I’d only ever seen one Fritz Lang movie prior to watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and that was the film he directed immediately before The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, M. Other than being a frustrating name to write and google (it looks kick-ass on a poster though), M was a film I would quietly place in my personal top ten. I’m not sure if one could effectively trawl through all the past times I’ve alluded to various individual films in my top ten, but if anyone actually pieces it together at this point I’ll review anything they want. Although, full-disclosure, I’m not entirely sure what I’m suggesting is doable. Regardless of any half-baked excuses for encouraging audience interaction, M is an absolutely excellent film. It’s riveting and atmospheric, it’s the first filmic use of leitmotif, it has wonderful performances, and it’s a great procedural. Now I’ve watched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which is a film that leaves you floating in its impeccably effective aftermath. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is actually the third Fritz Lang film about his titular super-criminal, essentially a cinematic super villain for thirties Germany.
The comic book parallels are actually extraordinarily obvious when it comes to Dr. Mabuse, and not just because he’s described by the film as a super criminal and has powers of hypnosis. The movie’s plot feels a lot like the kind of weird and thoughtful examination of a super villain the likes of which we’d never see onscreen now. That’s before you get to the fact that this is the third movie in a series based around a super villain, and features the same police chief from M, like some sort of thirties exercise in shared worlds.
When we meet Mabuse in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse he’s already been caught and imprisoned. He’s been in an insane asylum under the care of the biggest name in psychiatric science in Germany. Not only is Mabuse captured by the time we see him but he’s been captured for years. In a lecture given by his doctor we get a nice recap of Mabuse’s psychological state. Mabuse was initially catatonic after his capture. He sat silently in his cell. Then his doctors noticed he was making writing motions with his hand during every waking moment on any available surface. He was given paper and a pen. The old hook-nosed super villain started writing on the paper. Except for the longest time what he was writing wasn’t even legible as English. Then, slowly, random words started to appear among the swirls and patterns. Eventually the words morphed into fragmented and meaningless half-phrases.
While Mabuse is concretely confined to his cell, crimes of a clever magnitude are being carried out by a small group of men who believe they are following the orders of Dr. Mabuse. A corrupt police officer reappears with warnings of a plot. The same police officer is later driven insane by fear, and spends his time gibbering in an asylum. Mabuse appears to have hypnotized his doctor, who starts adopting Mabuse’s identity and using his testament to orchestrate crimes. Mabuse’s hold on the doctor is represented by a ghostly image of Mabuse with an exposed brain. Fritz Lang later said he regretted this supernatural image in the otherwise grounded film, however the spectre is so creepy it’s instantly iconic and powerfully memorable.
This comic book feel actually led Christopher Nolan to make a few members of his crew watch the film while working on The Dark Knight. Before I found this out I was struck by the impression that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was some thirties porto-Dark Knight. Fritz Lang’s film invariably stands head and shoulders over Nolan’s best Batman film, but there are enough similarities to make The Dark Knight retroactively feel like a fever-dream aspiring to Fritz Lang’s levels.
There are a few contextual things worth noting about The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. It was Fritz Lang’s second ever sound film, which helps recast the opening scene’s intent. The very first and very tense scene in the film is completely silent. It’s easy to imagine the relative familiarity of this opening’s silence giving way to a generally noisy movie as a nice piece of audience manipulation. Fritz Lang seems to not only have made the transition from silent film to sound bu made it with a vigorous enthusiasm. M was a very quiet film, closer to a silent format, but it was still the first film to ever use a leitmotif, giving it one of its most iconic aspects. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse stops the delicate toying with sound that M had and dives right in. The film is filled with noisy machines, running water, explosions, and car chases. Like M there’s even a super iconic repeated sonic motif. It was also the first time Lang had ever hired a composer. The rest of the sound in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is essentially hyper-realistic, bending periods of silence with the noise of real world phenomenon.
The movie has that alarmingly common mark of the auteur writ about it, you know, the one where the genius director routinely endangers the life of his crew? The movie, as I’ve already mentioned, is filled with gunfights, fires, and explosions. What better way to realistically capture these phenomena than to force the crew to fire real weapons at each other? Fritz Arno Wagner, the film’s cinematographer, claimed he was perpetually frightened for the cast of Lang’s movie. Indeed some of the anecdotes, like Lang himself triggering the explosion of a factory, almost sounds like something a James Cameron or Michael Bay type would do (yes I do lump them together deal with it).
Lang also directed a shorter French language version of the film intended to boost sales. Lang and a few of his actors were bilingual, so he was well equipped to direct the French version. Other actors were replaced or dubbed.
Perhaps the most important context for Lang’s film is the most obvious one – Hitler. The film was scheduled for release just ten days after Adolph Hitler established his Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which was headed by Joseph Goebbels. The final edit wasn’t ready until the day before the scheduled release and, after watching the film, Goebbels decided the film would be delayed for unclear technological reasons. In truth it afforded Goebbels some time to consult with a few others about what he was going to do. He had to figure out what sort of films the glorious Nazi state would allow, and what would properly represent their regime. A few days later Goebbels decided against releasing the film, on the grounds that Fritz Lang’s drama “showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence”. According to Lang some years later, Goebbels approached him about making films for the Nazi propaganda machine. Again according to Lang (in truth the facts are a wee bit vague and muddled), he left the country that night. After some lengthy editing and some dubbed in lines about the Führer, the film was released in Germany. The significantly truncated versions of the film that existed at this point have since been painstakingly restored. Which is about when I should shill for Criterion, and their lovely copy of this film.
Reviews were mixed originally, with time only slowly increasing the praise and leaving the negative critics behind.
Of course the mired release and truncated versions all just prove what a powerful film Lang had created. Dr. Mabuse’s iconic speech in the film is as follows, “When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime.” The evil master of crime may have had his roots in pulp novels but by the time of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse he’d grown up a bit and was based on some evil closer to Lang’s home. If the image of Fritz Lang fleeing the country after a Nazi invitation didn’t make his stance on the socialist powerhouses obvious then The Testament of Dr. Mabuse should have. The image of a madman confined and writing his testament to ultimate evil seems more than passably reminiscent of Hitler writing Mein Kampff just years before. Perhaps most importantly the image of evil in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a secret, cult-like, reclusive one. Mabuse remains a shadowy figure, “the man behind the curtain”, a figure men rally to based only on second hand knowledge and reputation. By the film’s end, the man who has been most manipulated by the now deceased Mabuse practically lets himself into an asylum cell. He sits there, gibbering and ineffective and manic, the veneer of power and charisma revealed as nothing more than frothing mania and self-destructive tendencies prophetically undone by his own hands.