Fritz Lang’s two-part Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922) portrayed a decadent German society whose criminal mastermind, Mabuse, both orchestrated evil and embodied it. Authorities apprehend the madman that Mabuse either has become or has always been. Regardless, Lang’s delayed sequel finds Mabuse locked up in his asylum cell, from which he nevertheless is able to direct criminal activity mentally, having hypnotized Baum, the asylum head, who carries out his dastardly orders on the outside. Mabuse’s death signals an ambiguous event: either Baum falsely believes that Mabuse now occupies his consciousness and soul or Mabuse really does. Regardless, Baum, the madman now, occupies Mabuse’s former cell.
Film historian Eric Rhode is correct in stating Lang’s thematic intent in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse: “[Lang’s] emphasis on settings and objects . . . allows the spectator to realize that a sense of mystery may reside in his [or her] perception of the most mundane things: a sense of mystery implicit in the contrast Lang draws between Mabuse’s small cell and dreams of infinite power. . . . Lang wished to demonstrate the impossibility of the transcendental or the real separately.” To my eye, Mabuse’s cell is fairly spacious; but Lang early on creates two brilliant consecutive shots there: Mabuse feverishly filling paper sheets, one after another, before discarding each in turn—an explosion of energy that insists he is somewhere other than the cell that is meant to contain and constrain him; the continually added-to pile of discarded sheets on the floor—the disorganization suggesting Mabuse’s unhinged mind. However, it is precisely his imprisonment that predicates Mabuse’s mental “release,” and as for the scattered sheets, we discover there’s method to Mabuse’s “madness.”
Lang’s opening sequence transitions from the earlier Mabuse film to this one by its being silent except for selective sounds. (We hear the grind of machinery and the clang of metal, but voices and footsteps remain mute.) We are coming out of a dream; once inside Mabuse-antagonist Police Inspector Lohmann’s office, everything seems real. And thereafter? The symphonic cacophony of a traffic jam, while transcending the silence of the original Mabuse film, descends into assassination. The nightmare continues.
Believing that Lang was taking aim at Nazism and Hitler, Goebbels banned the film. Lang, whose ethnicity was part-Jewish, fled Germany, where Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse would not be shown for eighteen years.
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