Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE (1922)

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (aka Dr. Mabuse: The King of Crime) was not an original creation from Fritz Lang and his collaborator/wife Thea von Harbeau, but rather a novel by Norbert Jacques. Or was it a novel? I'd like to think it was more like a serial, or it had to be. This is the kind of material that lends itself to those pulp fiction serials that were to become the thing among people who dug writing that reveled in tales of crime and the bizarre, of people in the underworld getting by with nefarious means, and the cops trying to get them. It's in this realm that Fritz Lang's film of Dr. Mabuse comes from, and he would later go on to make it into a loose trilogy with Testament (1933) and, his swan song, 1,000 Fingers (1960).

In a sense, for me, this unfolds over the course of four and a half hours like some kind of epic comic-book. And I don't mean the ones with Batman (if he was here in this German town, Mabuse wouldn't last an hour). It's more akin to the hard-boiled crime fiction from the past twenty years in the medium - think, for those initiated, Ed Brubaker or the likes of Brian Michael Bendis might do - where a cat-and-mouse game develops between the cop going after the criminal, and the criminal being such a mastermind to always be one step (or more) ahead of the game. Hell, why not craft the game to one's will? And in this sense the good Dr. Mabuse is a classic comic-book ARCH-villain (in caps), complete with a mind-control/hypnosis/'will'-bending power that no one else can take on but him.

Bulls?  Bears?  No - only MABUSE'S BRAIN!

Over the course of this story we find that Dr. Mabuse has this ability, usually through just a cold-dead stare with those blazing eyebrows and varying from different faces (he's also a master of disguise), to get what he wants. This includes, early on, manipulating the stock market to such a degree that he gets fat rich off of a day that goes way down and then way up in quick time. Why he doesn't do this again isn't explained; maybe he just did it to show he could really do it to himself. It's also that he's a megalomaniac, as all great super-villains are, though he doesn't see it. How can he, when he cheats at cards by making the other guy (such as the good Edgar Hull) not see the hand he's got? Or repeating the same Chinese phrase to make someone actually cheat at cards? Matter of fact, he doesn't always have to be right at the table, just in the vicinity like with the poor sap of a Count.

What's impressive, in an odd way for me, is how Lang lays it out in large part in straightforward style. There may be the expected 'German Expressionist' style here and there, but it's mostly just a solid crime story, with the leads going cold, the moves advancing, the supporting players under Mabuse like the fiery Carozza (a sensuous, sorrowful Egede-Nisson) who starts off alive and enchanting dancing on stage and becomes a jail-bird for Mabuse, and the various plays to find out just who this person IS that keeps going from game to game playing people. The only downsides that come up story-wise really is that, in parts, one wonders how this Inspector really can't see some of the signs that things are fishy earlier on (i.e. when the Count and Countess, some of his closer allies, at least with the Countess at a couple of crucial points and scenes, disappear and he doesn't follow up on it right quick).

Hair by Mabuse-and-Shoulders
Maybe it was just the times though, when things were more innocent. I don't think Lang is really that foolish though with his narrative; he's too smart for that. And the epic has plenty of time for subtext for sure; Mabuse comes right out and declares that love cannot be - there's only WILL, and people will follow it when they are called to it. This may be more prophetic of things to come years later - a certain 'Triumph of the Will' may come to mind - but Lang is crafty to make his big fat burger of a crime epic (maybe the first in cinema history like this I wonder) about the rising of power, and what comes when desperation rules. Why even gamble? Well, why not when the game is fixed? It's not that Lang makes Mabuse exactly the 'hero' of the film, very far from it, in conventional terms it's more of a 'team' effort of the Inspector/Prosecutor and those he tries to get to help him.

But Mabuse, with his dark magic and costumes, is the most magnetic thing about the movie, and I'm sure Lang knew in the back of his mind that audiences in Germany could see it as a parable for the times: in desperation, what will people do? Of course, Lang doesn't disappoint with giving some wild images though. His visual tricks and flourishes come when the occult and the Chinese voodoo super-powers come into play; when the Inspector is in disguise - as is Mabuse - and they're playing cards and he repeats the phrase, Mabuse's head becomes disengaged from his body as Lang's camera goes from far away to close, and it's a shocking sight to behold, like a demon, all the more harrowing as neither man knows who the other is.

Either he's your antagonist, or watch the fuck out because he's about to score one helluva symphony!

Also, when the Count, under the hypnosis to stay indoors while his wife, the poor, good-hearted Countess, is being held captive by Mabuse (for what reason is unclear exactly, perhaps the 'sex' question is just never posed, maybe one of the few real flaws for me). He is getting worse, due to drink and desperation, and starts to see Ghosts at the table. It's a wonderful effect, in a way made even more potent because of the means it was done at the time in 22, as each member appears in super-imposition and the slight shakiness of the beings adds to the ghastly effect. And, of course, near the end as, without giving away too much, machines come ALIVE around a particular character.

It must also be noted how magnetic a presence Klein-Rogge is (he'd return as Mabuse in the 1933 sequel/follow-up). He is having the time of his life playing this guy (or one would hope, given Lang's notorious slave-driving tactics on set with his actors). He gets to play an ultimate bad-guy in shades sometimes subtly sinister, like when he makes a surprise visit to the Inspector - and that's one of those scenes which you can point to as 'holding up' over centuries for pure tension between predators - but more-over when he has to really go BIG.

True story, women used to look like this.  What's another word for classy?  I... got nothing.

The make-up and hair changes help, to be sure, especially when (to quote another comic book) he goes all Doctor Strange when being the fake persona of the one who 'invented' this technique of his on stage. That sequence alone would make Dr. Mabuse a must-see, for the staging, for Klein-Rogge, for the tension beat to beat. And this isn't to discount the other actors, either: an aforementioned scene between the actresses playing the Countess and Carlozza in the prison cell, where one may try to 'turn' the other, is delicious in how tables go from one side to the other, and stays kind of sophisticated in how it all goes.

This first Dr. Mabuse isn't perfect, and I'm sure there could be other holes or moments that stand out as unlikely. But for what it is, for its time, for how much energy and passion and guts and action and devilish drama that Lang and company put into this, it's irresistible genre cinema, silent or otherwise. It takes its characters and situations seriously, but is crafted not as some serious polemic about good vs evil - though if you want to take it that way, Lang won't stop you - it's a gigantic "popcorn" movie of its time and place. 

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