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Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
One of the silent era’s best and most exciting epics, the hyper-modern Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler has scarcely aged a day in nearly ninety years. It still towers as both one of the key progenitors of the crime film and as one of the fullest expressions of director Fritz Lang’s meticulous control. To a modern viewer, it will likely seem a central work, both in Lang’s oeuvre and in the context of cinema’s history. It follows landmarks like Feuillade’s Les Vampires and Lang’s own The Spiders in establishing the lexicon of the genre. It boasts devious criminal plots, equally elaborate detective work, thrilling car chases, and a group of henchmen that could have stepped out of the latest James Bond movie (there’s a femme fatale, a muscular thug, a slimy cocaine addict, and so on).
Lang found an ideal villain in the mad, yet awesome, Dr. Mabuse. A criminal mastermind, he is able to anticipate the actions of both human behavior and complex, bureaucratic systems. Time and again, he turns German precision against itself, twisting efficiency into an agent of chaos. As Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler begins, the titular character is shown engaging in intricate acts of financial terrorism. He sabotages a courier who is carrying a trade agreement, initiating a stock market panic. He floods the streets with counterfeit bills, hoping to devalue the German currency. He hypnotizes a series of aristocrats, forcing them to lose fortunes while in a trance. In all of this, it’s made clear that Mabuse is only interested in money insofar as it allows him to manipulate others. By seizing the fiscal lifeblood that courses through Berlin’s veins, he hopes to control the city.
For much of its extended runtime, Mabuse manages just that. There’s a detective pursuing him, who’s able to think like a criminal, yet he’s a nominal figure, because he’s always one step behind Mabuse. Time and again, the doctor outwits him, anticipating the moves of this opponent and all other inhabitants of this metropolis. His disturbing power most fully manifests itself in the film’s terrifying liquidation sequence, in which Mabuse begins a series of self-destructive acts in hopes of evading capture. The scope of his influence seems insane. He rigs bombs to go off in his hideout just as investigators enter. A policeman bears a cyanide pill, intended for one of his captured henchmen. He starts a misinformation campaign, inciting a riot that results in the opportunity for the assassination of another potentially loose-lipped lackey. Mabuse, and madness by extension, are everywhere, waiting for an opportunity to erupt.
If Lang’s later Die Nibelungen was his exhumation of Germany’s mythic past, and his most famous silent epic, Metropolis, was Lang’s projective vision of the future, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler is rooted in an eternal, still-relevant present. The film’s subtitle, ein Bild der Zeit, literally “an image of our times”, is more than just descriptive. It reveals Lang’s prescriptive intent. He designed Mabuse to describe a condition of German society, and in its titular character came up with a terrifying, yet poetic, cure.
Much of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler is defined by images of German excess. His characters are bored with their accomplishments and their entertainments. The backdrops for the action are an endless parade of stripteases, elaborate opera productions, cabaret acts, casinos, and opium dens. At one point, Lang’s supposed heroine, an opium-addled Countess grows bored with a séance and leaves. She confides in Mabuse, “I fear that there is nothing in the world that can interest me for long – – Everything that can be seen from a car, from an opera box, or from a window is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring.” To this Mabuse replies “… except for one thing. Playing with people and their destines.” Lang’s disillusioned cast of characters see the system for what it is. Nothing can distract them from the emptiness, or the insanity, of their existence. Mabuse is uninterested is in cash, or fame, or glory. The only thing that excites him in German’s cosmopolitan culture is its potential for chaos. He stands as the era’s boogeyman, an incarnation of all of Germany’s post-WWI ills.
Lang’s modern setting might mean that
this film is not as visually astonishing as his later silents, but he finds a
distinctive, consistent style. Lang wants to speak directly to his audience
about the state of modern
The constancy of Mabuse’s trickery grows deeply unsettling. He switches room numbers, license plates, stock prices, and playing cards. Nothing is certain as Mabuse conspires to undermine our faith in the indexical symbols that we use to make sense of the modern world. Our fundamental lack of control over the world around us is best exemplified by Mabuse’s tendency toward hypnosis. Suddenly, with an incantation of “TSI NAN FU”, he personifies the malicious hand of fate, bending people to his will. In the scenes depicting hypnosis, Mabuse’s own words take on a literal, corporeal force. His stare compels even the camera to move. Several times, Lang superimposes them over the image, giving them even greater physical power. In the climax, for example, Mabuse’s verbal order appears on screen, driving the hero to speed toward a cliff while in a trance. His words literally direct action.
For its first half, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler is unrelenting and terrifying. Mabuse is both spoken about and depicted as some sort of god. Midway through the story, however, Mabuse himself becomes overpowered, smitten by love, and kidnaps the Countess. At first, this melodramatic conceit seems a misstep, arriving only to humanize the mad doctor’s victims, perhaps only included so Lang can devise a cliffhanger to bridge his film’s two parts. The second half of Mabuse, however, reveals Lang’s intent. It sees the Doctor controlling the countess, quarantining her husband, locking her in a secret room, and insisting that she flee the country with him. He can’t bend her to his will, though. Instead, her presence begins to humanize “the Great Unknown” that is Mabuse. He becomes human under her influence. He begins to make mistakes. He begins to feel love and guilt. It’s at this point, with his mighty brain bandaged, that he becomes identifiably a man and destiny slips out of his control. Trapped in his own trap, confronted with the mechanisms of his design, this rogue psychoanalyst crumbles and becomes a truly tragic figure. The message is clear – destiny in Lang’s work is bigger than any man could hope to be. Mabuse’s hubris belongs to us all.
Control is key in any Lang film, but perhaps not in any so much as in his three Dr. Mabuse stories (sequels followed in 1933 and 1960). Like his mad doctor, Lang appears to be playing with fate, yet leaves nothing to chance. Lang insists on considering every action in the cause and effect chain of his film plots. His diagrammatic approach to direction makes his movies seem rational, even as they depict dangerous, mad acts. Lang’s impeccable formal control here hangs over the film text, an invisible hand of a God dictating the fate of all, including the supposed architect Mabuse. As much as the film’s dastardly villain, Lang plans, analyzes, deconstructs, scientifically approaches, and controls the destiny of all on screen. Lang, in his orchestration of this magnificent mayhem, becomes the grandest mastermind of all.