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THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke, Oskar Beregi, Gustav Diessl, Wera Liessem, Karl Meixner
Director: Fritz Lang
Audio: German mono, French mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.19:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, interviews, design drawings, photo galleries, essay, film comparisons
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: May 18, 2004

"This mind would have destroyed mankind, which itself knows only destruction and extermination."

Film ****

One of Germany's most celebrated silent film directors was Fritz Lang, whose bold and imaginative epic Metropolis remains arguably the most recognized silent film today.  Yet Lang's genius was not limited solely to the silent era.  After the advent of the sound picture, Lang quickly demonstrated a mastery of the new technology, creating in his very first sound picture one of the acknowledged masterpieces of early cinema, M (1931).  Lang followed up this suspense-thriller with the infamous police thriller, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), a twisted tale of mystery and the supernatural, set in a German society besieged by ever-increasing madness and crime.

The long and colorful history behind The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is quite a fascinating one.  The original film was 1922's Dr. Mabuse, der spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler).  Also directed by Lang, that film was so long that it was released in two parts, the second part being Inferno: the People of Our Times.  These two films observed the German people caught in the cynicism and wounded national pride of a defeated, post-war Germany.  These films also introduced the character of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind whose remarkable powers of hypnosis enabled him to manipulate the wills of others to his own design.

Dr. Mabuse's return in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was set a decade after the events of the first films.  Although technically a sequel to the 1922 two-part film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was also in a sense a sequel to M as well.  As with M, the new film confronted audiences with the same despair over the failure of the police system to contain the criminal elements of the modern-day German society.  In fact, Otto Wernicke, who had appeared in Lang's M, would reprise his role as Inspector Lohmann for the new film.  Lohmann was portrayed as a shrewd and streetwise detective, utterly focused upon his job yet ultimately unable to stem the tide of the criminal influence in the streets of Berlin.  Indeed, the underworld themes in Lang's new film were eerily similar to certain doctrines embraced by the newly empowered Nazi Party in Germany at the time.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse premiered on April 21, 1933 in Budapest with an original running length of 124 minutes.  However, the film did not appear in Germany, where Dr. Goebbels, newly-anointed head of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, banned the film outright as a menace to public health and safety.  Perhaps Goebbels did not appreciate the negative portrayal of certain Nazi-like themes in the film; in any event, many decades would pass before Lang's film would finally be shown in Germany in its approximate original vision.

Fortunately, as was the case with many early sound films, more than one version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse existed.  In the early days of the talkies, there was no capacity for dubbing or subtitling films.  The solution to the problem of international distribution for these films was to create alternate versions of the same film in different languages, often with different casts.  Such was the case with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  At the time, the French market was considered the most viable one in Europe, so an alternate French version of the film was simultaneously shot, using some of the original German cast but mostly with a French cast.  The alternate version was shorter than the original, but during the many intervening years before the original German version re-surfaced, this French version was the only really accessible version of the film.

An English-subtitled version of the French film, The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse, made a brief appearance in 1942.  However, an English-dubbed version of the German film was distributed in 1952.  This one was a shortened 80-minute re-vision, The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse, re-assembled from footage rescued from the ruins of Berlin.  This "new" version altered the freshly-dubbed dialogue to accentuate the evils of fascism and Nazism.  It would not be until 1973, many decades after its original premiere, that the true German version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was finally shown widely; at 110 minutes, it at last approximated Lang's original vision.

Today, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is recognized as one of Lang's finest films, an allegory of the social conditions that might drive a society onto a path of criminality and madness.  In fact, in this film, Mabuse himself is a nearly catatonic resident in an insane asylum, driven mad by the excesses of his influence in the earlier silent films.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse's impressive opening sequence clearly sets the pattern of uncertainty and disorientation that are prevalent throughout the picture.  The film starts within a mysterious mechanical lair, an ominous machinery roar drowning out all other sounds.  The din is loud enough to cause objects in the room to vibrate, creating a nightmarish and deceptive atmosphere as the camera weaves randomly about the room before settling upon a single man, crouching in fear behind a crate.

Lang establishes in this sequence a sense of bewilderment, for we the audience do not know whether this man is a prisoner, a killer, or an escapee.  Is this sequence a dream or a distortion of the truth, as “described” by the camera's eye?  The man, in fact, is Hofmeister (Meixner), a former policeman who we soon learn has uncovered a nefarious counterfeiting ring.  When he attempts to contact Lohmann (Wernicke) to reveal his findings, Hofmeister is driven insane by an unseen force.  Lohmann's task for the remainder of the film is to fit together the scattered clues left behind - the random mad ramblings of Hofmeister, a few letters scratched upon a window pane, and the mysterious death of a doctor.  The clues will eventually point to an insane asylum directed by Dr. Baum (Beregi), wherein the mysterious Dr. Mabuse remains in his cell.  Could Mabuse, through his catatonia, somehow be controlling the wave of murder and madness that is slowly creeping over the city?  What is his link, if any, to the counterfeiting ring?  Even more puzzling, is it even possible for a madman who has not spoken a word in ten years to have any relationship to the current affairs in Berlin?

