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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: The Criterion Collection

Criterion Home Video

Starring Otto Wernicke, Oscar Beregi Sr., Rudolf Klein-Rogge,
Gustav Diessl, Wera Liessem, Theodor Loos, Karl Meixner

Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou,
based on a novel by Norbert Jacques

Directed by Fritz Lang


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"I will ban it because it proves that a group of men who are willing to risk all and truly put their minds to it are quite capable of overthrowing any state by violent means."

— Joseph Goebbels on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse


Andrew Sarris said that if Hitler had never existed, Fritz Lang would have had to invent him. Lang, the mad filmmeister of Metropolis, M, and, after leaving Germany, hard-bitten Hollywood films noir, made three movies centered on Dr. Mabuse, the hypnotic megalomaniac whose obsessive drive for sowing chaos and anarchy ranks him among filmdom's all-time great sinister masterminds. Lang first brought Mabuse to the screen in the silent era, in a 1922 two-part, four-hour tingler, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. Eleven years later, with Weimar decadence disappearing under the rising tide of Nazism, Lang continued the doctor's story in an extravagant crime thriller, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. 1933 was certainly a ripe time for Mabuse's return. Although the absolute ruler of Berlin's criminal underworld was last seen in an asylum, having been driven insane by the ghosts of his punk'd victims, he was no ordinary Dr. Evil. Through the power of his mesmeric, perhaps supernatural will, his terrorist organization's work toward an "empire of crime" carries on from his cell. There he sits in stone silence, feverishly scribbling his testament on hundreds of pages. With "incontrovertible logic," the pages hold faultlessly detailed blueprints of schemes to topple modern societies. Mabuse sits in his prison like Hitler writing his manifesto, Mein Kampf.

Legend has it that Lang crafted The Testament of Dr. Mabuse with exactly that association in mind. According to Lang, Testament was a forecast of the evil he saw gathering around him in Germany. It's his thinly disguised anti-Nazi message that was bold enough to pull words straight from Nazi doctrines and place them into the mouths of thugs and a maniac. Viewing the film in that light, we can't help but regard Mabuse's agenda to create "The Absolute Rule Of Crime: a condition of complete insecurity and anarchy" as Lang's premonition of Kristallnacht. Hitler's new Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Goebbels, banned the film as a menace to society, yet he and Der Führer were so impressed with Lang's Teutonic cinematic gifts that Goebbels invited the director to take charge of the new order's official filmmaking operations. Ten years later, Lang (who was half Jewish) would say that he hightailed it out of Germany that very night with only the shirt on his back and what belongings he could carry on a train to France, and soon thereafter to America.

As with other examples of Lang's self-promoting mythmaking, that account is so much Stierscheiße. The German version of the film was embargoed by the Nazis until after the war, and Lang did meet with Goebbels and then leave Germany soon thereafter. But the facts behind those events weren't nearly as Hitchcockian as he would later let on. He embellished and repeated his version so often that the fleeing-in-the-dead-of-night tale has become part and parcel of Lang's biography, and it's such a good story that it's as barnacled to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as William Randolph Hearst is to Citizen Kane.

*          *          *

Actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge returns as Mabuse. This time, however, the Moriarty-like Napoleon of crime dies early in the storytelling. The catch is this: even after death (which is apparently self-willed), Dr. Mabuse still maintains ruthless hands-on control of his organization. From behind a curtain in a secret sealed chamber, his disembodied voice directs his lieutenants in jewel heists, a massive counterfeiting ring, arson, and murders such as a hit at a traffic intersection that will be imitated by later directors, including Lang himself. On the case of the mysterious and seemingly pointless crime wave sweeping Berlin is Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, playing the role like a corpulent Columbo), who in Lang's crossover masterstroke still works from the same office he used when he pursued Peter Lorre's whistling child-killer in M. When the late doctor's nefarious writings parallel the details behind the crimes, it's up to Berlin's star detective to connect the most fragmented clues to a man whose corpse Lohmann sees in the morgue yet who still seems to control the men terrorizing the city.

At the center of the mystery stands Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi), who oversaw Mabuse's care in the asylum. It gives nothing away to say that Baum has become literally possessed by Mabuse. In an effective set-piece of ghostly visual effects — the late Mabuse now a phantom with bug-like eyes and a bulging brain exposed where his cranium used to be — Baum pores through Mabuse's papers. As if they are some demon-penned tome out of H.P. Lovecraft, the pages are either a delivery mechanism for Mabuse's determined superhuman spirit, or else Mabuse's words are so powerful that they infect Baum to the extent of swamping his identity. Lang is deliberately vague on the point, though prosaic materialists should note that in the first reel one of Lohmann's informants, Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), closes in on Mabuse's gang until something unseen drives him mad with terror, after which he leaves one clue behind — the word the "Mabuse" etched in a window pane by a diamond. Whether it's through supernatural possession or Baum's own psychosis, the something named "Mabuse" has grown into an amorphous evil bigger than just one flesh-and-blood human being. As Lohmann sherlocks his way toward answering "Who is Dr. Mabuse?", it's a question we today hear echoed in "Who is Keyser Soze?"

