not in our stars, but in ourselves
I comfort myself with the knowledge that, for the average cinephile of my generation, it’s not terribly unusual to have seen The Testament of Dr. Mabuse before having seen its predecessor, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Well, okay: it’s probably not terribly common for a dreaded millennial to have seen either. But the point is this: Fritz Lang’s 1933 sequel, available as a Criterion Collection release, is easier both to find and to watch: it clocks in at about two hours, whereas Dr. Mabuse the Gambler runs for a whopping four and a half hours, is available through on DVD only through the smaller (but still terrific) Kino Lorber label, and generally poses a more difficult task for anyone not currently enrolled in film school who seeks to watch it. Thankfully, the gods at TCM are merciful and just, and aired the film last week.
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a respected psychoanalyst who, in his free time, plots elaborate criminal conspiracies. For the most part, he accomplishes this via hypnosis in underground gambling dens: he dons a disguise, finds a rich and weak-minded player to prey upon, and cleans up tidily. He also dabbles in counterfeiting and the odd stock market panic: early in the film, two of his underlings steal an important international treatise between Germany and Holland (I think), and Mabuse – disguised as ever – uses the ensuing chaos to buy hundreds of shares when the market crashes, and then to sell when it skyrockets after the crisis passes. He decides to swindle the wealthy heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) next: first by mesmerizing him into losing a small fortune at cards, and then more extensively through the influence of Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). Carozza is a celebrated dancer at the Folies Bergère, where Hull has lately admired her, and she also happens to be in love with Mabuse. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) begins to investigate Hull’s case. This leads him into another underground gambling den – where, sure enough, Mabuse is there in disguise, using his glasses to control von Wenk’s mind. Von Wenk also meets the Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker) while he’s there. She’s trapped in a dull marriage of convenience (the Count is heavily coded as homosexual), so she escapes by gambling, getting drunk, and flirting with strange men. Von Wenk quite likes her, it’s clear, but he’s a man on a mission: he must find out who is behind all these powerful men being ruined at card games and elsewhere. After a raid at a club, Hull is murdered by one of Mabuse’s goons, but Carozza is arrested for it. Hoping to appeal to her as a woman, von Wenk sends in the Countess – but she realizes Carozza really loves the mad doctor, and refuses to help him. Shortly thereafter, Mabuse manages to invite himself to a party at the Tolds’ house, where he hypnotizes the Count into cheating at cards and abducts the lovely Countess in the ensuing confusion. Von Wenk finally manages to figure out that Mabuse has been behind all the madness all along, and pursues him ruthlessly. Mabuse goes insane, confronted by the ghosts of all he’s had killed, and languishes in an asylum for a decade or so.
As I said: it’s four and a half hours. Lots of plot. Nevertheless, it never for a moment feels bloated or like it’s got too much fat on it (save, perhaps, for Thea von Harbou’s awfully wordy intertitles). The only other film of similar length, scope, action and drama that I can recall as similarly unbloated is Seven Samurai. And not to take anything away from Kurosawa, but, well, movies had been around for a long time by then. Lang was helping to perfect the medium back in 1922, and he did so with such sophistication, originality, and assuredness that it boggles the mind. The rules of film grammar were still relatively fluid at the time, remember, so his ability to help his audience understand exactly how and when Mabuse invades one of his victim’s minds – without any airy-fairy dream sequences, without anything especially fancy or fantastical – is quite a coup. He also, just quietly, helped to perfect the cinematic criminal mastermind: not merely some mustache-twirling creep, but a shrewd and canny operator with vision, initiative, ambition, and – it must be said – considerable charm. Mabuse isn’t exactly the cutest guy in the world, but he has a seductive power that takes in everyone he meets: male and female, gay and straight, blue blood and blue collar. He’s a brute, but he’s a fascinating one.
It is strange to think that this came out a year before Hitler’s beer hall putsch, several years before the publication of Mein Kampf, and over a decade before the Nazis officially took power. It’s strange because it predicts it all so accurately: the charismatic kingpin who succeeds in influencing an entire city, or an entire country, into doing things they would ordinarily have considered unconscionable. Michael Sicinski explains this trope – repeated throughout Weimar cinema, enacted in Nazi Germany – quite well in his essay for Fandor:
In his classic 1947 study of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, the renowned critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer argued that the cinema leading up to the Third Reich consistently depicted evil, charismatic men who employed hypnotism or other nefarious means to exert their will over seemingly ordinary Germans. What’s more, Kracauer claimed that, despite the obvious criminality and diabolical character of these men on the film’s surfaces, most of the films, Dr. Mabuse included, displayed the unconscious desirability of losing control to the stronger man—the Freudian uncanny, as it were, wherein the horrifying loss of the self has an unexpectedly masochistic appeal. We see this most of all in the character of Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen) the nightclub dancer who all but throws herself at the madman. But the weak-willed Count Told (Alfred Abel), who becomes a card cheat and a maniacal hermit under Mabuse’s influence, also seems to take some unspoken pleasure in buckling under Herr Doktor’s all-enveloping influence.
Meaning in oblivion, joy in release: sex and death, constant bedfellows, if you ask Freud. Strange and troubling, but true throughout history.
While I was reading up on this, just as an aside, I found that Klein-Rogge had been married to screenwriter von Harbou, but she left him for Lang in 1920 or 1921. When Lang’s wife committed suicide (an act that, apparently, only Lang and von Harbou witnessed), the lovebirds were free to marry. And they did. And yet, Klein-Rogge kept working with both of them: with Lang, repeatedly, throughout the ’20s and early ’30s; and then with von Harbou, after Lang divorced her when she decided to stay in Germany and throw her support behind the Nazis. From the time the Nazis came to power, however, Klein-Rogge’s film roles – though numerous – diminished to the point where they were effectively bit parts. Finally, he retired from the screen in 1942, and died in near-obscurity in 1955. I find it all horribly sad. Maybe they were all very Contintental about it; maybe they were all fine with wife-swapping; I don’t know. The idea that this strange-looking man, a great actor and artist in his own right, saw his only fortunes tied to his ex-wife’s genius husband, and then saw those fortunes dwindle to nothing when the genius husband left, to be known only as the bad guy in a few movies that only nerds will ever bother to watch – well, I think that’s a little bit heartbreaking. You all know I’m a sap. Don’t look so surprised.