[box cover]

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler

Image Entertainment

Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetzke,
and Aud Egede Nissen

Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou
from the novel by Norbert Jacques

Directed by Fritz Lang

Restoration supervised by David Shepard

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

A criminal for all seasons

Sherlock Holmes' greatest foe was Professor Moriarty, the "Napoleon of crime," a brilliant mastermind who sat invisibly at the center of his web and pulled the strings of London's dark underworld of thugs, murderers, pickpockets, and thieves. Though he appears only a few times in Arthur Conan Doyle's 60 Holmes stories, he came to occupy a place in the public imagination almost as large as the Great Detective himself. Since Doyle, entire novels have been written about Moriarty and a high percentage of the Holmes pastiches written over the past 50 years — in print and on screen — have featured Moriarty as the one nemesis worthy of Holmes' almost superhuman powers.

We love a good villain. And not just your run-of-the-mill backstreet baddie. The James Bond films would be lesser things without their arch-criminals, most notably Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of a worldwide criminal empire. We like our villains larger than life. We like them smart enough and charismatic enough to be, in a way, attractive. And if they aren't a legitimate challenge to our hero, they just aren't worthy of our attention.

For a more recent example from the movies, just think about Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Like the subject at hand, Soze is a shadowy, sinister presence of almost supernatural magnitude.

Three generations ago, between the two World Wars that ravaged European psyches and countrysides, novelist Norbert Jacques wrote a lurid, best-selling thriller that introduced Dr. Mabuse — amoral criminal genius, psychologist, hypnotist, counterfeiter, card-shark, master of disguise, thief of state secrets, and ruler of a sinister empire founded on selfishness, chicanery, and murder. In 1922, German director Fritz Lang and scenarist Thea von Harbou gave Mabuse his first screen incarnation. In so doing they created a hit movie that advanced Lang's auspicious career and gave Europe a villain they hated enough to love again and again.

Second perhaps only to Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared on screen in the silent era and continues in new adventures to this day, Dr. Mabuse occupies one of the the longest-spanning series of movies about one character in cinema history. He was so popular that between 1932 and 1969 "Mabuse," in one incarnation or another, returned in eight official sequels, plus other movies between '69 and '89 that are "semi-canonical." The two sequels directed by Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), are designated genre classics. Soon after Testament was completed, the Nazi Information Minister, Joseph Goebbels, offered Lang a post as the head of the Third Reich's film industry. Half-Jewish and with Communist leanings, Lang fled the country. Years later Lang claimed that much of Testament's dialogue given to Mabuse and his thugs was taken straight from Nazi doctrines. Then again, Lang was a shameless self-promoter who was not allergic to valorizing his past. Whether or not Testament was Lang's deliberate klaxon call against the rising social corruption, the Nazis banned Testament. Lang went on to a career in France and Hollywood, returning to his homeland in 1958.

In Europe Mabuse is as familiar an icon of horror as Count Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. It began here, with Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ("...the Gambler"). Because Lang was in the director's chair, the movie became more than your ordinary catch-the-bad-guy melodrama. Filled with his characteristic imagery and ideas, it stands today as one of the most important and influential films of the silent era.

"A Picture of Our Time"

Dr. Mabuse's two-part story pits the evil Doctor against State Attorney von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). Wenk's driving goal is to rid his city (unnamed but clearly meant to represent Berlin) of the gambling clubs where vices flourish and decadence is both business and entertainment. He discovers that the casinos are infested by a crime ring ruled by a "Great Unknown," an elusive figure who arrives, manipulates the casino's patrons, and, like Keyser Soze, vanishes under clever disguises.

The Great Unknown is, of course, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, best known as the megalomaniac Rotwang in Metropolis). Wanted by every police agency on the continent, Mabuse — pronounced "mah-BOO-zah" — commands an empire that, among other unlawful acts, counterfeits vast amounts of currency. But Mabuse is more than just a crime lord. He has the power to control people's minds by means of his intense stare. He preys on the wealthy and the international set who, bored and weak-minded, are all too willing and able to gamble away fortunes while outside in the bleak streets the populace starves under crippling inflation.

At the gaming tables, Mabuse manipulates players into seeing cards that don't exist, indulging in the social disgrace of cheating, and making choices that they would never ordinarily consider. Mabuse brazenly causes a national stock market crash and profits magnificently during the recovery. With ghostly mental phantoms he drives the husband of the woman he desires to despair and suicide. He will do whatever is necessary to further his aims and pleasures, whether it's procuring women for rich men or murdering those who get in his way. Human beings are his cattle and the economy is his plaything. He is as coldly dispassionate even toward his devoted underlings, pawns so slavishly loyal that the woman agent who loves him takes her own life at his command (suicide is a common theme throughout Lang's body of work).

