Directed by: Fritz Lang
Screenplay by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou. Based on characters created by Norbert Jaques
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke, Oscar Beregi Sr., Gustav Diessl
Run Time: 2 Hours
Availability: Streaming on Hulu Plus, Out on DVD
Fritz Lang is a name we will become quite familiar with during our cinematic journey, and our first look into the oeuvre of this legendary filmmaker is 1933’s “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.” This tense, pulpy crime thriller earns its place as a classic and proves that a well-told story can transcend time and place. It does not need to be put into any kind of context to be enjoyed.
The title character, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, is a criminal mastermind, who was thrown into an insane asylum following a mental breakdown. The testament mentioned in the title is more of a manifesto. A crime spree has taken over a small German town, and the details of the crimes are very similar to those found in a series of notes written by Dr. Mabuse. Throughout the film the notes become more detailed and speak of a plan to cause anarchy and mass hysteria. Committing these crimes are a series of gangs, who receive their orders from a mysterious man behind a curtain. Is Mabuse somehow leading these men? It’s up to Police Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), to solve the crimes and figure out the mystery. Meanwhile, Thomas Lent (Gustav Diessl), a member of one of these gangs, wants to escape a life of crime and live a life with his new girlfriend Lilli (Wera Liessem).
According to the DVD & Video Guide, Lang intended “Mabuse” to be a diatribe against Hitler. While one can view the film that way, I found it to be best enjoyed at face value, as a fun, entertaining and well-crafted crime thriller. Stylistically and structurally, it is very similar to that of an old film serial. At certain points you can hear where the narrator would come in and declare “tune in next week for the exciting adventures of….” However there is more to “Mabuse” than just police procedures, car chases and shootouts. There is romance, humor, and a little bit of paranormal activity thrown into the mix. Mabuse has a lot going on but it never feels overwhelming. Lang keeps the film at a steady pace and the tone consistent depending on the intended emotion of the sequence. When it needs to be romantic, it is romantic. When it needs to be suspenseful, it is suspenseful.
Lang’s reputation as one of the great filmmakers of all time is well-deserved and he proves it in “Mabuse.” Here is a breakdown of one particular sequence that shows his ability behind the camera: a character walks out of a building; the camera, perched from a far-way, rooftop-like distance, quickly zooms in on our character; cut to another quick scene and then back to our character who is running down the street while the camera follows his movements. . While that shot may not sound impressive, think about the technology Lang was using at the time. That is what I found so impressive about this film, is that it didn’t seem dated from either a storytelling or stylistic perspectve. In his 2007 review of “Mabuse” Ken Hanke, film critic for the Mountain Xpress, described the film as “…the most modern looking film of 1933.” Needless to say I agree with this statement.
It’s worth noting that the film is actually a sequel to a previous Lang film, 1922’s “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.” Credit must be given to Lang for making a film where you don’t need to see the first one to enjoy it. Another interesting note, after Hitler rose to power Joseph Goebbels banned “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” stating it “showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence.” Oddly enough, Goebbels admired Lang’s craft so much that he offered him the position as head of the German film studio UFA. However, Lang fled to American and worked in Hollywood. A final note, “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was also the final collaboration between Lang and his screenwriting partner/wife Theo von Harbou.
For being 81 years old, Lang’s crime thriller has aged like a fine wine. It remains as fun, entertaining a suspenseful a film as I imagine it was to audiences back in the day. This just shows that good cinema can transcend place and time and still manage to entertain an audience.
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