Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

Fritz Lang's 1922 silent epic, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, solidified the German director as one of the primary movers and shakers of early cinema. Less Expressionistic than his contemporaries Murnau or Weine, Lang drew more from the cinematic techniques of Griffith and Feuillade than the theater of Ernst Toller or Max Reinhardt. His early silent films varied between these two influences: he would make either artistic, Expressionist features (Destiny) or more commercial fare (Spiders). Dr. Mabuse changed that; it consolidated the two halves of Lang's prowess into a filmic language that could mix high concept artistry with populist entertainment.

Just as importantly, it displayed an undercurrent of political commentary that would define the masterpieces he made under the turbulent Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party. Mabuse (pronounced Mah- boo-zah), one of the great villains of any medium, is a master of disguise. Always donning some outlandish costume and make-up, he nevertheless blends into crowds with his gift for concealment. Having mental powers ranging from hypnotism to outright telepathy likely helps as well. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who collaborated with Lang on many of his german classics, excels in the role, thoroughly over-the-top but with a hint of real madness that makes him scary. Mabuse's disguises make him a powerful foe, one who can wreak havoc and walk away unnoticed, with a network of completely loyal minions in high and low places; through, them he nearly brings down German society.

By dressing up Mabuse so often, Lang is commenting on the number of issues affecting postwar Germany, be it inner turmoil or the too-severe punishments forced upon the country in the Treaty of Versailles. Lang of course made an (arguably more famous) sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, in which his character spouted rhetoric literally ripped from Goebbels' propaganda pieces, but the Mabuse of this film is more complex even as he is far more straightforward than the specter who pulls the strings in Testament.

Mabuse's first action of the film is to crash the stock market with a meticulously crafted plan. His henchman hijack a train in order to steal a trade agreement, shot in ingenious pre-Eistenstein montage, that highlights how pitch-perfect every cog in Mabuse's machine works. The henchmen steal the briefcase holding the agreement and throw it from the train, only for it to land neatly in the backseat of another henchman's car passing underneath (this also doubles as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the touted efficiency of German rail). When news of the stolen agreement reaches the market, prices plummet as a disguised Mabuse looks on and waits. As soon as prices fall to dangerously low levels, he buys up everything he can, and suddenly the agreement is returned, unmolested, sending stocks shooting straight back up.

For Mabuse to so casually play with the nation's economy, to make everything worthless so he can amass a fortune a few minutes later, clearly reflects the foreign demand for reparations. The harsh demands of the Treaty of Versailles bankrupted a country that already had to deal with the seismic shift from a powerful authoritarian state into a fledgling and directionless democracy, and Mabuse torments these people further.

Naturally, just because the nation plunged into debt didn't mean that a wealthy class ceased to exist. The aristocrats, now stripped of their nobility, choose to lose themselves in decadence to help them forget the trauma. They fill seedy, smoky dens, gambling away huge chunks of money, with access to any vice available to them with just a few code words so as not to attract the attention of the law.

Mabuse preys on these self-absorbed fools; at a variety house, he manages to hypnotize a young man, Hull, then follows him to a casino and bends the wealthy lad to play, and of course lose, numerous games of cards. Hull starts losing such massive sums of marks -- the intertitles say 50,000, but I suspect that this was done for the American release to play into our understanding of our own currency, as 50,000 paipermark in 1922 were valueless; by 1923, the excahnge rate between a mark and a dollar was 1,000,000:1. Even with the 150,000 he also owes, Hull only lost 20 cents -- that even the other rich patrons express concern. Mabuse takes the boy for all the money he has with him and an I.O.U. worth thrice that and makes his exit. When Hull snaps out of his spell, he doesn't even remember who he played against, and he finds that his last hand, which he folded, was a winning one.

The proper cut of Dr. Mabuse stretches to the 4-1/2 hour mark and was split into two parts upon its release. The first part presents its titular villain as a terrifying force, one who can attack anything or anyone at any time. He manipulates identifiable images such as the faces of cards and stock prices and switches room numbers and even sports a car with a revolving license plate (something directly lifted in the Bond film Goldfinger). In doing so, he's stripping the symbols that subtly supply our normalcy of their meaning, just as the identifiable aspects of old Prussia were now worthless in the anarchy of early Weimar Germany.

These of course were the early days of cinema, and the hero sent to stop the mysterious Dr. Mabuse is little more than a precise foil for the evil doctor. Interestingly, Mabuse has the country in such a state of fear that a government official, not an ordinary police detective, is dispatched to handle the problem. Norbert von Wenk, state prosecutor and Chief Inspector, too is a master of disguise and, not knowing what Mabuse looks like, lures the villain by gambling large amounts of money to attract attention. When Mabuse takes the bait, he finds that he cannot bend von Wenk to his will, but only through great effort on the prosecutor's part.

Each of them even manipulates a woman to get their dirty work done. At the cabaret club where Mabuse hypnotizes Hull, the young man never notices what is happening to him because he's enraptured with the exotic dancer Cara. Cara has the rich young men of Berlin eating out of her hand, and Mabuse eventually persuades her to submit to him, possibly not so much to use her to do his bidding as to eliminate the competition. This woman, the object of everyone's desire, obeys her new master out of inhuman devotion, as if the lusts of all those men who fancy her were somehow combined into a singular passion for the doctor. Von Wenk enlists the aid of Countess Told to give him an entry into the seedy backrooms of the rich. Ironically, it is the Countess who eventually refuses to perform her assigned tasks because of their immorality. Cara remains so loyal to her master than, when captured, she commits suicide rather than give anything to von Wenk.

