The Mabuse Trilogy. Part I: Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and the Weimar Era
This is the first in a three part series of essays concerning Fritz Lang’s Mabuse Trilogy. For parts II & III see The Mabuse Trilogy, Part II: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Mabuse Trilogy, Part III: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
He’s the great unknown man. He causes the stock markets to panic and the crowds to rise up and attack the police. He’s in gambling, blackmail, and murder. He’s in disguise and undetectable. He is crime and he is Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) villain of Fritz Lang’s 1922 film.
Dr. Mabuse and his gang run a wide range of criminal activities through the doctor’s incredible planning abilities. From using the blind to run counterfeiting operations and planning split-second train robberies, Mabuse thinks about things in a way unlike ordinary criminals. But as a respected psychoanalyst and man with interests in the occult, mind-control, and the powers of Indian fakirs, Dr. Mabuse isn’t an ordinary criminal, and his cunning isn’t his most formidable weapon. He’s also developed hypnotic abilities that he uses to get wealthy card players to lose huge sums of money to him in illegal gambling dens.
This activity has gotten the attention of State Prosecutor Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) and when Mabuse wins a small fortune from young millionaire Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), Von Wenk hopes that Hull will eventually lead him back to the mysterious gambler. In order to manipulate the two of them, Mabuse arranges for Hull to meet nightclub dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). As Carozza leads Von Wenk through through this illict but not-so-secret underworld, he meets and falls for the jaded, thrill-seeking Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker). Told is bored with her passive, modern art collecting husband (Alfred Abel) and frequents the gambling clubs not to play, but to watch the gamblers go through the emotions of defeat.
Mabuse, too is taken with the Countess Told after encountering her at a seance. He arranges for the Count to be publicly shamed and ostracized, then kidnaps the Countess. He becomes the Count’s physician, where he further manipulates and isolates him. But Von Wenk can’t keep from thinking of the Countess or pursuing the mystery gambler, even after several attempts on his life. He vows to stop at nothing to capture a man whose sheer scope of criminal activities he can’t even suspect.
Hugely promoted and very popular at the time of it’s release, the number of movies with a large debt to Dr Mabuse, the Gambler is enormous. According to Mabuse expert Michael Farin, the power-mad, egotistical Dr. Mabuse was designed by source-novelist Norbert Jacques upon the principles of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Mabuse’s criminal drive is not the desire for wealth or respect, it’s a desire to usurp laws and gods alike and replace them with himself. With his secret identity, band of loyal thugs, and strange powers, Dr. Mabuse isn’t just a master criminal like Professor Moriarity; he’s one of the first super-villains, and nearly every power-hungry, self-obsessed scenery-chewer since owes him a great debt.
At four hours long, the film is divided into two sections, the first of which is subtitled The Great Gambler: A Picture of Our Times. This aspect of the film, as a representation of a place in a particular era, makes it a particularly fascinating one watch. Germany was recovering from the devastation of World War I and (as far as modern audience cannot help but be aware) only a few years away from the rise of Hitler. It’s a period whose liminality is an important feature of Lang’s film. The variety of Mabuse’s crimes and the complexity of his plans allows the viewer access to wide swath of Weimar-era society, from the bars and gambling dens of the lower classes to the private clubs and drawing rooms of aristocrats, from the hotel suites of the young and modern to the drawing rooms of holdovers from the 19th century.
This intersection of eras is on display not only in relation to fashion and morality, but also in terms of technology. Mabuse’s crimes require precise timing and communication, and he harnesses technology in order to pull them off. This can be particularly seen in the way he uses transportation. Trains, cars, and bicycles are his tools, and in some cases his weapons. On the other hand, State Prosecutor Von Wenk and the police department consistently use horse-drawn carriages. When you do see Von Wenk in an automobile, it’s the result of Mabuse’s plotting, and each time its an encounter that nearly costs the prosecutor his life. Similarly, the Doctor’s most trusted agent, his infiltrator, his ‘elimination squad,’ and his means of action from a distance, is also his chauffeur.
The most startling example of movement within the film, however, is not the action of a character in motion. To distract the prosecutor and expand his plotting in other directions, Mabuse gets Cara Carozza to take Hull to a newly opened casino. It’s an environment that caters to wealth and espouses decadence, with bright lights, nude dancers, and elaborate mechanisms for hiding their activities from the police. As the delights of the gambling hall are displayed for its patrons, the dealer turns, arms opened wide, offering its pleasures to those sitting around his circular gaming table. As he does so, Lang’s camera turns with him, tracking around the edge of the table. It’s the only camera motion in a movie almost completely wedded to the early film vocabulary of long, static shots, and it’s such a moment of departure that it’s immediately noticeable.
In 1922, camera movement was not completely unheard of–D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) has one of the first important tracking shots–but it was rare. This new sudden source of motion is enchanting, as enticing as the delights of the club or as mesmerizing as Mabuse’s stare. While this film is exciting, entertaining, and notable for the introduction of the modern film super villain archetype, it’s also important for moments like this that helped expand the language of film. Lang, like Mabuse himself is able to look at the technology and see the possibilities for new ways in which it can be manipulated and used to dazzle.
Also check out the Pretty Clever Films review of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from Robert Liwanag
The entire film can be found online or on DVD from Kino Lorber.
A short clip is available here