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Savant Review:

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler
Image Entertainment
1922 / B&W / 1:37 / 229m. / Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Bernhard Goetzke, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Paul Richter
Cinematography Carl Hoffmann
Art Direction Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Stahl-Urach, Karl Vollbrecht
Writing credits Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou & Norbert Jacques from the novel by Norbert Jacques
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by Fritz Lang

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 also 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, whose crimes 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:
Movie: Excellent
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

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