Lang creates a rich and storied world, very much based in reality, for Dr. Mabuse to run his antagonistic game of chance. Equally pulpy as it is political; Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler may seem impenetrable to casual movie-watchers, but the continued cinematic influence of Fritz Lang makes his Mabuse a surprisingly contemporary experience.
Fritz Lang combines elements of Feuillard’s Fantomas serials with the Norbert Jacques source novel to create a villain for the ages in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler; a man whose devious machinations predicted the exploitation of post-World War I Germany by nefarious nationalists. After the first world war, after revolution against its state and monarchy, Germany installed a constitutional democracy. Despite the democratic nature, the Weimar Republic allowed wealthy capitalists and war profiteers to have the loudest voices, plunging the country’s lower classes into relative obscurity. These nouveau riche, along with their old money counterparts, were able to manipulate the turbulent economy of a country attempting to find its feet. This is the basis of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler.
Its English title, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, only tells half the story; While the titular villain does gamble, both with money and with the lives of his victims, “der spieler” actually has a dual meaning in its original language. Along with “gambler”, it can also mean “player”; as in actor. This is the first clue in a series of elucidating visual cues as to the character of Dr. Mabuse, and it happens before a frame hits the screen. Such is the
breadth of Lang’s commitment to effectively building your perception of this character. This continues throughout the four and a half hour running time, with Lang utilising playful visual tricks to illuminate the audience, while simultaneously trimming narrative fat. The first scene, for example, shows Mabuse selecting his disguise from a deck of cards that depict the various personae he will adopt throughout the film. Not only is it a sly nod to Fantomas, which handled a similar scene in more clunky manner, but it introduces the many faces of Dr. Mabuse while reinforcing the ‘gambler’ notion; He is, literally, holding all the face cards. It is moments like these, and they are many, that have fostered continued interest in the films of Fritz Lang outside of the academic.
Mabuse carries on in this vein, as he uses his myriad disguises to slip between class structures. He is a man that exists outside of the class system, one who is able to traverse it and manipulate it to his own ends. He is the personification of all who sought to exploit the troubled economy, a symbol of post-war societal collapse. Mabuse is the spectre of fascism made flesh, given a face so we can see it destroyed before the final credits roll. The very notion that Lang and Jacques were able to predict the rise of the National Socialist Party and, by extension, Adolf Hitler, is a testament to how accurate a document Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is. The Weimar Republic was built in such a way that it allowed entry to these type of forces, and it was clear to all who looked closely. One of the core ideas of Mabuse is that evil wears many faces; the implication of which is that if Hitler’s National Socialists hadn’t harnessed the Weimar, somebody else would have.
Though it deals exclusively in post-war fear of fascism, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is able to traverse eras. Fascism may not be a looming phantom for everyone who views this feature, but most should be able to recognise a degree of contemporary reality within the film. Norbert Jacques certainly didn’t invent the concept of a shady figure using the status quo to further his own interests, but he gave it a name that sticks. Modern day Mabuse-ian figures are ubiquitous; from the media moguls that control the news to bandwagon-jumping politicos, and all those who clamber to power in the wake of a struggle.
Outside of being a political call to action and a faithful representation of the period’s mood, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler functions perfectly well on its own merits as a cat and mouse thriller. With the villain centre stage, he almost achieves similar status of that of an anti-hero – Though Mabuse could never be described as a Byronic hero, more a Napoleonic one. Pitting the titular character against the investigator Norbert Von Wenk makes for a battle of wits that is uncannily fascinating to watch play out in pulpy adventure fashion. Through their meetings in various guises, the tensions are increasingly cranked until reaching a breaking point that leaves more than one life in ruins.
Compiling both of Lang’s films 1922 Dr. Mabuse films – released separately, but only a cohesive whole when watched in tandem – Eureka’s appropriation of the 2001 Murnau Foundation restoration of the film does not hold a candle to that of their Metropolis release. However, it does seem surprisingly sprightly for a film approaching its centenary. Along with the three video pieces contextualising the film, the jewel in the crown of this release is the commentary from film historian and Mabuse maven, David Kalat. His spoken essay offers a witty explanation of the context, themes, and repercussions of Lang’s film in a conversational and fascinating way, rich with digression and contemporary allusions. Though this yak-track is not as ‘exclusive’ as suggested, as Kalat frequently makes reference to other films in a box set that are not yet available in Blu Ray format.
The ostentatious special effects of the time may seem primitive now but, combined with Lang’s approach to editing and use of non-linear narrative devices, they propel the film way beyond the time of its creation. The unwaveringly modern approach to shot design by the films cinematographer, Carl Hoffman, fashions a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with contemporary cinema. Such is the pervading influence of Fritz Lang.
That Mabuse would spark decades of imitators, re-imaginings, and sequels, is witness to the malleable nature of ideology. When first released in the United States, the jubilation of 20s America was not able to comprehend the world that birthed a Mabuse. Write-ups were less than positive. Cut to the 70s, where it was re-released in the US; Suddenly the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam populous were able to grasp exactly who Mabuse was. It seems that the conclusion is this; There will always be those, no matter what face they wear or what social strata they choose to inhabit, that will embody the legacy of Dr. Mabuse.