There is a sub-plot in the film concerning the character of Kent, a good-hearted man who under the misery of Germany's socioeconomic situation is forced into a life of crime in order to survive.  This sub-plot is clearly a reflection of the German people's plight - with such widespread poverty and suffering in the nation, the people would turn desperately to anyone with the vision to restore Germany's national pride and the charisma to unite enough of the people behind him.  If we accept Kent as a symbol for the German people, then his acquiescence to Dr. Mabuse's will is paralleled by the German people's acceptance of Hitler, with the consequent raise of the Nazi Party.

The whole of the film's narrative is constructed very much like a puzzle.  If one defines expressionism as the visualization of interior states, then The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, though not strictly an expressionistic film, clearly contains many elements of this German movement.  The film displays many scenes involving dream-like states or the instability of central characters.  Distortions of the image, as though the audience were seeing Berlin through the eyes of the mentally disturbed, appear several times in the film.  More importantly, each of Dr. Mabuse's appearances possess a ghostly, haunting quality about them.  We can never be entirely certain whether Mabuse is truly present or whether his presence is a manifestation of an unstable human mind.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge, so memorable as the mad scientist of Metropolis, creates another classic embodiment of pure evil in Dr. Mabuse.  Nearly somnambulistic, he sits in his cell, putting to paper cryptic scribblings which may be indecipherable gibberish or which may perhaps be the plans of a criminal mastermind.  In a sense, Dr. Mabuse represents an ideal of chaos and entropy whose evil is not the man himself but rather the principle.  Here is an evil that is not embodied simply within a catatonic, frail body but extends beyond the physical.  Dr. Mabuse may even be considered an evil twin of the Wizard of Oz, manipulating events from behind a drawn curtain.  Fans of the long-running James Bond series will recognize Mabuse's mark in the numerous villains of that franchise.  On a more contemporary level, Darth Sidious (a.k.a. the evil Emperor of the Star Wars films) is essentially a modern-era Dr. Mabuse.  In any regard, the implied similarities between Dr. Mabuse writing his "testament" to crime and Hitler writing his Mein Kampf while imprisoned probably led to the film's inevitable ban in Nazi Germany at the time of its initial release.

The film's conclusion is an ambiguous and ultimately pessimistic one.  Even if one source of evil is eliminated, there will always be another to fill the void.  In this world vision, evil can never be eradicated and perhaps may never be adequately contained, either.  It is one of the central themes in the film, as declared in its most famous monologue:

"Humanity's soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes, crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime, a state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation."

This essential theme to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse paints a fatalistic portrait of humanity and our struggles to evolve beyond our basic animalistic instincts.  By the laws of physics, the universe naturally progresses towards entropy (chaos).  So, by this film's rationale, the order and stability of the state may inevitably be destroyed, and upon its ashes will be created an “empire of crime.”  One does not need to be highly imaginative to see how this process is reflected even today in many of the contemporary world's more disturbing international conflicts.

Shortly after the film's completion, Lang, increasingly uncomfortable with a German film industry stringently controlled by the Nazi Party, left his homeland.  He would never again direct such an influential film in his native Germany.  Today, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse might be considered a precursor to noir cinema, with its stylized disorientation and uncertainties (Lang himself would go on to direct many noir films for Hollywood).  Most significantly though, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a prescient film, describing some universal truths about human existence that perhaps we would prefer not to address bluntly. 

Video ***

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is presented in black & white with its original European aspect ratio of 1.19:1.  This outdated process formerly employed a variable density soundtrack positioned to the left of the picture frame.  Later prints of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse would switch to a variable area soundtrack and would zoom into the picture (to off-set the difference in film stock width).  Unfortunately, this meant cropping off portions of the film at the top and bottom of the frame.

For this DVD, Criterion has restored the film to its original aspect ratio by "pillar boxing" the image (think of it as letter-boxing, except with vertical black bars, not horizontal).  The formatting is barely noticeable, anyway, so the film essentially appears full-frame.

The source print for this DVD transfer is a 1951 35mm duplicate positive.  Although the film's original negative exists in the vaults of the German Film Institute, it is severely damaged, necessitating the use of a duplicate positive from the German Film Institute as the source print.  In sections where footage is missing in this duplicate positive, such scenes were re-inserted from prints in the possession of the Federal Film Archive and the Munich Film Museum.  The current restoration now runs at 121 minutes.

Overall, the picture is sharp and quite detailed.  Contrast levels are solid with little trace of wash-out.  There are some instances of interlace artifacts and mild edge enhancement but nothing significant.  The source print has some unavoidable scratches and speckles associated with its age and seems more faded closer to the edges of the frame, but for the most part, it looks quite good.  Criterion has done a superb job with this transfer of the original German version, as a comparison with the faded French version (included on disc two) will confirm.

Audio **

The audio is German 1.0 and sounds primitive by today's standards.  Dialogue is clear, if fairly shrill.  Music or sound effects tend to become distorted at the higher registers.  Not every movement has a corresponding sound, either, creating an absence of sound from time to time.  None of this, however, is uncommon for films of the early sound era; in any event, Criterion has cleaned up the soundtrack of most hisses and background noise.  Despite the obvious limitations of this early sound technology, Lang's imaginative use of sound is still quite evident from the very first frame until the final one in this Criterion presentation of the film..