Nothing is interesting in the long run, Mabuse says, except playing with human beings and human fates. "Only now shall the world learn who I am! Mabuse! A giant — a titan who jumbles up laws and gods like withered leaves!" And a credo that contributes to his undoing in the end: "There is no such thing as love. There is only desire — and the will to possess what you desire."

Wenk is, with much effort and despite a near-fatal slip, immune to Mabuse's mind-control, so once he's on the case Mabuse feels threatened. At last Mabuse, like Moriarty or Blofeld, has a foe who might just be a match for his brilliance and ruthlessness, and he doesn't care for it at all.

Despite the wretched financial, social, and working conditions Lang and his company had to contend with, in Dr. Mabuse he furthered his already formidable craft and technique. His growing mastery of style, montage editing, story flow, scenic design, and composition would soon bring us Metropolis and M. He gave Dr. Mabuse the subtitle "A Picture of Our Time" and with near-documentary realism made the movie a reflection of its audience's brutal social environment. (Lang, striving for realism, staged Dr. Mabuse's climactic gun battle with the police by using real bullets.)

Here's a snapshot of a historical moment when Germany was likened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Dr. Mabuse places popular, almost pulp conventions within a realistic ambiance of a society dying from the cancers of unparalleled economic inflation and postwar social decadence. The doctor uses this environment to build his power, often by performing audacious crimes in full public view and under the noses of the police. He manipulates minds and fortunes for personal gain. He feeds on other's needs — money, drugs, sex, reputation, self-image — and gambles with both money and lives. He has powers of influence that go beyond what is naturally human. Lang, in turn, offers us no tidy closing answers for society's ills, no moral that we can take with us in hopes of preventing such a world or person from recurring.

Because Mabuse exploits the misfortunes of the time with brilliant efficiency, mass hypnosis, and ruthless psychological sadism, there are those who say that in Dr. Mabuse, in its dark microscopic look at the brief Weimar pause between the world wars, Lang presaged the rise of one particular real-world evil genius who at that same time was finding roots in that cultural loam and who soon gripped Germany in his own criminal and psychological mesmeric hold. As the excellent commentary track on this disc notes, Dr. Mabuse, in all its lurid dime-novel glory, may offer evidence for the notion that the rise of a Hitler — any Hitler — was not merely tragic, it was inevitable.

Der brass tacks

Okay. History, context, all that stuff ... that's all fine. But is it good? Is this an entertaining movie?

If you're a denizen of the newsgroup alt.movies.silent, you've known about Dr. Mabuse for years and have eagerly awaited this DVD ever since film preservationist David Shepard announced it. You already know that it's a watershed work that deserves its admirers' affections, and this DVD, like others before it, is a must-have for your collection.

On the other hand, interested movie-lovers who don't necessarily call themselves silent cinema "aficionados" won't be snubbed for asking if there's anything here beyond the Fritz Lang 101 curriculum. After all, we've all heard of Metropolis, but Dr. Mabuse is a more obscure artifact.

Fortunately, Dr. Mabuse works just fine for those looking for a vintage crime drama with a touch of the supernatural. The narrative is just shy of four hours long, so it does require some extra effort from the average 21st century moviegoer. Part 1 begins strong, then slows quite a bit as the pieces start building, so your first time through may require an extra dollop of patience. There is, after all, a lot going on in this story, and the first half is the necessary engine that revs up to full speed in Part 2 (on Disc Two), which is more tightly packed with thriller moments.

If you're new to this era's movies, silent screen acting and filmmaking conventions can take some getting used to. They shouldn't be an impenetrable barrier to entry. Even if this is your first exposure to the German silent cinema, Dr. Mabuse dishes up a fine paperback potboiler of a story filmed with a sense of style and craft that, like Dr. Mabuse himself, is often hypnotic. Like the recent Image releases of Nosferatu (also made in Germany in 1922) and 1925's The Lost World, this newly restored DVD edition of Dr. Mabuse serves not just as a film school course in the pioneering influences that shaped our movies today (it's often called the first example of film noir). More importantly, the film has everything it needs to introduce — with enjoyment unburdened by a stuffy sense of capital-I Importance — a new generation of fans to a place and time where we learned how to make movies better than we'd ever made them before.

How's the DVD itself?

Image Entertainment, already well known for its superb restorations of classics from the silent era, has provided us with a two-disc DVD of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler that renders all previous home video editions obsolete. Everything about this edition is an improvement — the picture and sound, the meticulous restoration, its return to a proper running time that brings back the film's narrative integrity after decades of abridged editions, new intertitles that erase the sins of earlier poor translations, and one of the best audio commentary tracks you'll find anywhere.

