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Monday, May 3, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #13: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933

Mabuse: "I AM the state!"
A crazed genius implements a plan to terrorize Berlin as a step toward dominating the world. Where have I heard this before?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933

Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Norbert Jacques, Fritz Lang, and Thea von Harbou
Cinematographers: Károly Vass and Fritz Arno Wagner
Produced by: Fritz Lang and Seymour Nebenzal for Nero-Film AG.
Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Oscar Beregi Sr., Gustav Diessl, Otto Wernicke, Karl Meixner

Why I chose it
This classic popped up on my list because of famed director Fritz Lang, and because I had vaguely heard about the 'series' of Mabuse films, I added it to my Twitter poll and it won by a mile. I was also impressed to see it owns an 8.0 rating on IMDb - very high as IMDb ratings go.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In a large German city, Police Inspector Lohmann gets an urgent phone call from a disgraced colleague (Hofmeister) revealing new details about a criminal gang who have gotten away with a series of robberies and a counterfeiting business. Unfortunately, just when the highly agitated Hofmeister's about to reveal the name of the gang's mastermind, a couple of gang members who have been tailing him burst into the room and Hofmeister immediately goes mad. Due to his detective work, Lohmann receives evidence that somehow the famous Doctor-turned-catatonic-mental-patient, Mabuse, is directing these criminal efforts by projecting his will through pages of scribblings and possibly via the supernatural projection of his mind even after his death. In the meantime, one of the gang members, Tom Kent, wants to go straight for the love of Lilli, who has no idea her handsome young man is a crook. A series of suspenseful complications drive this expressionistic tale to its conclusion.

Production Background 
Lang, who had had great success with his first sound film, M (1931), made this as a sequel to his silent epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), based on the Norbert Jacques novel. The only problem was that it was now 1933, the year Hitler and the Nazis, with their campaign of street violence and political subterfuge, took over the German government and the nation. The Nazi minister of propaganda, Goebbels, banned the film after Lang apparently turned down his offer to be the 'head of film' in Germany: read 'propaganda film'. Lang also suspected Goebbels didn't like some of the speeches made by 'Mabuse' that waxed poetic about the value of crime and world domination, or the negative way the film portrayed a crime-ridden and fearful German society. Luckily for Lang, he got out of Germany and had a solid career in Hollywood, including the anti-Nazi film Man Hunt (1941). He left behind his wife whom he was divorcing, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, ironically the former wife of the film's star, Klein-Rogge. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1933*:

  • Silent film actor and comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, after being scandalized following a wild party in a San Francisco hotel in 1921 and falsely accused of rape and manslaughter, suffered a ruined career, ostracism, and the banning of his films, and retreated into alcoholism. Although ultimately vindicated after three trials and having enjoyed a brief comeback as a film director, he died penniless of a heart attack at the age of 46.
  • Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although minor players, made their debut and danced in their first joint movie together, RKO's Flying Down to Rio
  • The backstage drama/musical 42nd Street (1933), choreographed by Busby Berkeley, revitalized the over-exposed musical and saved Warners from bankruptcy. The film established Berkeley as the most talented choreographer of musical production numbers.
  • One of the first feature-length musical scores written specifically for a US 'talkie' film was Max Steiner's score for RKO's King Kong (1933). It was the first major Hollywood film to have a thematic score rather than background music, recorded using a 46-piece orchestra.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations

  • This film is a treasure trove for any film lover. It demands, and rewards, multiple viewings. As others have noted, the film defies genre characterization, with elements of surrealism, expressionism, horror, police procedural, and noir. Every time I see a German film from Lang for the first time, I say the same thing: this is my favorite Lang movie. This happened for M, Metropolis, and Spione. Yet I feel this film may hold that favorite spot for longer than the others. 
  • For me the film's best element is its script - there are multiple threads, characters, and story arcs that start far apart and over the course of the film spiral with centrifugal force to a thrilling, yet disturbing conclusion - are we back where we started? Also, all characters are compellingly and realistically drawn, surrealistic exaggerations aside. Think of Inspector Lohmann's opera fascination and cigar-chomping habits, or Tom's emotional breakdown in the unemployment line.
  • Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is the real star here, despite leading-man type Diessl and titular character Mabuse (Klein-Rogge). The character of Inspector Lohmann was a holdover from Lang's M, made two years earlier. He was played there also by Otto Wernicke. Here he is in M:

  • How about that sound design? It's masterful, especially considering how early in the sound era this film was produced. There were stretches of dissonant music, silence, or effects like the deafening rhythmic thumping of heavy machinery in action that serve to keep audiences feeling disoriented.
  • I haven't seen the first Dr. Mabuse film, but Klein-Rogge looked familiar. I discovered why - he played the crazed scientist in Lang's silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (seen in the image below - with the wild hair and arms in the air).
  • Ever since I watched the film, I've been thinking about how to interpret the supernatural elements. I suspect there is no definitive view, but to me, considering the number of characters that suffer nervous breakdowns or complete insanity, I feel that 'insanity' drives the film; the supernatural elements exist to give us insight into the diseased mind. Insanity, also, Lang seems to be saying, is a driver of, and a response to, crime and societal disarray.
Three shadowy figures block an escape route for Hofmeister
early in the film.

Inspector Lohmann (Wernicke) is a cigar-smoking jolly fellow,
looking to leave work on time for once although his assistant
Mueller (Klaus Pohl) looks skeptical.

Hofmeister making a desperate phone call.

Light and dark shot of a large lecture hall as students listen to 
Prof. Baum speak on the curious case of Dr. Mabuse.

Prof. Baum looks a bit agitated - what's happening with this left eye?

Tom Kent (Gustav Diessl, center) a bit nervous that the 
gang he joined is discussing murder.

Lohmann with his back to a window attempting to 
reproduce left-handed scrawling mysterious letters into the glass.

Prof. Baum (Berengi, Sr.) sees a ghostly projection of Mabuse 

More ghostly projections. This shot also features canted
angles to help represent the perspective of a deranged mind.

Two formidable men, Lohmann and Baum, face off at the
morgue where Mabuse is finally neutralized (or is he?)

Ghost of Mabuse spouting a dangerous philosophy.

Lilli tries to convince Tom she loves him no matter what.

One of the gang is quite the dandy and epicure.

Trapped by the nefarious gang, Tom and Lilli wonder if 
they will escape before rising waters reach their heads.

Lohmann and Tom speed in pursuit of an escaping 
criminal, with menacing trees illuminated behind them.

Where to Watch
It's now available to subscribers of HBO-Max and the Criterion Channel, and the Criterion version is currently available free on YouTube here.

Further Reading
Read my review of the fanciful 2016 biopic Fritz Lang.
The Turner Classic Movies article here provides insight into the genres blurring in the film and current and contemporaneous critiques.
This Criterion essay discusses the connection between Lang's film and the Nazis and also the intriguing use of sound.


  1. The influx of emigre filmmakers from Europe in the ‘30s has been called - ironically but rightly, I think - “Hitler’s gift to Hollywood.” Certainly true in the case of Fritz Lang.

    1. Indeed. Your comment makes me wonder how much richer was the output of studio-era Hollywood, with all its constraints, than if not for the diversity of techniques and ideas brought from these emigres, whether actors, directors, or composers.