Das Testament Des Dr. Mabuse Review

Lang’s second Mabuse film gets the hi-def treatment from Masters of Cinema…

The Film

Lang’s great film starts as it means to go on with a desperate man trapped and little to explain to the viewer what we should think about him. Sounds of machinery dominate the scene as we follow the man’s escape and his further pleading efforts for the protection of Inspector Lohman. Lohman himself turns down the man at first as we learn he is a disgraced policeman, Hofmeister, and only the man’s insistence breaks down his Lohman’s defence but not before gunfire brings an untimely end to the phone call.Gradually several other threads of plot are introduced in a boldly unexplained manner, and a picture is painted of a world where crime is diabolically controlled to create terror and to break the will of good people. Unemployment and destitution force good men into crime, the course of true love is overshadowed by a growing almost apocalyptic menace, and the root of all these evils is the scribblings of an insane inmate in the local asylum.

As an early example of the thriller, The Testament of Dr Mabuse is engagingly difficult. The villain of the piece is almost ethereal and the pursuit of them by the forces of good resolved uncertainly, almost wholly metaphorically. The full shape of events only really becomes clear at the very finale, and this basic tension and lack of safe passage for the viewer is one reason why it has endured so well.Other reasons for the film’s legacy include Fritz Lang’s tailoring of his departure from Nazi Germany as a narrative of artistic escape. Positioning this film as a direct criticism of National Socialism and telling a tale of a moonlight flit, the legacy is that this was artistic rebellion from the half-Jewish director. Well, we all have a right to our own legend and this reading of the film is very accepting of the master film-maker’s view of his own history

You can link Mabuse’s scribblings with Mein Kampf, and you can see the madman’s mesmerism as akin to the xenophobia of Nazi Germany. Yet, I choose to believe that this reading of the film is a result of the director’s hindsight and risks obscuring its most valuable qualities.To me, what makes this example of Lang’s work so enthralling and impressive is just how modern it seems 80 years on. The complex rhythmic editing, the elaborate tight plotting and the groundbreaking exploitation of sound as both tension building and truth obscuring – all create a sense of a film way ahead of its time. Allow yourself to ignore some of the bolder acting and enjoy an intricate construction of suspense, a box of tricks that many others have borrowed from since.

The Disc

We were provided with a test disc and a pdf of the booklet on sale with the disc, so the comments in this review are limited to those elements which we believe will be the same as in the completed product. The Blu-ray is region B locked with excellent use of original artwork on the menu and some 70% of the dual layer disc employed.

The sole extra upon the disc is that of David Kalat’s commentary offered in master audio. Kalat talks fluently, clearly from a script, but his efforts are so well written and enlightening that I enjoyed listening throughout. There is quite a degree of reading of film scenes, done with admirable enthusiasm and endless resource. Some may question the lack of other extras given previous Criterion releases of the film bearing much in the way of special features.

Visually, this transfer is quite marvellous. The level of fine detail revealed by high definition is astonishing and intense sweating faces come alive because of it, adding to the pervading anxiety of this thriller. No excessive restoration has been allowed to disguise the film’s age or to unnecessarily boost black levels; there remains, quite rightly, some print damage and some worn inserts. The master audio German track is a huge improvement on previous sound presentations, bringing alive just how carefully arranged the effects were. English subtitles are offered for the opening German onscreen text about the history of prints, and continue clearly and optionally for the dialogue.

The 52 page booklet collects together two articles from Lotte H Eisner, one is a set report and the other a much later appreciation piece which plays up the whole Lang rebelling against the Nazi angle. The short notes by Fritz Arno Wagner, the film’s DP, portray Lang as a little insane in his efforts to find realism and Michael Chion’s essay concentrates on the aural aspects of the film in several key scenes. Lang’s contributions come from interviews and notes with one whole piece on the film which repeats the Goebbels story and speaks about the final film in the trilogy, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse.


Despite Kalat’s commentary the presentation here is light on extras compared to the previous Criterion edition, but having this great film on blu-ray with such a good transfer overwhelms that criticism. A great film treated with the care you’d hope for from Masters of Cinema.

John White

Updated: Sep 17, 2012

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