The Mabuse Trilogy, Part II: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
This is the second in a three part series of essays concerning Fritz Lang’s Mabuse Trilogy. For parts I & III see The Mabuse Trilogy, Part I: Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and The Mabuse Trilogy, Part III: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
In the past few years, a new term has emerged in popular cinema – the franchise reboot. While I object to any idea that gives people license to keep trying to make movies out of the Incredible Hulk, the underlying concept is one I find very appealing. We can tell similar stories over and over again because different times and contexts call for different versions of the story. There is the debatable but appealing notion that form doesn’t necessarily exhaust itself and that anything capable of making contact with our imaginations is capable of sustaining our engagement as long as it remains open enough to allow its incarnations to be shaped and reshaped. Of course, less appealing is the tendency to simply run a machine until it breaks, then call a ‘do-over’ in order to turn out another uninspired franchise product a few years down the line.
By some standards, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is Fritz Lang’s sequel to his 1924 silent film, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler. You have the same actor in the central role, and while intervening events have taken place, the condition of the main character at the end of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is responsible for the circumstances of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. On the other hand, he is the only returning character, his mind-control powers are very different (in this film it could be argued that they are either more extreme or that they do not exist; I like the movie better with the second interpretation), the approach to making the film has changed radically, and the worlds surrounding it (the ones in which it is set as well as the one in which it is shown) are very, very different.
When we last left Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge ), he was in the midst of a breakdown. His plans had collapsed and he had lost his mind. The tools he that used to commit his crimes had come alive and he was confronted by monstrous versions of not only the locks on his protective vaults and his counterfeiting machines, but the people he had manipulated and killed in order to run his empire of crime.
In the years following his capture and mental collapse, Dr. Mabuse fell into and rose from a state of catatonia. This doesn’t mean he’s emerged into the world, but he’s gone from being still and mute to compulsively writing the plans for perfectly conceived crimes, sometimes as much as 30 pages worth a day. But from the looks of things, he’s no longer a threat to anyone. He’s gone from a state of superhuman logic and precision to its ultimate extreme. As far as it appears, he no longer speaks, he no longer interacts with others, he’s simply become a crime generating machine.
In the meantime, Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a disgraced former police officer, has been trying to redeem himself by investigating a counterfeiting ring on his own. When he discovers the name of the ringleader-who issues his orders from behind a drawn curtain, he calls his former boss, Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke ) with the information, only to be confronted by criminals before he can reveal the crime boss’s identity. As Lohmann investigates Hofmeister’s disappearance, Kent (Gustav Diessl) – one of the criminals involved in the counterfeiting ring – is trying to curb his involvement in the scheme’s increasing violence and convince Lilli (Wera Liessem) of his love. When Hofmeister reappears, he’s severely mentally damaged and ends up in the confines of a mental institution run by Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.), an institution that also confines a certain formerly catatonic criminal mastermind.
Between the release of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse there were several major developments that make this film and it’s circumstances very different from the first. After the rise of Hitler, a second film featuring an evil, charismatic manipulator inspired by egomania and a misinterpretation of the Nietzschean concept of the Ubermensch who is attempting to manufacture social upheaval and exploit a climate of fear and economic uncertainty in order to control people was, needless to say, unwelcome in Germany. After a meeting with Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (which Pretty Clever Films has written about here), Lang fled Germany, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse remained unseen there until after the end of WWII.
The second major change between these two films is instantly noticeable to any audience – the development of sound in motion pictures. With M, his first sound film, Lang had already demonstrated an amazing ability to use sound to propel a story beyond just making the film a ‘talkie.’ In this film, he mixes a similar approach with something much more radical.
Similar to the way that he uses “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as the killer’s theme, he assigns Hofmeister a signature tune as well. When he feels threatened, he slips into a state where he cannot speak but only sing lines glorifying the women of Batavia (which can refer to several places in Europe, including Passau, a city where Hitler lived as a youth), using the patriotic song as a method of retreat and safety. Political commentary aside, this is a variation on a very traditional manner of using music, with precedents in opera, program music, and Lang’s prior work.
However, Lang opens the movie with a sonic gesture much more radical. In keeping with the significantly brisker pace of this film in comparison with Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the film’s opening credits are very brief, lasting only around a minute. A theme plays-sinister strings, bass drums, high pitches like sirens-and as the title cards disappear, the camera moves through the attic of a factory to find Hofmeister in his hiding place. The strings fade and the drums are replaced by the sound of machinery. But rather than fading these sounds out as well, Lang actually raises the volume of the machinery. Its loud, repetitive beat becomes the only element of the sound mix. It dominates the opening scene of the movie, with its unceasing, unvarying industrial rhythm contributing to a very tense, dialogue-free four minutes.
Just as Lang’s exceptional deployment of music in M had its precedents, this use of machines as music is also not coming entirely out of the blue. In 1926, George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique (which you can listen to a performance of here) premiered in Paris to much publicity and controversy. Originally written as the soundtrack to a 1924 film of the same name by cubist painter Ferdinand Leger, Ballet Mecanique‘s score includes sirens, alarm clocks, and propellers among the pianos, xylophones, and drums of it’s orchestration – not instruments played to sound like them but the actual machines themselves.
Antheil’s inclusion of mechanical sounds within the context of elements that-as cacophonous and violent as they may be-are distinctly musical, forces re-evaluation both of the possible musicality of the mechanical elements and the characteristics of the musical space surrounding it. With his machine music moment, Lang suspends the narrative of the film before it even begins. It’s merciless upon the audience in its repetition, menace, and enclosure. Before you know where the story is going, you’re presented with it halted, trapped like Hofmeister is trapped. That primal anxiety of being caught without means of escape becomes the basic emotional premise of the story, one that the audience is asked to identify with from the film’s start. The degree of ease with which we’re able to slip into this without narrative build up is telling, and purposefully so.
As I said before, I don’t interpret the Dr. Mabuse of this film as super-powered. But just as I’m not interested in thinking of this as a film about a hypnotic ghost, I’m also not interested in thinking of it as purely an allegory for Hitler, either, but entrapping systems of dominance in general. While Hofmeister is attacked, it’s his retreat into his mind and the illusion of safety that put him in the hospital, not any physical injuries. That’s one of the questions that Lang raises with this film – how do you escape the urge to control or be controlled without either tunneling into your own identity or taking on one presented to you by someone else? I don’t know anyone who has had to escape a hypno-ghost, and I certainly don’t know anyone who has managed to escape a confrontation with that question.
Watch a German language trailer for the Testament of Dr Mabuse