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Dr Mabuse, der Spieler

Entry updated 12 May 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1922; vt Dr Mabuse, the Gambler 1927). Ullstein/UCO Film/Decla Bioscop/UFA. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou, loosely based on Norbert Jacques's Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (1920; trans Lilian A Clare as Dr Mabuse, Master of Mystery 1923). Cast includes Alfred Abel, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Paul Richter and Gertrud Welcker. In two parts: Part One, Ein Bild der Zeit ["A Picture of our Time"], 154 minutes: Part Two, Inferno – Ein Spiel von Menschen der Zeit ["Inferno – A Game for the People of our Time"], 114 minutes. Full version (2004) without expurgations, 271 minutes. Black and white.

Although at first glance seemingly little more than a very early cinematic instance of the sensational melodrama about a ruthless businessman/scientist with incipient Superpowers intent on world gangsterism, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is in fact dense with implications, being a significant contribution to the German (and European) creative response to the Aftermath of World War One. In the film, Fritz Lang anticipates several twentieth-century sf patterns (see Dystopia; Paranoia), both written and filmed: topoi whose shaping influence extends in Cinema until at least Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg (1977) and probably beyond. It pictures a Germany sinking into anarchy and corruption, ready to be exploited by a man – an iconic Secret Master figure frequently seen in expressionist shots that illuminate the insidious potency of his reach – a führer for whom chaos is effectively an end in itself.

After its twenty-first century re-release in a print lasting over four hours, it has become convenient to describe the film in its two original sections (they were initially released a month apart). Part One, Ein Bild der Zeit ["A Picture of our Time"] is an essentially episodic portrayal of Dr Mabuse (Klein-Rogge) exercising his powers – primarily Hypnotism and Telepathy – through the manipulation of high spenders in gambling dens, and corrupting women through his sexual control over them (see Sex); the sense that Berlin exists literally Underground, though clearly emblematic as well as literal, is powerfully conveyed through a chiaroscuro-saturated cinematography and settings typical of the silent film at its most chthonically invasive. The world exposed is hysterical and trivial; and Mabuse's motives seem mercenary, including his savage treatment of the dancer Cara Carozza (Egede-Nissen). In Part Two, Inferno – Ein Spiel von Menschen der Zeit ["Inferno – A Game for the People of our Time"], Mabuse grows increasingly insane, as "normal" commercial motives no longer plausibly explain his obsessive attempts to destroy for the lives of his victims and to destabilize Berlin. His main opponent, the dogged state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Goetzke), a fretful voice of Weimar reason, is brought close to death more than once; but seems to prevail, perhaps through becoming better able to detect Mabuse's various disguises, foiling in the end the Mad Scientist's ability to appear in new masks in new venues where, as an undetected and malign Mysterious Stranger, he can bring chaos to the world. By the end of the film, as hindsight judgments not unfairly suggest, he is already as insane as Adolf Hitler (an obscure figure in 1922) would become (see Das Testament des Dr Mabuse [1933]).

Mabuse, the chaos-lover whose weapons are as much psychological as technological, may be an underlier figure for some interwar Scientific Romance exercises in cultural pessimism; but in Genre SF terms seems to anticipate, for example, the far more effectively deranging novels of Alfred Bester. The idea of a decaying society controlled and exploited by a secret group appears throughout sf, often in the early novels of C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. And in more recent fiction, the mutating interface where Virtual Reality and Zoo may be seen to marry can be traced back to the vertigo-inducing insecurities of the 1920s expressionist film in Germany.

After Das Testament Lang made one further Mabuse film, Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse (1960; vt The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse; vt The Diabolical Dr Mabuse). In the early 1960s five further continuations were made in Germany, not by Lang; these include Scotland Yard jagt Dr Mabuse ["Scotland Yard Hunts Dr Mabuse"] (1963; vt Dr Mabuse vs Scotland Yard). [JC/PN]

see also: Dr. M.


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