Produced by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, this DVD delivers Dr. Mabuse in the most complete version ever available in North America. Its running time is just under four hours at its proper projection speed. While naturally it's not completely free of wear, the print is impressive and of high quality. It was given a thorough cleaning, and the remaining scratches, blemishes, some unsure framing, and occasional fading are no surprise given the abuse the film's survival state has undergone for eight decades. Unlike Nosferatu and The Lost World, Dr. Mabuse was never originally tinted, and its black-and-white imagery comes across with good-to-excellent contrast, solidity, and definition.

The transfer is lovely, not marred by compression artifacts. The image is windowboxed, meaning that black bars are visible on all four sides, preserving all image areas in the original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio.

David Shepard, in an email to this writer, had this to say about his work here:

"Very basically, we started on Dr. Mabuse with a very good 35mm full aperture fine grain master. Ulruch Ruedel obtained the original German title list and prepared an excellent literal translation along with notes on possible idiomatic renditions. I also had material with old English titles and with French titles and inserts. From these three sources, I wrote the all-new titles which are in the present version.

"I went to Paris to supervise the transfer (at 30 fps to take maximum advantage of digital vision noise reduction). We did some messing around with speeds and finally decided to slow the film tape-to-tape to 21.5 fps, quite a bit faster than it is usually shown in Europe but slower, of course, than the German reissue of the 1960s with added (then) modern music.

"Robert Israel worked hard on the score, which has no historical basis but which draws heavily upon German idioms of the early Weimar period. It was recorded in California over four days by Philip Calvert and edited by Shane Ledhill from over 300 separate takes.

"As usual, we crawled through the master transfer (now back in California) and Bret Hampton, Image's supervising video editor, diligently did his best to electronically remove or cover many signs of age and wear.

"I went to Virginia, where David Kalat lives, and recorded the commentary with him over a period of three days.

"It was perfectly routine as my projects go except for the great size of the film, which made it quite expensive and time-consuming!"

The terrific new orchestral score compiled and conducted by Robert Israel was recorded in clean Dolby Digital 2.0. The score uses a small orchestra and piano to faithfully create the proper period flavor and complement what's happening on the screen while never becoming intrusive or "old timey."

The enjoyable scene-specific commentary is by Lang expert David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse. This track does what a commentary is supposed to do: it provides depth and understanding in an entertaining fashion. Lively and insightful, it's the most engaging commentary track for a silent classic I've ever heard. Kalat is a spirited and animated speaker who leavens his impressive scope of knowledge with humor and an infectious love for all things Lang. Because Dr. Mabuse is such a product of its time, in some ways it's imprisoned within that time. So Kalat understands that we may need someone to fill in the blanks for us. He reveals layers not immediately visible in a casual viewing, which enhances the experience and helps even an experienced silent-movie watcher fully appreciate what's happening on the screen.

During moments when the onscreen action doesn't lend itself to direct commentary, Kalat keeps things moving briskly with relevant insights into the original novel and how it was similar to or differed from Lang's vision. He explores Dr. Mabuse's place within its time and within film history, as well as what the name "Mabuse" can mean and to what extent this film does or does not fall under the abused label "German Expressionism." Other points of interest include a little-known but critical event surrounding the mysterious death of Lang's first wife, the influences of Lang's other work (including his connections to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which he had originally been slated to direct), his later Hollywood years, and Dr. Mabuse's manifestations of Lang's own dark and complex worldview.

Kalat manages to be scholarly and informative while remaining engaging and often quite funny. He may remind you of the best college professor you ever had. Watching Dr. Mabuse for the first time with the commentary track, then again without, may be the best way to really take it all in, after Kalat's rich streudel of knowledge has removed any contextual barriers.

(Nit: on Disc Two, at the 1:29:05 mark, Kalat repeats a scripted sentence fragment three times before continuing, a minor editing oops that is startling but doesn't measurably detract from his commentary.)

Obey the Doctor!

Unquestionably the finest edition of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler to reach public view in more than half a century, this Image Entertainment DVD is a valuable addition to a cinephile's library and to fans of crime thrillers, fantastical "graphic novels" (such as Alan Moore's From Hell), and pulpish supernatural dramas. Lang scholars finally have easy access to a reliable print they can swim around in again and again, and DVD fans who already own the DVD editions of Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse can finally add the first of them all to their collections.

Once again, David Shepard and Image have polished a gem. Now look into its shiny surfaces ... see how it gleams ... it compels you ... your mind is opening ... you desire this DVD now... the Great Unknown awaits you....

—Mark Bourne

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