The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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"The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" (1933)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). 124 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Lohmann), Karl Meixner (as Hofmeister), Oscar Beregi, Sr. (as Professor Baum), Gustav Diessl (as Thomas Kent), and Rudolf Klein-Rogge (as Dr. Mabuse).

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film that Fritz Lang made before leaving Nazi Germany.  It begins by introducing the disgraced police detective Hofmeister, who in order to redeem himself in the eyes of his superior, Inspector Lohmann, has doggedly and independently investigated a criminal syndicate. Before he can reveal the name of the head of the syndicate to Lohmann, something happens to Hofmeister to make him go mad, and he is subsequently placed in an asylum. In the same asylum, we find the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse, who is insane and rapidly writing strange instructions (his “testament”) on how to carry out illegal activity. Dr. Mabuse is supervised by the psychiatrist Professor Baum, who considers the crime boss to be a genius. In the meantime we come to know Thomas Kent, a gangster working in the syndicate that Hofmeister identified who wants to go straight. The syndicate is controlled by a mysterious man who appears in a locked room behind a curtain and issues orders to his henchmen; this ominous man is aware that Kent is looking for a way out of the organization and makes it clear that this is impossible.

Eventually we learn that the head of the syndicate is Mabuse, a revelation that is initially confusing because he resides in the asylum, and also puzzling because he dies partway through the film. Soon we see that it is actually Baum who in practice leads the syndicate and is the voice of the man behind the curtain. He seems to be controlled by Mabuse’s ghost, who visits the professor’s study at night. Eventually Lohmann unravels all of this and brings the syndicate down, but not before Baum, led by Mabuse’s ghost, carries out a city-wide campaign of criminal acts that involve counterfeiting, robbery, and the destruction of a chemical plant. At the movie’s conclusion, Baum flees from his pursuers back into the asylum, where we last see him locked in a cell, wild-eyed and wild-haired, as he slowly tears up all of Mabuse’s testament. Kent escapes from Baum’s/Mabuse’s grip, and Hofmeister’s sanity is restored.

As a crime film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is both a sequel to Lang’s silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and to Lang’s first sound film, M (1931), in which the character Mabuse does not appear but the character Inspector Lohmann does. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is not as tightly constructed as M, nor are its characterizations as captivating. The 1933 sequel does, however, have something that its antecedents M and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler do not: a strange supernatural element that is unnerving and very wonderful. There are several ghosts in this movie, but the main spiritual presence is Mabuse himself. His eerie specter appears to take hold of Baum, both by lecturing to the professor on criminal philosophy and by hypnotically compelling Baum to act on his (Mabuse’s) behalf.

Lang later said that he regretted the supernatural scenes, but on the contrary, I find them to be the most interesting aspect of the movie. In spite of the other-worldliness of Mabuse the ghost, he is presented as a plausible physical presence, and the interaction between the ghostly Mabuse and the living characters is very neatly done. Importantly, the spectral sequences show us Mabuse transitioning from a disenfranchised character, held powerless in an asylum and pitied by those who see him, to the most powerful character in the movie—one who can control men even from beyond the grave. Seated in Baum’s office, encircled with a strange collection of masks and sculptures, the potent specter whom we can see through nevertheless becomes more complex as he dictates to the professor in a high-pitched whisper. His striking appearance as a spiritual manifestation points directly to his villainy: the ghost Mabuse looks like a strange human x-ray, but with horrifying insect-like eyes, what looks like an exposed brain, and bizarre hair. Although Baum would have us believe that Mabuse is a kind of god, really he looks like a kind of demon when he materializes in the professor’s study.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was filmed just before Hitler came to power and was made ready for distribution after his ascendancy to the chancellorship. Lang submitted the film for pre-release screening to Joseph Goebbel’s newly formed censorship office, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels apparently held a subsequent meeting with Lang and other German filmmakers in which the propaganda minister described what the tenor and style of movies released under the National Socialist government should be. By March 30 of 1933, however, Goebbels had officially forbidden the release of Lang’s film, citing issues with its depiction of a group of rogue civilians rising up and creating a revolutionary “empire of crime” (to quote Mabuse’s testament) in order to undermine social institutions and cause chaos. The German version was never shown in Nazi Germany, although it was screened in Hungary that year, and the French version, which Lang shot simultaneously with the German version, was shown elsewhere on the continent. Strangely, although Goebbels banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in Germany, something about the movie intrigued him: film historian David Kalat has noted that he screened it several times for guests during the years of Nazi rule.

It is not clear to me that the criminals in this movie represent a potentially subversive, anti-Nazi force, or a force that anyone would look up to and want to emulate. As we see and hear Mabuse detail his “empire of crime” in his writings and ghostly lessons to Professor Baum, the criminal syndicate more resembles the Nazi movement in its violent and chaotic manipulation of society. In the dramatic opening, the detective Hofmeister (a force for good in the movie), hides in one of Mabuse’s criminal print shops during his investigation of the syndicate. While Hofmeister trembles, obviously afraid as he crouches on the ground, we can hear the presses pounding threateningly in the background. We do not know who Hofmeister is yet or what he is doing, yet this scene speaks to an environment of ominous and oppressive fear. Additionally, the idea of someone who composes a manifesto while locked away has a direct corollary in the young Adolf Hitler, who wrote his foundational screed Mein Kampf from prison. The burning of the chemical factory at the film’s ends even reminds me of that epic and then-recent German conflagration: the destruction of the Reichstag. Lang’s earlier film M can be read as an unflattering commentary on Germany’s political development in the 1930s, and Lang’s criticism of National Socialism can easily be seen in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as well. Perhaps the movie’s unflattering depiction of a Nazi-like organization was a more authentic reason for Goebbels to prevent its release.

It is interesting to note that Christopher Nolan was impressed by Mabuse’s criminal rants and told his screenwriter brother Jonah to see this movie while he was working on the script for The Dark Knight. Both The Dark Knight’s Joker and Mabuse describe their philosophies of destruction in a rambling fashion; their distorted visages are another point in common. At least the Joker is mortal and containable by comparison: at the end of Lang’s story, Mabuse seems to have fully possessed the crazed Baum, who in the last scene is committed much like Mabuse, suggesting that something cyclical is underway. It is curious to think that Lang’s film,  shut down in Germany and not seen in its complete form in the rest of the world for many decades thereafter, nevertheless exerted influence from the fringes of cinema culture on the formation of another movie’s crime philosophy, much in the way that the antagonist Mabuse exerts his ghostly influence on the underworld in Lang’s film.

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