Film serials peaked in the mid-to-late-1910s, but their epic-yet-episodic storytelling mode didn’t completely vanish. Take Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, the two-part 1922 Fritz Lang masterpiece that spans more than 4.5 hours. It has the spirit of a serial like Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas or Les Vampires (my review), but crafted into a more flowing, building narrative.
The story (my first Fritz Lang exposure), centers around the anti-hero Dr. Mabuse (muh-BOOSZ-uh), played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Mabuse is a supervillain with “suggestion” powers — he can perform hypnosis and mind control to others in the room. Operating as a secretive behind-the-scenes force, he’s able to manipulate markets and games of chance in his favor to gain wealth and power, but only ever appearing in public in disguise.
“Der Spieler” from the title is typically translated to into “the Gambler,” but some meaning is lost in that translation: The German word also translates to “player” as in competitor, or even actor. The multi-pronged meaning of the title hints at the multiple roles that Mabuse plays throughout the film.
I watched this film with David Kalat’s commentary on the Eureka/Master of Cinema printing of the DVD and learned a lot about the cultural context of this film. A post-war Germany, despondent in attitude (as reflected in its Expressionist film movement, a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – my review), had appetite for a character pulling the strings and able to manipulate society at his most corrupt whims. Kalat also argues this film foreshadows many pre-WW2 and WW2 cultural themes in Germany, like a fear of a “great unknown,” galvanized by Hitler and turned against Jews and other outsiders.
Dr. Mabuse der Spieler showed new heights for its time in sophisticated cinematic storytelling, especially in the editing: The story’s perspective hops effortlessly between not only characters and settings but chronologies, yet in a way that feels intuitive. Like a good mystery novel, the film leads you to conclusions at a pace that’s occasionally nonlinear, but always for maximum revelatory impact.
The film also displays Lang as a master of composition. Many shots here are absolutely riveting, with Lang and DP Carl Hoffman making use of the full frame for visual content. Lang’s career is full of depictions of institutional rot and paranoia, both of which are central themes of this film, visually manifested with secret lairs and shadowy, smoky back rooms.
The story is long and gripping, but ultimately comes down, like many rise-then-fall stories, to the subject giving into personal passions and whims. Here, Mabuse falls for the aloof Countess Told, and kidnaps her, which ultimately spirals to his own defeat. The final hour of the film, in particular, is a tense climax of Mabuse’s grip on the narrative slipping into desperation. Truly masterpiece-level pre-Hitchcock suspense craft in its final act, with multiple “oh SHIT” moments.
Dr. Mabuse der Spieler is a rich, amazing film, but I cannot fully endorse it to modern audiences due to its exhausting runtime. The film would have just as much punch in half its runtime — there are many slow portions. The quasi-supernatural elements also feel a bit out of place for what is otherwise an operatic crime story. But there’s so much early cinema brilliance going on here that I encourage you to take the plunge if you are curious.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 13. Up next is Nanook of the North, an early documentary.)
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.