now, you’ve probably gotten the idea that I love my early-’30s Hollywood films. They’re funny, sexy, weird, and wonderful. They’re also, more often than not, teeming with words, words, words. Not that I mind – I enjoy newspaperman palaver as much as anyone – but the contrast between what was happening in Hollywood and what was happening in Berlin was astonishing. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), for instance, doesn’t have a word of dialogue, monologue, soliloquy, or anything else until five and a half minutes of wordless action have passed. And I do mean action. Explosions, madness, criminal conspiracies – Mabuse has it all.
This film is a sequel to Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is in an asylum, scribbling pages and pages of grandiose suggestions for perfect crimes. Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.), who runs the asylum, reads these papers with interest. For years, Mabuse had been motionless in his cell, in an apparent state of shock; over time, he began to write in the air; then, when he was supplied with pencil and paper, he began to scrawl meaninglessly, then to write letters, then to write nonsense sentences, and finally to write criminal treatises. Meanwhile, Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is trying to solve several crimes: one involving an old friend of his who called in a panic, claiming to have discovered a massive criminal conspiracy, and then disappeared; the other involving a doctor who was shot dead in his car at an intersection. Everything seems to lead back to Mabuse…until Mabuse dies. Yet the crimes continue.
Interestingly enough, none other than Josef Goebbels played an important role in the premiere of Dr. Mabuse. That is to say, he ensured that the film never premiered in Germany. In January 1933, Hitler came to power, and within two months he made Goebbels his propaganda minister. Mabuse was scheduled to be released on 24 March 1933, but Goebbels forbade it. And why would he have done that? Without giving away too much, Mabuse does not inspire confidence in authority figures. It also provides, shall we say, encouragement for people to overthrow their criminally insane rulers. Encouragement and a couple of blueprints. Mabuse may seem to be a mere mystery story, not unlike its coevals: the Nick Carter series, or Arsène Lupin series, or Sherlock Holmes series – whatever you prefer. But we’re in Germany, at almost the precise moment of change between the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Lang’s film is one of the last looks into the national psyche before it was hypnotized into Nazism. It shows a corrupt world where it’s more profitable to be a criminal than to try to get an honest job, a world where you can’t even trust your own doctor. Mabuse writes a rambling manifesto (while alone in his cell – remind you of anyone?) about the “empire of crime,” and how its only purpose is to keep people – ordinary people, not fellow criminals – on the verge of panic and madness at all times. No wonder Goebbels didn’t like the movie.
I am always pleased to note differences between myself and Goebbels, so you can imagine how happy I am to say that I really like this movie. As mentioned, the sophisticated and sparing use of sound is masterful. It took the average Hollywood hack, skillful though he was, decades to catch up. And this was Lang’s second sound film – the first being M (1931) – so his achievement is all the more amazing. For instance: during the traffic execution, he uses the common occurrence of honking horns as camouflage for the murder. It seems like a simple idea – but it’s using sound in a far more clever way than most other 1933 films I can name off the top of my head.
Furthermore, I think that the modern police procedural (with examples ranging from the depths of Law & Order to the heights of The Wire) owes an immense debt to Lang; perhaps, more specifically, to “Tubby” Lohmann. Unlike Holmes or Lupin, he’s not a bored gentleman looking for things to do. He’s a schlubby policeman who’s just trying to make a little bit of sense out of a senseless world. It’s a hell of an action flick too, with obviously real explosions. Fritz Arno Wagner, the cinematographer, was in an advanced state of panic during the shoot because of Lang’s recklessness with the lives of cast and crew – all in the name of a great shot. The derring-do pays off spectacularly. You never expect to be on the edge of your seat when you’re watching a film from 1933; when it happens, it’s a delightful surprise.