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse holds up well simply as a pulpy page-turner thriller that gallops from one well-wrought set-piece to another. The climax comes with a high-speed car chase that for decades remained the one to beat. We also get Mabuse's ghost spurring the chase to furious velocities, a big crime-drama shootout, and an exploding chemical factory that was in reality a munitions factory that Lang went on location to blow up, with the director himself setting off the explosives. There's even a love story subplot for one of the protagonists, Kent (Gustav Diessel), a basically good joe who joined Mabuse's operation out of desperation but now wants only to go straight and be with his girl, Lily. (Wera Liessem plays Lily as a drippy naif that's the film's one off note, although this DVD's commentator, the insightful David Kalat, posits that she may be portraying a more kinky and cunning character.)

Yet for all its comic-book outlines, Lang had no objections to anyone viewing the film as his brilliant allegory for the Nazification of Germany. It's a movie that on one hand includes the two lovers in a white-knuckle escape from a locked room's ticking time-bomb; on the other are metaphors of a society possessed to the point of self-destruction by abstract fear, paranoia, and insecurity masterfully orchestrated by a ranting lunatic. We don't hear Mabuse singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," but we do get a shiver when we hear Dr. Baum spouting Mabusian rhetoric as if at Nuremberg, then see what Mabuse's Brown Shirts do to those who don't fit into their plans. To hear Lang tell it, Testament was his Paul Revere ride to rouse a sleeping populace, the first film to point at what the Nazis represented. He didn't play up that subtext until well into World War II, so even if it's true Chaplin still gets the credit for banging the bucket first with The Great Dictator.

When Lang brought Mabuse back for a third time in 1960's Cold War paranoia-fest, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, the doctor's uncorked malevolence possessed a luxury hotel and its ever-present, all-seeing surveillance system, with a goal likewise expanded in Blofeldian dimensions to nuclear annihilation of the world. We can only wonder how Lang would manifest Dr. Mabuse for our 21st century age of ubiquitous communications and information, with its Patriot Acts, Internet viruses, Fox News, and all our other Schicklgrubers. Imagine a world, as the trailer-iffic voice-over goes, where the phantom Mabuse's exposed gray matter is fully downloadable or fitted with its own comsats and WiFi nodes. Imagine a Langian Philip K. Dick world by way of Karl Rove by way of AM talk radio. We can but shudder.

*          *          *

Strictly from a cineaste's perspective, there's plenty to admire in Testament. You can't describe Lang's movies as particularly warm with human feeling or psychological explorations. Instead they leave us with memories of geometrical forms and shades of light and dark with visceral camera angles (most famously and influentially in Metropolis). He was a cerebral formalist in a mechanical medium, composing what appeared in his viewfinder as if to say "Let Jane Austen tell stories, I'm making movies, dammit!" Lang's photographer for Testament was Fritz Arno Wagner, who's probably best known today for his indelibly creepy work on Nosferatu. (Cary Elwes played Wagner in 2000's Shadow of the Vampire.) Watch how often Lang connects scenes with visual or aural "rhyming," where an image or a sound bridges one scene to another, no matter if they're separated by gaps in time and distance. It's a technique pioneered here, and one so effective that it's now a commonplace editing gimmick. However, also notice how he tricks us with the technique, seeming to "tell" us one thing only to later on upend what we think we know.

Lang's most ambitious sound film, and only his second one after M, Testament shows a director employing the new technology of sound to shape the information an audience takes from the screen. Rather than merely giving voice to dialogue, Lang used sound to distort or confound what we're seeing. That happens right from the beginning, with Hofmeister (well before we know who he is or why he's there with a gun in his hand) prowling inside an unknown building while heavy-machinery thunder pounds pounds pounds from the soundtrack; we never see what's causing it, and we sure pay attention when it stops suddenly to dead silence. Elsewhere, gunshots blast in a lightless room, Mabuse's voice issues from unexpected sources, and during the automobile murder the killers use a cacophony of car horns to mask the killing.

So while lauded by the wine-swirling art-house set, Lang was a German master whose films — and there are a lot of them — also appeal to those of us who rarely use the phrase "mise en scène" in conversation. His early films are typically categorized as examples of "German Expressionism," though Lang did not like being called an "expressionist" filmmaker and distrusted the movement, even stating that he didn't know what the much-abused term was supposed to mean. David Kalat goes into this topic with some depth in his commentary, underscoring what Expressionism is and is not, plus the history of Lang's early involvement with that seminal Expressionist hallmark, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's an involvement accented by Lang's skills as a Stierscheiße artist.



