Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler Review
Fritz Lang’s 1922 silent classic Dr Mabuse, the Gambler is perhaps the first film noir, a genre that Fritz Lang would have a great influence upon in later years. It’s an adaptation of Norbert Jacques’ hugely successful series of crime novels charting the rise and fall of professor of psychoanalysis, hypnotist and mastercriminal, Dr Mabuse.
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a master of disguise and the mastermind behind an extensive crime organisation. His activities extend far and wide, from the stealing of commercial secrets and manipulation of the stock market, to counterfeiting and gambling. Dr. Mabuse runs the operation with a ruthless authority, ordering murders and assassinations, with harsh penalties for anyone who doesn’t live up to the high demands he places on them.
Using his powers of psychoanalysis and hypnotism, Mabuse indulges his passion for gambling and the manipulation of the other players at card games. Through one of his agents, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen), a dancer at the Folies Bergères, he lures a wealthy gentleman, Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) into the next stage of his plans. State Prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) is on the trail of the mystery man behind the crime operations in the city and asks Hull to help him infiltrate the underground world of cocaine-dealing and illegal gambling. It’s a dangerous operation that puts both men at risk.
Running to four and a half hours over its two parts, Dr Mabuse, The Gambler is a different kind of film that works at its own pace in an episodic fashion, often at a leisurely pace, but it is rarely dull. The constant presence of Mabuse as various colourful characters in wonderful disguises and make-up, pursued through his criminal activities by the State Prosecutor ensures that the film moves purposefully along – so there is no need to be concerned about the film’s length. An exciting first part moves rapidly along, only slowing down the pace at the start of the second film, which takes a little time to get moving again. Dr. Mabuse has fallen for the Countess Dusy Told, the wife of a man he has destroyed and in doing so has started to lose control of his activities, taking dangerous gambles and risking the uncovering of his identity. Von Wenk also steps back, considering his next move against his dangerous adversary, whose powers he has experienced first-hand. Eventually the scene is set for the ultimate confrontation between the two men and the film reaches a thrilling climax.
More than just a crime-thriller, although it is a very good one on that level, Lang is primarily concerned with the psychological make-up of his characters, finding new and innovative ways to express their mental states from the fabulous scenes of mass hypnosis, to ghostly apparitions and – in one scene that he would visit again on a larger scale in Metropolis – in the coming to life of mechanical objects. The subtitles of the films, The Great Gambler. A Picture of our Time and Inferno. A Game of People of our Time reflect this interest in the real world, depicting a lawless society, the people seeking diversion in gambling and spiritualism with excessive alcohol and drug abuse. In the midst of this Mabuse incarnates the post-war survivalist spirit in a Nietzschean superhuman character, capable of exploiting the prevailing social unrest – a character that would come to greater prominence in Germany in the following years leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.
The the restoration of Dr Mabuse, The Gambler was made from two different camera negatives, one German and one for foreign distribution and the quality varies greatly from scene to scene. For the main part, the quality is quite good – the image is stable and steady with reasonably good detail and greyscale tones, although blacks are a little bit light, the picture generally soft and there is a fair amount of light flicker. There is some print damage, occasional scratches and missing frames leading to characters making sudden rapid movements across the screen, but far fewer problems than you would normally expect of a film this old. The problems are more noticeable in scenes sourced from the lesser quality negative, but mostly the image is bright and clear with no serious marks. The film is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
The music score for this silent film was composed and recorded in 2001, so there are no problems with the quality of sound. Composed by Aljoscha Zimmerman and performed by a small ensemble, it works well with the film, manipulating themes the way Mabuse changes character and bringing out the internal emotions of the characters. It is presented as a Dolby Digital 2.0 and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, both of which are equally effective.
The original German intertitles are retained during the film, with optional English and French subtitles. The subtitles are white on a thick black border, so can be easily read when the backgrounds are lighter. There are some problems with the English translation, which is generally good, but doesn’t appear to have been translated by a native English speaker and they haven’t been properly proofed as there are a few grammatical errors and curiosities in phrasing (“I will extinct any obstacle that comes between us without mercy!”). For the most part the translation is fine, but there are enough of these types of errors for you to notice.
The Music of Mabuse (12:57)
Although music was commissioned for Metropolis and Die Nibelungen there is no known score for Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Aljoscha Zimmerman explains the purpose of music for silent film and his approach to his 2001 score for Dr. Mabuse.
Norbert Jacques (9:35)
Michael Farin discusses the career of the literary creator of Dr. Mabuse, the influences of Fantômas and the social climate in which the books were written.
The Motives and Themes of Dr. Mabuse (12:57)
Replacing Eureka’s customary “Visual Essay” by R Dixon Smith, this documentary serves the purpose of examining the themes and techniques in Dr. Mabuse common to Lang’s Spiders, Metropolis, Wegner’s Der Golem and Murnau’s Faust, with relevant clips of Fritz Lang’s interview with Erwin Leiser (seen in full in the M extra features).
Photo Gallery (32)
The photo gallery features mostly the ‘masks’ of Dr. Mabuse – the doctor in all his disguises, but also some portraits of Lang, von Harbou, and Norbert Jacques.
Facts & Dates
Technical information on the film and its release.
Detailed biographies and selected filmographies are included for the main cast and for the producer, cameraman, set designers and architects.
The exceptional length of the film, as well as it being silent, prevents Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from being as accessible to a modern audience or as good as some of the director’s later German films such as Spione (Spies), but like Metropolis, M and the chilling sequel to this film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, it has enormous historical significance, not only because of its influence on the development of cinematic storytelling and style, but also in its capturing the mood of an important period of German history.