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DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter, Gertrude Welcker, Aud Egede Nissen
Director:  Fritz Lang
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Commentary Track
Length:  229 Minutes
Release Date:  August 28, 2001

Film ***1/2

Fritz Lang was an experimenter who dabbled in virtually every film genre conceivable during a long and distinguished career that began in the silent era.  In the late teens and early twenties, his filmography included such pictures as the dreamy and expressive Destiny and the for-thrills-only jungle adventure serial Spiders.  When he made Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, he was still a few years away from his most noted achievement, the expressionistic sci-fi film Metropolis which detailed the struggle between the haves and have-nots.  With Mabuse, however, he constructed a film of such political topography that it’s impossible today to separate the movie from the period in history that bore it.

1922 was a median year between Germany’s defeat and humiliation in World War I to the coming of the Nationalist Socialist party and Adolph Hitler.  The economy was terrible…one American dollar was equal to over 4 trillion German marks at the time.  But as in all societies, only the lower classes were bearing the brunt of the misery.  Lang saw a world in which the rich aristocrat still enjoyed his leisurely existence, and he found a kind of immorality in the popularity of illegal gambling halls where the well-to-do would spend hours and fortunes gaming their lives away, while the poor struggled with runaway inflation and impossible economic odds.

From the novel by Norbert Jacques, Lang found just the anti-hero he needed to comment on his times:  the evil Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge).  Mabuse was a master of disguise, a brilliant criminal mind, and possessed the gift of mind control over some of his weaker subjects.  He was not a behind-the-boards operator of a criminal empire, but rather, enjoyed venturing out and making his plans work himself, taking an active interest in both the soaking of the rich and the manipulation of the German economy.

In one of the earliest segments, we see him arrange a run on the stock market by a clever ruse.  What is established is clear: economies can rise and collapse at the whim of this man.  He was never characterized any other way than as a villain, but it’s easy to see why some of the German working class took to Dr. Mabuse.

He dons disguises and enters into gambling halls, picks out a victim, then manipulates him out of his money.  One such victim is Edgar Hull (Richter), typical of the blasé, self-centered and somewhat stupid aristocrat of the time.  Mabuse challenges him, uses his hypnotic ability to make him play badly, and ends up with a rather larger promissory note from Hull.

The nemesis of Mabuse is Inspector von Wenk (Goetzke), who had made it a personal goal to bring down the illegal gambling halls, but becoming aware of a “great unknown” (ie, Mabuse), decides he must temporarily protect the rich playboys and playgirls in an attempt to root him out.  In one of the film’s best sequences, Mabuse and von Wenk, both in disguise, play each other at cards, as Mabuse tries and fails to manipulate von Wenk.  It’s Mabuse’s first indication that he may not be as infallible in his game as he thought.

In addition to economic commentary, the film is filled with imagery of a society gone morally bankrupt.  Exotic dancers entertain the rich gatherings, there are signs of drug use and prostitution, and even one notable character, the Countess Told (Welcker), who shows up at the games not to play, but because she enjoys watching the faces of those who lose.  It’s this kind of rampant enjoyment at the misery of others that makes it possible for a man like Mabuse to not only exist, but thrive.

Image Entertainment should be commended in bringing to home video the most complete version of Dr. Mabuse yet known.  The original German running time was 270 minutes, but years of truncating and loss of footage had brought it as far down as 90 minutes.  Image’s version runs at 229 minutes, and seems to serve Lang’s original vision as much as can possibly be done.  The film is divided over two discs; as the original Dr. Mabuse was considered a single film but one that could easily be shown over two evenings, home viewers have the option of how they would like to enjoy the movie.

Lang’s picture is an intense, dark drama with expressionistic hints of light and shadow, but beyond its face value, serves as a valuable social and cultural commentary of a time gone by, and a history lesson about the potential consequences of driving a people to economic despair.

Video **

For a nearly 80 year old movie, Dr. Mabuse looks quite decent, though not without its share of expected problems.  As with all films from the silent era, it suffers from lack of proper preservation.  Spots, scratches and debris are in evidence, as well as some occasional flicker and softer images.  Blacks and whites don’t always play off of each other as they should; there is some bleeding and some loss of definition (though these are all print issues, not transfer ones).  As mentioned, Image has presented the most fully restored version of this film in quite some time, so frankly, the normal wear and tear of aging is more than acceptable in my estimation.

Audio **

The audio track is perfectly fine, if not spectacular, and features a lively stereo recording of an orchestral score conducted by Robert Israel, which is cleanly rendered and an enjoyable accompaniment to the picture.

Features ***

The disc’s sole feature is a good one…a running commentary by Lang student and biographer David Kalat.  Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about the film, its director and its background, he speaks with an enthusiastic style, and is even relaxed enough for some occasional humor.  It’s an extremely informative and pleasant listen.

Summary:

Dr. Mabuse may not have stood the test of time as well as some of Fritz Lang’s other masterworks, but for serious film students, it’s undoubtedly a must-see.  It’s filled with insight and commentary on a specific but crucial time in world history, and plays with all the sensibility of a good noir crime drama.  Image has once again done silent fans a service with their DVD offering of an important early classic.