Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1922 Germany was in economic and political chaos. The Weimar Republic seemed to consist of
a starving working class, a wealthy uber-class that could afford the highest luxuries, and a growing
underworld of criminals. With society falling apart and people searching for answers, author Norbert
Jacques took the lead of the popular French serial villain Fantomas, and concocted a German supervillain
named Dr. Mabuse. Fritz Lang's film version so popularized the character that now, 80 years later,
the average German knows exactly who Mabuse is, even though his last official film incarnation was over
thirty years ago.
This two-part film started the craze; and Image's handsome David Shephard restoration makes it look
far better than the smeary 16mm print Savant saw at Filmex in 1980. According to the IMDB, the 2001
Berlin film festival showed a print that runs 297 minutes; this disc runs 229. But Image's disc has
a vital element that's almost essential for any casual viewer to even approach
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ... an authoritative commentary that makes its issues and
references relevant, pulling it from beneath the shroud of time.
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a mastermind criminal who moves through society wearing any one of
a score of clever disguises. His only aides are a handful of loyal agents, who carry out his
brilliant instructions to commit audacious crimes without knowing their exact purpose. He engineers
a daring train robbery, that helps him to commit stock fraud on a giant scale. He suborns people by
winning against them at cards. In the posh gambling houses of Berlin, he manipulates a number of
characters, such as the foolish playboy Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) and an exotic dancer, Cara Carozza
(Aud Egede Nissen). He uses his influence to control the weak Count Told (Alfred Abel) and eventually
kidnaps and imprisons the Countess Told (Gertrude Welckler). Only Chief Gaming Inspector von Wenk
(Berhnard Goetzke) has enough information to even detect the possibility of a single intelligence behind
the crimes and destabilizing schemes; he gets close to the disguised Mabuse, but is foiled by Mabuse's
incredible skills of mind control. He can hypnotize many people to obey his will, and has the power
to 'cloud men's minds' when necessary.
Part one is The Great Gambler: A Picture of Our Times; part two
is entitled Inferno: A Play About People of Our Time.
Savant felt he'd been hit by one of Colonel Kurtz' diamond bullets of enlightenment when he saw
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1980. It seemed like the missing link of pulp fantasy for the
twentieth century, the story that connected Batman to James Bond to Cody Jarrott to Judex to Sherlock
Holmes to Darth Vader. It's as if Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces could apply
to the modern pulp themes of totalitarian control through technology,
and the use of fear and terrorism to subdue resistance. Way back in 1922, all the puzzle
pieces were already in place, put there cinematically by the great genre-inventor Fritz Lang.
The 1000 Eyes of Dr, Mabuse, a sequel made almost 40 years later, summed it
all up by making the ultimate aim of the evil mastermind not power or riches, but the sheer ability
to create chaos, and destroy the world itself - exactly the stakes our basic pulp thrillers seem
so frequently to portray.
All of this would be difficult to understand without a guide, an 'annotated version' of the film. This
is because the country, the time, and a myriad of specific references in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
are so removed from our experience as to be meaningless now. Restorer David Shepard and author
David Kalat provide that annotation in the form of a commentary that stretches throughout the almost
four-hour length of the film. Savant recommends you watch the movie first with the commentary
on. Filmed in an outdated style and paced much slower than a modern-day thriller, the movie
probably won't make much sense without it, unless you are already an adept Lang scholar.
Obviously the movie is best watched one half at a time. After an exciting opening, the story settles into
a slow mood for most of the first part, but Kalat's verbal exposition tells you more about Germany and
the sometimes confusing scenes you are watching to make it all more than fascinating. His explanations
of what the characters represent, and why they act the way they do, is vital. To know that Mabuse's
simple act of crashing Deutsche high-society carries a number of meanings and significances, enriches the
movie immensely. You almost feel as if you could be an audience member in 1922.
For a supposedly expressionist silent, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is actually very naturalistic
in style. Its reputation is based, as Mr. Kalat explains, on several extravagant sets that color the whole.
Besides the expected pulp-oriented elements like trap doors and secret identities, there is a rich
interweaving of characters. Cara Carozza is crazy for Mabuse, but he uses her to ensnare first Edgar
Hull and then Count Told. Inspector von Wenk is attracted to the bored adventuress Countess Told, who
hangs around the gambling dens just to soak up the atmosphere of risk and ruin. She's a beauty who
captures Mabuse's fancy. His henchman include stuffy servants, a drug addict, a strongman
chauffeur and a lout who organizes a shop full of blind forgers, manufacturing the counterfeit
currency with which Mabuse floods the market.
Author Norbert Jacques' idea of taking all the ills of his dysfunctional society, and representing
them with one monstrous villain with supernormal powers, has been an unstoppable formula throughout
the last century, so popular and penetrative that most of the world today seems to think that the
problems and conflicts of our modern world are 'caused' by villainous individuals, instead of being
the result of conflicting ideologies and power-based inequities. In a strange inversion of victim and
victimizer, Western pulp thrillers create demons like Fu Manchu,
mirror colonial policy against China, or supervillains as those in the James Bond movies. It's
implied that these archvillains are responsible for things like germ warfare (Goldfinger)
and hi-tech weapons trading (Goldeneye) when in reality, only big Western countries (like
Bond's own) have the resources to promote.
But as an embodiment of his time, Mabuse is a brilliant construction, especially after Kalat explains
that author Jacques' intention was the conservative championing of the lost system of noblesse
against the more democratic Weimar Republic, whose freedoms and lack of class distinction, he thought,
brought chaos. It's a very slow web that Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler weaves, and by the end
it's as if you've been watching a thriller that really means something.
Image's double disc set of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler has a very good visual look, far better
than extant versions available of Metropolis made four years later. The playback speed is
smooth and large sections of the film appear to be in great shape, difficult to imagine for a 1922
release. Robert Israel has assembled a gigantic scene-specific score that uses the instruments and
rhythms of the day; much of the music is remindful of the feel of Weill's Three Penny Opera. Mr.
Kalat's commentary is extremely well delivered, better than most film lectures I've heard and as good as
a text (he has a new book about Mabuse-the-phenomenon, The Strange Case of Dr Mabuse.).
Only once on part 2 does his editor let him down, allowing a couple of false starts of one paragraph
through before the correct take continues the show. It's frankly a relief to know that Kalat couldn't
come up with such a fluid discourse off the top of his head!
Almost unknown in the US but a number-one archvillain in Europe, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is
an old film that has to be adjudged as 'special viewing.' It's a rarified kind of art cinema, a pulp
legend from the distant past, and a special treat for people who love movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler rates:
Video: Excellent, especially considering the age of the material
Sound: Excellent, with a great new music track by Robert Israel
Supplements: Commentary by David Kalat
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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