Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (Doctor Mabuse the Gambler) is one of the oldest films I have seen, due to some unfortunate gaps in my education. I’m not completely unfamiliar with dramatic silent films, but I know fewer of them than someone who proclaims to love movies should. So I approached this film with a little trepidation, not knowing quite what I should expect and whether I would like it.

As if to silence timid doubters like myself, the movie starts off with a rapidly-paced heist scene that turns out to be an elaborate bit of stock market manipulation on the part of the villain (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The sequence is tremendously exciting and doesn’t feel old-fashioned at all, lack of spoken dialogue notwithstanding. If anything, editing and special effects, limited though they are, impress as thoroughly modern and sophisticated.

The film can’t quite sustain that pace, but it doesn’t need to; the viewer gets hooked with the intro and is then along for the ride, which is doled out in discrete, 20 to 30 minute segments.

One of the reasons why the movie doesn’t fail to enthrall has nothing to do with what director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou put on the screen. A fitting score, created by Aljoscha Zimmermann for the 2000 restoration I watched, manages to not be annoying despite its repetitiveness and simple instrumentation. That’s not damning it with faint praise, but a great compliment given how ubiquitous music is in the film. It takes a lot of skill to compose four-and-a-half hours of a wall-to-wall score that sounds period-appropriate and helps move the story along while not detracting from the images or getting on viewers’ nerves. (The film is so long that it premiered in two parts in spring 1922, a month apart.)

The titular character is introduced in the process of choosing among a number of disguises to be used in his first scheme. I knew going in that Mabuse was supposed to be a criminal mastermind, and he is, but not in the way I expected. He’s not at all a shadowy, professorial figure like Moriarty. Indeed, he is oftentimes portrayed as a coarse thug with a volatile temper who orders his underlings around imperiously and isn’t shy about beating people up himself. And yet he’s also clearly charismatic enough to command a stable of henchmen (and -women), some of whom are fanatically devoted to him, and intelligent enough to manipulate everyone around him.

Mabuse keeps donning disguises not primarily because it helps him with his evil plots — indeed, they quite frequently seem an unnecessary risk. He’s also not interested in money for its own sake, otherwise he would be pulling off crimes on the scale of the stock market heist more often instead of resorting to swindling rich people in card games. No, Mabuse is simply incredibly arrogant and has a weakness for showing up his lessers. He is bored, and the only way to relieve his boredom is by demonstrating his superiority and exerting his will over others (the “Spieler” from the title can indeed be translated as “gambler”, but also as “actor” and “puppeteer”).

—Vague spoilers have snuck below—

He does this both by psychological manipulation – in his dayjob, he is a practising psychoanalyst, after all – and by a sort of remote hypnosis which is so powerful as to be basically magical. The latter is an integral part of the plot and character, I suppose, but it comes across as rather silly and takes what should be a realistic crime film into supernatural horror territory.

Every good bad guy needs a worthy opponent, and the one presented here is prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke, who looks a bit like Conan O’Brien). He is honourable and by the book and, truthfully, somewhat boring compared to his larger-than-life antagonist. The film never really manages to turn into a cat-and-mouse game between two equals. Von Wenk is a capable investigator who at one point tries to beat Mabuse at his own game, successfully disguising himself, and in another scene he even manages (barely) to fend off Mabuse’s psychic suggestions, demonstrating strong will. But he also falls for the villain’s deceptions several times and is the agent of his destruction more or less by default.

Other characters besides those two are more interesting, but only play major roles intermittently. There’s Edgar Hull, rich heir and card table victim who’s terrorised more by the idea of owing money to Mabuse than the threat of actually paying the debt (indeed, the winnings are never collected). The same night he loses a small fortune, he acquires a girlfriend, the dancer Cara Carozza. Since there are no coincidences in this film, she is secretly in the employ of Mabuse, as well as in love with him. A socialite couple, an affectless count and countess in search of thrills and adventure, rounds out the main cast; he becomes another victim, she a sexual obsession of Mabuse’s that leads to his downfall.

The depiction of said demise is symptomatic for the film: the audience first gets to experience an extended and exceptionally staged siege of Mabuse’s villa, followed by a visually spectacular descent into the sewers – and madness – that may have inspired the later The Third Man (1949). The sequence is much longer than it has to be, but not longer than it should be.

Lang could certainly have trimmed his film by abridging some scenes and completely excising others. But despite its epic running time, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler never feels boring or gratuitously lengthy. The sprawl adds to the film’s atmosphere, really bringing to life early Weimar-era Berlin. There are suggestions of political commentary in the movie; it’s interesting, for example, that von Welk only starts investigating Mabuse when the decadently wealthy are attacked, without much thought given on how, for example, a counterfeiting operation he runs affects inflation and hence Berlin’s lower classes. It never amounts to much of a thesis, though. In any case, Mabuse isn’t a revolutionary, a champion for the indigent and downtrodden. He is chaos personified, someone with the mission to rot the structures of organised society for his own amusement: an unsual and unique villain.

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