When Fritz Lang returned to the character of Dr. Mabuse, the criminal
mastermind around which his first substantial hit, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler
based, a full ten years had gone by, and the fortunes of both his home
and his career had considerably changed.
For Germany, the class divide that was beginning to manifest itself (and
was one of the lynchpins for the plot of the first Mabuse film) at the time
Lang had directed the previous picture had exploded into a full-fledged
economic collapse. And the once prosperous Weimar republic had begun its
collapse, paving the way for the rise of National Socialism.
For Lang, the film for which he is now most remembered, Metropolis, had
bankrupted the UFA studios, ended the career of the producer Erich Pommer
had produced not only Metropolis, but several other of Lang's films and the
renowned Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and left him without the generous backing
a studio and the mentorship of an influential producer. It didn't help that
his next film, Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon) was also a costly flop.
At the start of the sound era, Lang found himself employed by the less
prestigious Nero studios, working for producer Seymour Nebenzal with
substantially fewer resources and the challenge of working within the new
framework of talking pictures. Although his first film for Nero was the
classic M (the other film for which he is most well known today), at the
the film was denounced in some circles as amoral, and did little to
But all of these forces would collide during the production of his second
final) production for Nero studios, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and would
to shape the film that I'd like to argue is his real masterpiece, now
in a Criterion Collection dvd that gives the film the classic treatment it
Having been locked up in an asylum for the ten years since the end of the
previous film, Mabuse has become something of a star patient to his
psychiatrist, Dr. Baum, who observes the criminal furiously writing what
be viewed as his version of Mein Kampf, a master plan for societal breakdown
that he titles The Empire of Crime.
As this is happening, the members of Berlin's underworld, still mysteriously
under Mabuse's absentee control, have been committing a series of robberies,
counterfeiting money, and gathering forces for putting Mabuse's ideas into
action. When a disgraced detective comes across their operation, he is
insane from fear before he can report anything to the police.
The police in this film, in a clever touch, are led by inspector Lohmann,
detective from Lang's previous film M, making this a sequel not only to the
previous Mabuse picture, but to Lang's classic detective thriller as well.
here, Lohmann is clearly out of his element, because by the half-hour mark
Mabuse has died in the asylum, and the film takes a turn into the
as well as the criminal, as Mabuse's ghost begins to influence Dr. Baum into
taking his place as a new Mabuse in order to carry out the ideas detailed in
The Empire of Crime.
For the next hour, the film becomes a full-on action packed thriller, as the
criminals begin their operations, with Lohmann in pursuit of his man, not
realizing exactly what it is he's chasing. A man accustomed to reason and
facts, he finds himself in a mystery in which the facts of the case matter
than the ideas behind the facts ... and by the time he discovers who he
to be chasing after, it may be too late, because The Empire of Crime has
put into action with a series of terrorist activities.
One of the theories consistently put forward about the film is that the film
Lang's indictment of the Nazi regime. This is supported in part by some of
ideas in The Empire of Crime that echo Nazi slogans, such as the crushing of
individual will. But as David Kalat points out in his amazingly researched
thought-out commentary track, this is only partially true.
The film itself argues against fascism in the abstract, not necessarily
National Socialism in particular. Kalat points out that the film had
been written before Hitler came into power in 1933, and Lang, who thoroughly
planned out his films like Hitchcock and made little to no room for
improvisation on his sets, may have been prescient about the rise of Hitler
couldn't possibly have known the specifics of what would happen. Also, his
wife at the time, Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay based on Lang's
story, went on to become a member of the Nazi party and a close friend of
In addition to the anti-fascist sentiments in the film, there are also the
elements that make the film eerie for modern viewers, and that is the
plans for terrorist activity contained in Mabuse's "testament". Attacks on
chemical plants, railroad lines, interference with communication and
systems -- these, even more so than the anti-fascist statements, were what
served to get the film banned by the Nazi regime, because they feared that
film showed (and they were right in this respect), "that any state can be
brought down by violent means". These are ideas that are just as explosive
today as they were back in 1933.
In addition to the commentary and amazing transfer on the first disc of the
(even presented in the unusual aspect ratio of 1:19.1, with small bars on
sides of the screen -- a practice identified in the commentary as
"pillarboxing"), there is a second set of extras that provide an interesting
look at the people behind the film, Fritz Lang and the writer Norbaert
who wrote the series of novels that introduced the character of Mabuse to
German pop culture. (The character is as recognizable in Germany as Vito
Corleone is here in America.)
It's interesting that the commentary points out that Fritz Lang's oft-told
tale, that he was summoned to a meeting with Joseph Goebbels and basically
offered control of the German film industry (the role that Leni Riefenstahl
eventually took on) despite the fact that he was jewish (the story goes that
Goebbels responded "we decide who's a jew and who isn't"), and then left the
country that night with just the clothes on his back, was basically not
The facts, such as a look at Lang's passport at the time, do not bear the
out. And yet the interview with Fritz Lang on the second disc shows him
recounting, even acting out, this story with considerable attention to
Also on the second disc is an interview with Rudolph Schundler, who plays
of the main heavies in the film (and who also, interestingly enough, played
small role in Dario Argento's Suspiria some thirty-odd years later), who
recounts his memories of working with Lang on the film and his own feelings
about the Nazis in a well-made short film from the 1980's. There's also a
brief piece about Norbaert Jacques, and his reactions to both of Lang's
pictures (he died before Lang made a third Mabuse film, The 1000 Eyes of Dr.
Mabuse that began a new cycle of Mabuse pictures made by other directors in
But the lengthiest extra on the second disc is a completely different
of the movie -- an alternate French version that was filmed by Lang at the
time as the German original (sort of like the Spanish version of Tod
Dracula) with French actors and cut together by a French editor. Unlike the
Spanish version of Browning's film, however, there's no way one could argue
this cut is superior. While it was directed by Lang and therefore keeps the
striking compositions that are part of his trademark style, the cast isn't
effective and several key scenes are either shortened or completely removed,
thus breaking the overall mood of the story. But it's worth a look all the
same, if for no other reason than to see the take of the film's French
on Lang's Germanic style and storytelling.
Galleries of stills and promotional materials round out the extras on disc
along with a brief essay included in the package by Fritz Lang biographer
Gunning, whose understanding of the film is on a par with Kalat's, and just
informative, if brief.
It's amazing how a film made almost 75 years ago could be so timely to our
world today, but that's the power of a great artist's vision ... and it
actually be even more scary today (at least to American audiences) than when
was first released.