by Philip Concannon
When Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse: The Gambler was released in 1922, one promotional poster carried the question “Who is Dr Mabuse?” alongside pictures of six very different-looking men. Of course, the truth is that all six men are Dr Mabuse, and the film opens with the title character turning over photographs like playing cards, as he ponders which of his many disguises to adopt. The question lingers on over the three films Lang made about Mabuse – who is he? The answer is he is many things at once. Mabuse was cinema’s first supervillain, he was a metaphor for the rot at the heart of Germany, he was an allegory for Nazi rule and he was the character who first helped to elevate Lang’s status as a director and a decade later provoked his flight from his homeland.
Today, the name of Mabuse is synonymous with Lang, but the character was originally the creation of Norbert Jacques, a German-language writer from Luxembourg whose 1921 novel Dr Mabuse der Spieler had been an instant sensation. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind who utilises his facilities for disguise and powers of telekinesis to pull off a series of daring heists. With a gang of stooges he controls with his mind, Mabuse has rarely to get involved in the committing of the crime himself, and the closest he comes to getting his hands dirty is when he sits down in a gambling den, where he bends opponents to his will with a piercing stare.
In the novel, Lang saw the opportunity both for spectacular entertainment on a grand scale and for deeper reflection upon contemporary German society. Jaques had presented Mabuse as a villain created by the rampant crime and corruption that existed in post-war Germany; a figurehead for the decaying core of the Weimar Republic. Lang liked the fact the film could operate on these two levels simultaneously, later stating that Dr Mabuse: The Gambler “was a thriller about an arch-criminal and the public liked it for that” before adding, “The film reflected the demoralised atmosphere of Germany at the time… it was the kind of atmosphere in which a man like Mabuse could thrive. I saw the master-criminal after World War I as a version of the superman which Nietzsche had created in his writings.” In the film, Lang makes the character (memorably portrayed by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) an imperious, almost omniscient figure, most overtly during the scene in which he manipulates the stock market and which ends with his satisfied visage superimposed over the devastation left in his wake.
Dr Mabuse: The Gambler was a major film for Lang. It allowed him to indulge in all manner of visual and editing trickery and to stage a series of spellbinding set-pieces – without The Gambler it’s hard to imagine Lang making his great crime thriller Spione six years later. He succeeded in spinning a yarn over the course of four hours that engrossed audiences, who flocked to the epic which was screened in two parts over consecutive nights. Contemporary reviewers also took note of the deeper themes that pulsed beneath the dramatic surface, describing it as “a mirror of the age” or “a document of its time.” In a sense, it was also a document of times to come, as Lang’s description of the character carried an unnerving sense of foreboding: “I had in mind a monster that controls people. A monster that hypnotises people and forces them to do things that they don’t want to do at all, to commit monstrous crimes. And afterwards they have no idea what they did.”
The monster returned in 1932 in The Testament of Doctor Mabuse to a Germany which was turning into a very different country. The film begins with Mabuse incarcerated in an asylum, silently scribbling away at a manifesto for the establishment of a future empire of crime (shades of Mein Kampf?). He seems little more than an insane shadow of the mastermind we once knew, yet he manages to continue the spread his insidious influence, possessing and inhabiting weaker minds and using them to carry out his plans. In one of the creepiest and most unforgettable sequences Lang ever filmed (though he later said he regretted filming it), the spirit of Mabuse appears after his death to take possession of the body of the psychiatrist Baum, but not before it delivers the infamous ‘Empire of Crime’ speech. In a raspy, otherworldly voice it declares “When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become the supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime.” Lang always claimed that this dialogue was lifted directly from Nazi slogans. And despite Lang’s confidence in his position within German cinema (“Good luck trying to suppress a Fritz Lang film in Germany” he quoted himself as telling Goebbels), The Testament of Dr Mabuse was duly banned in March 1933 and Lang was about to find himself at a critical turning point in his life and career.
Fritz Lang was a notoriously unreliable narrator of his own life, someone who liked to rewrite history when it suited him and who wasn’t shy about self-mythologising. His pivotal meeting with Goebbels is a story he retold many times, embellishing certain details (the clock hands moving slowly, the enormous scale of the Propaganda Minister’s office) to emphasise the drama. According to Lang, Goebbels told the director that they had to ban The Testament of Dr Mabuse because it ended with the villain going mad rather than being caught and dealt with by the police, thus showing the state to be incapable of containing the threat and undermining the people’s confidence in their leaders. However, he then went on to tell Lang that Hitler greatly admired his work and strongly felt he was the man who could give the German people great Nazi films. In short, the Nazis wanted Lang to become their Führer of cinema. Lang thanked Goebbels and said he would consider the offer, before walking away from the office with sweat running down his body. He fled for Paris that night.
Lang continued his career in America, where the French version of The Testament of Dr Mabuse was released in 1943 alongside Hangmen Also Die! with the pair being immediately celebrated as great works of anti-Nazi cinema. Over the following decades, he made some of the great films of American cinema – The Big Heat, The Woman in the Window, The Ministry of Fear – but German producers wanted him to come home, and they tried to lure him with the resurrection of Mabuse. “No, the bastard is dead and buried,” Lang snapped when the offer was first made. But financial considerations – and the fear that someone else would go ahead and make it anyway – soon swayed him. During preparations for the new film, entitled The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse, Lang began to wonder if it could represent a new collection of contemporary fears and anxieties, just as his previous pictures had. The action centres on the Luxor Hotel and hinges around a vast network of cameras that Mabuse and his cohorts have built. The network is an echo of reality – the Nazis had planned to use a similar surveillance system at the Hotel Adlon after the Second World War. Mabuse’ thousand eyes, however, embodied a paranoia that was entirely relevant to the Cold War. In an unfortunate confluence of events Lang began to lose his sight during the production, and the whole picture seems driven by voyeurism and perception, of those who are blind and those who can see.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse is a strikingly inventive and mysterious swansong, and it seems fitting that Lang ended his filmmaking career with the character he had become so indelibly associated with. Inevitably, other Mabuse films followed after Lang’s retirement and death (such as The Invisible Dr Mabuse; an apt title for a film so little-seen) but while they have fallen through the cracks of history, Lang’s trilogy stands as a masterful study of human nature through the decades. Within them we see Dr Mabuse as a shifting metaphor for the times: for corruption in Weimar Germany, for the persuasive evil of the Nazis, and for the paranoia in the nuclear age. But what keeps the films feeling so vital and pertinent today (aside from Lang’s cinematic virtuosity) is the sense that they represent something broader. Dr Mabuse speaks to the darkest aspects in all of us, his motivation summarized in Dr Mabuse: The Gambler by the line, “There is no such thing as love – there is only desire, and the will to possess what you most desire.” Lang may have described him as evil incarnate, but perhaps the scariest thing about the character is that we don’t have to stretch too far to find something identifiable in his lust for power and glory. Who is Dr Mabuse? There are so many answers to that question, but one thing is certain – Dr Mabuse will never die.