Features ****

This release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a 2-disc offering from Criterion.  The first disc contains the German language original film as well as an excellent running commentary by David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse.  He talks quite rapidly and delivers an extraordinary amount of information, with a discussion ranging from Lang's influence on the Russian master director Sergei Eisenstein to Lang's predilection for long films and for using real weapons with real ammunition in his films.  Kalat also compares the various versions of the film (as well as some of the restored scenes for this Criterion release) and discusses Norbert Jacques, the original creator of the Mabuse character.  He describes in detail the finale's blazing fire that entirely consumes a munitions factory (Lang filmed this sequence on location at night at great expense, burning down two factories in the process).  Then there is the car chase, which combines the nightmarish tone of expressionism with the stark tension of a perilous, fanatic chase; this car chase would stand for decades as the standard by which all other car chases were judged.  In general, Kalat reveals so many details about Lang and the film that his commentary is worth listening to several times to fully appreciate everything Kalat has to say.

Moving on to the second disc, the most significant extra feature offered here is the French-language version of Lang's film, entitled Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse.  Running at approximately 95 minutes, its shorter length is attributed to a condensed version of a romantic sub-plot between Kent and Lilli as well as tighter editing that moves the film along at a slightly brisker pace.  Unfortunately, few copies of the French version have survived through the years, and most are badly deteriorated.  The version used for this Criterion release comes from the Cinémathèque de Luxembourg and also displays a significant amount of wear and tear (scratches, skipped frames, plenty of debris marks, etc.).  Since the source material is a 16mm reduction print, the degree of details and the contrast levels are less than optimal.  The frame jitters regularly, throwing the focus off at times.  The sound quality is also not very good, being quite distorted in the sound effects and the dialogue.  The French cast is also inferior, except for Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Karl Meixner, who reprise their roles as Dr. Mabuse and Hofmeister, respectively.

Coincidentally, there are Dutch subtitles burned into the print.  These subtitles are nearly washed-out, so Criterion has written over them using English subtitles contained in a super-imposed black box.  As a result, some of the film image is blocked, although the Dutch subtitles can regularly be seen on either side of the black box, creating an occasionally confusing combination of English book-ended by Dutch subtitles!

Nevertheless, that this version still exists is a boon for film historians who will wish to compare the similarities and differences between the French and original German versions of this film.  The generally poor state of the French version must be taken in stride.  For viewers who want to see a side-by-side comparison of the German/French/English versions, Criterion offers this option as a bonus feature for several key scenes.

Zum Beispiel Fritz Lang (For Example Fritz Lang, 1964) is a 21-minute interview with Lang.  At 21 minutes, it provides Lang an opportunity to discuss his first immersion in the cinema (at a 1904 screening for The Great Train Robbery) to some of his early films.  Included are clips from Dr. Mabuse, der spieler and Woman in the Moon.  Lang also discusses M, whose original title Murderers Among Us was disliked by the suspicious Nazi Party.  The most spellbinding story, which concludes this interview, is Lang's account of his fateful meeting with Dr. Goebbels, an encounter that ultimately compelled Lang to flee Germany.  According to legend, Lang had been offered a central role in the new Nazi cinema industry (a role later occupied by Leni Riefensthal) but had been frightened at the prospect and had fled that same evening.  David Kalat, in his commentary, sheds some light upon the truth of this famous (and perhaps embellished) meeting between Lang and Goebbels.

Mabuse im Gedächtnis (Mabuse in Mind, 1984) is a 15-minute documentary with Rudolf Schündler, who plays the criminal Hardy in the film.  He recalls various anecdotes from the production, including his scenes in the film and his character's innate homosexuality.

A 10-minute interview with Michael Farin looks at Norbert Jacques, the author who first dreamt up the character of Mabuse in his novels.  Farin offers some descriptions of how Lang subtly changed the character for the cinema, envisioning Mabuse as a combination of Dr. Caligari (a powerful hypnotist), Fantômas (the French bourgeois phantom-bandit), and Nosferatu (the expressionistic vampire).  It should be noted that Mabuse occupies much of the German consciousness even today, and his name is as recognized in German pop culture as are those of Sherlock Holmes and his adversary Dr. Moriarty in English literature.

The disc is rounded out by a series of drawings/photographs/stills with various close-ups.  There are 51 production design drawings by art director Emil Hasler, who had also worked on M.  The memorabilia section contains 36 posters.  The Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse section has 28 production stills with the German cast and Lang himself.  The German pressbook section contains 19 pages from the press release booklets, and Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse has 16 photographs with the French cast.

Lastly, the package insert contains a very informative essay, written by Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity.  It is quite a fascinating article that goes into the themes, the myth, and the reality of the film.  The article also touches upon the film's reception by the Nazi Party, and Lang's flight from Germany.

Summary:

The final German masterpiece from Fritz Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse combines elements of the police mystery with the supernatural thriller.  This movie foreshadows the film noir genre of the 1940's and is highly recommended for fans of noir cinema as well as German expressionism.