If the Mabuse of the first part is an insoluble, unstoppable demon, the Mabuse of the second half becomes a tragic allegory for the state of Germany. The countess refuses to follow von Wenck's orders any longer, just as Mabuse discovers her and begins to fall in love. He drives her husband to suicide and works his charm on her, and through her he will eventually come undone.

That Mabuse would use his horrific schemes to win a mate is hardly a big step from his previous activities, but his actions are not as personal as they seem. Money means nothing to him; it's bankrupting aristocrats and affected the economy on a grand scale that gives him pleasure. Here at last is something that stirs his blood beyond pure evil, and where most directors would fall down trying to humanize their villains Lang's makes his film all the more disturbing in the doctor's struggle to woo the countess. He previously bent all but von Wenk to his will (and even then he nearly won), but his attempts to break her mentally, to force her to love him, fail. When at last Mabuse finds something he truly desires, he cannot affect it.

Focusing all of his attention on Countess Told leaves Mabuse's criminal empire without its customary precision, and he slowly ties and tightens his own noose. The newfound sloppiness gives von Wenk the foothold he needs to mount a successful takedown. Mabuse must also contend with the apparitions of some of his victims, who only add to his stress.

That is not to say that Mabuse's plans suddenly grind to a halt, however; in one spectacular sequence, he incites political activists to riot by convincing them that their hero is being transported to prison. Of course, the Weimar Republic suffered from both radicals and reactionaries, and both sides committed their share of violence.

At last Mabuse admits that he is slipping, confiding in the countess, “I haven’t been the same since I met you. I’ve been making mistakes.” When von Wenk finally catches him, the doctor's hair is white and unkempt, and the madmen is sent to an institution. Here Lang's film takes on an unintended relevance, albeit one he perhaps noted later as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is needed to flesh it out: Mabuse, the stand-in for anarchic decadence in postwar Germany, is locked away, presumably crushing his organization without its leader. In 1924, following a failed coup that left many party members dead, the German government sentenced nazi leader Adolf Hitler to prison, hoping to nip the growing nuisance in the bud. However, he emerged from his (actually quite lightweight) sentence with Mein Kampf and turned the Nazi Party into a true political force. Further parallels between Hitler and Mabuse's intersecting stories will be discussed when I get around to reviewing The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Lang's style throughout this epic is unassailable. For a 4-1/2 film, especially a silent one, it moves at a brisk pace that demands attention. Compare this even to early montage maestros Griffith and Eisenstein (who reportedly honed his montage skills while editing a print of this film for Russian distribution); Griffith's films plod through turgid patches of melodrama for much of their running lengths, and even Battleship Potemkin bogs down when it gets into its purely propagandic moments. The only real drag occurs in the first part which lacks a real structure in its depiction of Mabuse's frightening powers.

One must also marvel at the technique. Lang captures night life in the city as no one else had previously: the headlights of speeding cars, the streetlamps and building lights stretching back as far as the eye can see, all captured in total clarity. His Berlin is realistic but also abstract, moving through the backrooms of society -- the stripteases, the casinos, the opium dens -- none of which offer any clue to their locations in the city. Figures often appear in open door frames, but even when they don't we must remain on-guard to see where Lang will take us next.

The Expressionism of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is chiefly confined to the overblown performances and the camera tricks that Lang pulls to demonstrate Mabuse's mental powers at work. But the mixture of these stylized performances and his realistic but inventive photography effectively set down the blueprint for film noir 20 years before The Maltese Falcon "launched" the genre and nearly a decade before his own M cemented the style.

Mabuse himself speaks of Expressionism; while attending a soirée essentially in person (but still drawing on a persona that he presents to the public), someone asks him what he thinks of the movement, and he replies, "Expressionism is a mere pastime -- but why not? Everything today is pastime!" Perhaps Lang uses the line as a fun poke at the art form, that it's no deeper or more meaningful than any other type of art and that he just wants to create. I though see it as evidence of Mabuse's lack of emotional connection: art is merely a trifle for him because it's designed to provoke an emotional response, and he cares only for panic. He does not understand passion, which is why his inability to handle his feelings for Countess Told undo him.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is one of the finest silent films I've ever seen, and one of the few that draws me in beyond distanced admiration (other examples being Chaplin and Keaton films as well as Murnau's Nosferatu and Sunrise). Its pacing, acting, story and themes had caught up in the film even as I couldn't stop comparing it to the history of the Weimar Republic as I watched it. In Dr. Mabuse I see the blueprint for Hannibal Lecter, or the Joker; his ability to plan 10 steps ahead for every scheme makes him far more terrifying than a hands-on killer, and his psychological warfare with von Wenk and indeed the whole of Germany is more entertaining than just about any slasher pic I could care to mention. Lang's name primarily comes up in connection with Metropolis and M, masterpieces both, but Dr. Mabuse should be required viewing for cinephiles and a fine film to show to your more philistine friends who would likely never give a silent film a chance.

1 comment:

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