Agile, intricate and visually expressive (such as with its superimpositions), the first part of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Ein Bild der Zeit) exemplifies Fritz Lang’s fascination with criminal behavior and intrigue while creating a convincing portrait of post-World War I German society. The first episode, detailing the complicated scheme by which criminal mastermind Mabuse, a deranged psychoanalyst, malicious hypnotist and master of disguises, seeks to make a killing on the stock exchange, dazzles; dizzyingly brilliant, it employs the best material that wife Thea von Harbou, adapting Norbert Jacques’ novel, ever wrote for Lang. Regrettably, though, the film becomes increasingly labored and repetitious—so much so, one hopes that each of almost all the chapter-like “acts” will be the last. I will not suffer Part II of the entire 4½-hour film anytime soon.
Mabuse is a tyrant who terrorizes his gang members; one of these is so incompetent that the viewer might imagine that Mabuse has engaged his services just to rail against him. Indeed, Mabuse’s core beliefs are also perverse: “There is no such thing as love—only passion. There is no such thing as luck—only the will to gain power.” One might categorize Mabuse as a solipsist who assesses the nature of things by projecting his own limitations. A dispenser of fear, he is secretly the prisoner of his own fears: an embodiment of the tormented national psyche following Germany’s recent humiliating defeat.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge makes for a curiously hollow, recessive Mabuse; this hypnotist seems, himself, to have been hypnotized. He seems semi-robotic, as though he is haplessly “playing out” the distasteful destiny that has been imposed on him.
Throughout, the lustrous set designs by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Stahl-Urach and Karl Vollbrecht enhance this boring silent’s beauty.