The DVD

If there is a gold standard for DVD production, it was set by Criterion years ago. Their new two-disc release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sensational piece of work. The film arrives with a restored image and sound, a new high-definition digital transfer, and in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 for the first time. Likewise, the English subtitle translation is "new and improved." All that plus an array of extras that are impressive even by Criterion standards.

The video quality displays remarkable clarity and detail. The sharp black-and-white tones are well balanced and exhibit excellent contrast. It's not "pristine," but it's damn close. Expect some mild flicker, minor wear, and hairline scratches especially in the first reel or so; nothing to complain about in a print that's this shipshape. The pillarboxed 1.19:1 aspect ratio, a byproduct of Lang's original left-hand soundtrack strip, is a little peculiar to our eyes, but it's not a distraction at all.

Criterion achieves their usual exemplary job on the original German audio track, which comes in DD 1.0 monaural with optional English subtitles. There's a little hiss now and then in an otherwise strong and perfectly clear soundtrack.

Disc One features

Like his commentary for Image's DVD edition of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, and his own All Day Entertainment's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, the new audio commentary by David Kalat makes this package worth having all on its own. Kalat is the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, and don't even try finding a more entertaining and erudite Lang scholar anywhere. Kalat knows his Lang and his Mabuse to the Nth degree, and he's also a comfortable showman who is the polar opposite of every crusty academic who drones on and uses the word "jejune." Instead, Kalat's lively annotations really bring home the literary and cinematic history of the Mabuse character, Lang's working techniques, and what makes the film worth a close scene-by-scene study. Plus, Kalat gets wry amusement from letting air out of Lang's self-inflated hagiographic balloons. And anyone who finds a way to compare Fritz Lang with the Sex Pistols is someone worth listening to. Toward the end of the film, Kalat makes a case for comparing Mabuse's villainy with today's massive white-collar corporate criminals such as Enron. He observes that Mabuse's power emerges largely from communications that become fractured (deliberately or accidentally); as a result, faulty intelligence builds up fatal disconnects between what people believe and what is actually real — a point with resonance in news headlines during the months leading up to this 2004 release. Kalat is one of the best vintage-film commentators on the shelves, and his work on Testament raises that assessment up another notch.

Disc Two features

Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse (1:33:31) — This is the complete French-language version of Testament, shot simultaneously by Lang with French actors. In the early days of film, it was not uncommon for multiple-language versions of the same film (with different actors, but the same sets) to be in production simultaneously. This allowed filmmakers to reach a larger audience and, curiously, was more affordable than dialogue re-dubbing. Here is the complete French-language version of Testament, directed by Lang but edited in Paris without his direct involvement. It played in France as planned in 1933, then reached American theaters ten years later in '43. Few copies of the French version survive, and those that we have been able to locate are badly deteriorated. This transfer was made from a 16mm print stored at the Cinématheque de Luxembourg. Newly translated English subtitles are presented in a black box that obscures the original burned-in Dutch subtitles. The unrestored print is worn but watchable. The DD 1.0 audio is fair.

Excerpts from For Example Fritz Lang (Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang) (20:39) — This 1964 interview with Lang, shot for German television, was directed by famed German documentarian Erwin Leiser (Mein Kampf). We see the monocled Herr Lang talking about his early work in show business, his entry into filmmaking during World War I, then films such as M, Woman in the Moon, and the Mabuse series. During this oral history, he spiritedly re-enacts his legendary encounter with Goebbels and his narrow escape from the Third Reich. (You must provide your own grains of salt.) It's all well-preserved in German with English subtitles.

Mabuse in Mind (Mabuse Im Gedächtnis) (15:16) — A 1984 film by Thomas Honickel featuring an interview with actor Rudolf Schündler, who played Mabuse's crazed gunman in Testament. After Testament he appeared in more than 150 films, including The Exorcist and Dario Argento's Suspiria. He's 78 and nearly blind, but well-spoken and with a sharp memory of behind-the-scenes details, his acting process, and Lang as a director. In German with English subtitles.

Norbert Jacques: Mabuse's Creator (9:56) — This is an engaging interview with German film historian Michael Farin about the largely unknown literary figure who invented of the series. Farin is co-editor of a new three-volume reprint of Jacques' original Mabuse novels and stories, as well as co-author of several Mabuse radio plays. This backgrounder on the author, the inspirational sources behind the Mabuse character, and the synergy between Jacques' printed stories and Lang's films nicely complements Kalat's commentary. In German with English subtitles.

The Three Faces of Dr. Mabuse (19:47) — David Kalat returns to compare the differences between scenes from the 1933 German version of Testament, the French version that Lang filmed simultaneously, and The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse, the edited and dubbed American version released in 1952.

Production Designs — A click-through gallery of are drawings by art director Emil Hasler (M, The Blue Angel). No audio.

Memorabilia and Stills — Press books, stills, and posters.

The handsomely packaged keep-case also comes with liner notes by Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity.

—Mark Bourne



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