The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
November 30, 2006
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse premiered on April 21, 1933 in Budapest. It was banned in Germany because of its thinly-veiled criticism of Adolph Hitler and his regime. The film was finally shown in Germany on August 24, 1951 in a shortened version. The Criterion Collection, working in conjunction with the Federal Film Archive and the Munich Film Museum, have restored Lang’s masterpiece as close to its original running time as possible. The result is a stunning transfer and an informative collection of extras for this influential movie.
The deafening sounds of noisy machinery overwhelm the soundtrack as a disheveled man named Hofmeister (Meixner) hides desperately from someone or something. He manages to escape the cacophonous building only to be nearly killed by falling debris and then narrowly avoids a barrel that explodes into flames. Inspector Lohmann (Wernicke) receives Hofmeister’s frantic phone call. He tells Lohmann that he was tracing counterfeit money for days but the call is cut short before he can name the identity of the mysterious counterfeiter.
Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge) is a criminal mastermind who used hypnotism to pull a series of elaborate crimes but went insane over time. He was caught by the police and committed to an insane asylum where doctors analyze his feverish writings. Mabuse, however, still commands a gang of criminals through telepathic hypnosis and they carry out his devious machinations of terror and chaos.
Inspector Lohmann is a man of logic and uses his powers of observation to solve crime. He relies on forensics to figure out the identity of the counterfeiter. Otto Wernicke plays Lohmann as a no-nonsense man who is determined to solve the mystery. He’s thoughtful and methodical—the perfect opponent for the crafty Mabuse who is clearly the Professor Moriarty to Lohmann’s Sherlock Holmes.
Dr. Mabuse is something of an enigmatic figure. His appearance is that of a wild-eyed maniac with a piercing glare that is unsettling in its intensity. He is able to manifest an ominous, ghost-like image of himself to others. He doesn’t commit any of the crimes but always through unwitting pawns. Mabuse rules his organization with an iron fist by using fear and intimidation (shades of Hitler and the Nazis).
At the time, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was seen as a critique of Nazi Germany. At one point, the asylum’s doctor describes Mabuse:
“This mind would have laid waste to our whole rotten world, which is long over due for destruction. This godless world, devoid of justice and compassion, consisting only of selfishness, cruelty and hatred. This mind would have destroyed mankind, which itself knows only destruction and extermination and which could only have been saved in its final hour through terror and horror.”
It’s a chilling monologue delivered with frightening conviction by the mad doctor. He could easily be talking about Hitler and his worldview, his masterplan for anyone who opposes his master race but which is eerily relevant today in a time when we all live under the shadow of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden. Mabuse’s notes outline a reign of terror: attacks on railroad lines, gas storage and chemical factories. Sound familiar? These are the daily threats that terrorists use to keep us in a constant state of fear and unease.
David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, contributes an informative audio commentary. He mentions that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is actually the sequel to two prior Lang films, Dr. Mabuse—The Gambler (1922) and M (1931). He talks at length about the film’s themes, like the failure of communication. Kalat also points out that Lang’s film anticipated jigsaw puzzle movies like Memento (2000) where the audience is uncertain how individual scenes affect the overall film.
The second disc starts off with a French version of the movie, entitled, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, that Lang filmed at the same time as the original German version but with a French-speaking cast.
“For Example Fritz Lang” is an excerpt from a 1964 documentary on the director that was shot for German television. Lang talks about Dr. Mabuse—The Gambler and, of course, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse with clips from each film.
“Mabuse in Mind” is an interview with actor Rudolf Schundler (who played gang member Hardy) by Thomas Honickel. The veteran actor talks about how he got into the film and his experiences working on it.
“Norbert Jacques: Mabuse’s Creator” sheds light on the literary origins of Dr. Mabuse. Michel Farin, a Mabuse expert, talks about the series of novels that inspired Lang’s films.
“The Three Faces of Dr. Mabuse” examines the differences between the German, French and American versions of the movie. Kalat goes through specific scenes and compares them side-by-side to show how differences in editing techniques produced different meanings for each version.
“Production Designs” features rare preliminary sketches by art director Emil Hasler.
Finally, “Memorabilia and Stills” is a series of galleries of posters, pressbooks and stills.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse not only anticipated the emergence of the film noir genre but also cryptic criminal mastermind films like The Usual Suspects (1995). Its subject matter and the themes that it examines are also scarily relevant to the times we currently live in.
Rating: Fritz Lang%