In 1922 Fritz Lang released the 4 hour epic Dr. Mabuse – The Gambler. It told the story of the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse controlling the gambling scene in Berlin and his use of psychology and disguises when playing opponents at the tables himself. It’s worth a watch itself (split into more digestible two parts) so I won’t go in to much detail over the plot.
Released eleven years later, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse shows Mabuse’s diabolical legacy as a crime wave sweeps the city. Robberies and assassinations show all the ingenious characteristics of the Mabuse’s fiendish mind. Investigating is the Harry Secombe-like Inspector Lohann (Otto Wernicke) who finds Mabuse locked away in an asylum, mad-eyed and furiously scribbling out evil plans. Despite being confined Mabuse’s schemes are being enacted to the letter. His psychiatrist Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) seems to hold some answers to this.
As the investigation continues we see Mabuse gang member Kent (Gustav Diesel – fantastic name) torn between a financially rewarding world of crime and his love for Lilli. Deciding to inform the police of the the devilish plot Kent and Lilli are thrown into a nightmarish situation.
Arguably being most remembered for the sci-fi masterwork Metropolis it’s easy to forget that Fritz Lang spent a large part of his cinema dealing with the criminal world. Often giving equal screen time to those on either side of the law he felt like one of the first directors to properly show the villains at work, even providing them with a motive to their crimes. In the case of ‘Testament’ the Lang gives us Kent. A criminal who we are led to feel sorry for, even look on as a hero character because of his conflicted morals and love for his new girlfriend. It’s refreshing to see in a film from 1933 this sort of moral dilemma as opposed to straight forward black-hatted villains. That being said though we do have plenty of that from the other crazed criminals following Mabuse’s plans. Speaking of which Dr. Mabuse in this film appears more as a shadowy cameo villain. Save for some surprisingly creepy hallucination sequences Mabuse remains silent throughout. His mad eyes and scribbling provided the closest to dialogue. Rather than making another film about Dr. Mabuse’s dastardly shenanigans Lang goes one further. Demonstrating his strengthening power the Doctor is able to control his psychiatrists mind into acting as his proxy, providing him with instructions in ghost-like form. It’s a technique of storytelling that would be likely found in a horror film these days, but its works effectively in creating a creepy atmosphere in this crime story – Lang accomplished the same in his previous film M.
Whilst not as technically interesting as Metropolis, Testament showcases Lang’s visual flare when called upon. The gridlocked traffic assassination is intricately staged and the effects work on Mabuse’s ghostly aberration are haunting even by todays standards.
It’s also worth mentioning Otto Wernicke’s performance as our hero Inspector. World weary and to the point he seems like an early template for the brazen cops will still see in cinema today. Sporting the same confidence and swagger that Denzel Washington used in Training Day, it’s hard not to cheer inside when he walks up to a room of gun shooting gangsters and tells them to stop such silliness.
Even with all the crime shows on TV (for the past thirty years) and also seeming to provide the plot for Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse holds up as a jewell in the crown of 1930s crime cinema.
The newly released Master’s of Cinema Series DVD features a very insightful commentary. Truthfully I didn’t listen to it all but it was very interesting up until I turned it off.
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