The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset Review
Mabuse. Ma-boo-zah. Say the word with me. Ma-boo-zah. Sinister, isn't it? When Norbert Jacques created the Dr. Mabuse character in his 1922 novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, he was inventing and also predicting a power-mad criminal mastermind who would afflict Germany while the country was at its most vulnerable. There's no requirement to be up on your history of the Weimar Republic while devouring the schemes of Dr. Mabuse, but it sure does add dimension to know how ravaged and undone the nation became prior to savior-turned-despot Adolf Hitler taking power. Even if Mabuse's penchant for evildoing did foreshadow the rise of Hitler to a point, the more demoralizing realization would seem to be that Jacques recognized the desperation of Germany's situation and the perhaps inevitable ascendancy of a man who burned with the desire to remake the world in his own warped image. Hitler wasn't Mabuse, of course. He wanted to rule the world while his fictional cousin was more intent on destroying it. Even so, Mabuse's nearly unthinkable level of power and his ability to find people who actively supported ideas one might consider indefensible parallel the situations of Hitler and Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden just as much as any number of comic book villains or James Bond baddies.
The reason, perhaps, that Dr. Mabuse still strikes equal parts terror and fascination in the hearts of film lovers across the globe is that his most successful cinematic chronicler also happens to have been one of the greatest directors in the history of the medium. More over, not only did Fritz Lang bring Mabuse to the screen on three separate occasions across an almost forty-year period, he did so brilliantly and at crucial points in his own career. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler was released in two parts, separated by a month, in 1922. Though Lang had already directed the well-respected Der müde Tod a year earlier, it was der Spieler which established the filmmaker as a leading figure of German cinema. Seminal works followed, notably Metropolis with its studio-crippling budget and M, Lang's first experiment with sound. Hitler's official taking of power in 1933 coincided with Lang's return to the Mabuse character in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, his last film in Germany before fleeing, briefly for Paris to make Liliom and then the bright lights of Hollywood, U.S.A. Just as his breakthrough was a Mabuse film so would his farewell be (twice actually). Lang's second non-silent feature expanded on the promise of M by deftly realizing a dedicated soundtrack could mean more than simply dialogue or songs. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of how to use sound and, just as important, noise during the entirety of the 1930s than in Testament.
As Lang entered the cinematic sausage factory of the studio system to make one good to great film after the next (and I don't think he ever came close to helming a bad picture), he seemed to also exhibit a talent for burning bridges. The late fifties saw the cantankerous and eye-patched director return to Germany to make three films. The last of these, also Lang's final directorial effort ever, was, fittingly, a rehydration of Dr. Mabuse. Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) allowed Fritz Lang to end his career on a creative high note with a continuation of a series he'd essentially breathed life into from the start. It also gave him the opportunity to further so many of the familiar themes and ideas he'd spent a career exploring. Watching Lang's three Mabuse films in order and within a short span of time reveals just how emblematic they are of a much larger, undeniably vital filmography. This release by Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series makes just such an endeavor possible, collecting the loose trilogy for definitive-level editions in a box set of Mabuse madness. While post-Lang Mabuse films would follow 1000 Augen, fans of the director can still feel content knowing his three interpretations of the master of disguises madman have been made available with a nice shared focus on both Lang and his imaginary muse. As commentator extraordinaire David Kalat is fond of saying across his eight-plus hours of breathless insight, you cannot kill Mabuse because there is no Mabuse.
Kalat is right, sure, but movie fans will also know that, in a very concrete way, there is a Mabuse and his name was Rudolf Klein-Rogge. If you want to delve into the slightly sordid and juicy private lives of the principals of Mabuse on film, it's worth mentioning that Klein-Rogge, whose close-up in Testament alone qualifies him as being the true face of the mad doctor, had been married to der Spieler screenwriter Thea von Harbou. More specifically, Klein-Rogge was married to Harbou prior to her affair with Fritz Lang. When Klein-Rogge and Harbou divorced in 1921, she promptly married Lang the following year, which was also the same time period of the first Dr. Mabuse film. There are even juicier details for those interested in that sort of thing, including the suicide by Lang's first wife witnessed by him and Harbou and the eventual acquiescence into the Nazi party of both Klein-Rogge and Harbou, but the connection to Mabuse grows ever more tenuous. It should suffice to acknowledge Harbou's position as Lang's greatest collaborator while in Germany, from Der müde Tod in 1921 to M a decade later.
Harbou did, undoubtedly, contribute to the genius of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, and that is absolutely where we must start in the Mabuse cinematic saga. Hardly insubstantial, the German word "spieler" is typically translated as "gambler" either in subtitles or as part of the name of the first film. (Masters of Cinema opted for the German title but Kino, in R1, listed its edition as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler.) However, this English translation is a bit too simplistic and ignores additional meanings of "spieler" in the German language. It can also mean player, as in card player but also someone who enjoys holding certain points of power in his hands. The key thing to remember is that "spieler" in its original German isn't limited to simply "gambler," thus making the title of Jacques' book and the 1922 film extend beyond mere gamesmanship. Title translations aside, Lang's version of der Spieler is rife with symbolism and just about as modern as silent crime epics get (at least until his later Spione).
Mabuse is immediately situated as, more or less, his own worst enemy in the sense that the viewer must know there will be no victory for this evil criminal mastermind. Lang opens his film with a peek at Mabuse's various disguises pictured on nothing less than playing cards. In his final film, the director will do most everything in his power to conceal the actual identity of Mabuse, but here, thirty-eight years earlier, Lang immediately establishes the bad doctor as a man of multiple faces. As Kalat mentions in his commentary, Klein-Rogge isn't an actor who blends in well enough to ever fool the viewer into not recognizing him regardless of the get-up. Throughout the four and a half hours of der Spieler, we can always point out Mabuse in his various costumes. You could say this is surely part of the fun. Lang crafts a serialized version of the Mabuse story, heavily inspired by Louis Feuillade entries like Fantomas, where the visual loyalties are obvious even when the plot specifics are less clear.
Part 1, called Der große Spieler, Ein Bild der Zeit, quickly establishes Mabuse's multi-pronged criminal enterprise as encompassing a take-down of the stock market and an odd counterfeiting ring where the peons largely consist of blind men. The doctor meanwhile moonlights as a respected psychologist unafraid of giving the occasional lecture. It's a bit strange that the Mabuse name comes to mean criminal evil while this incarnation is so closely associated with psychology. He's reincarnated, by choice and compulsion, in Lang's subsequent entries, but Mabuse always seems to align himself with the concept of mental health. The better to manipulate you with, I suppose. There's no use in denying just how compelling Klein-Rogge's Mabuse is. You'd probably be forgiven for quietly cheering his anarchy. After all, this Mabuse is clearly the protagonist and far and away the most interesting character in the story. His counterpart, state prosecutor von Wenk, comes across as a boring bureaucrat in comparison. Building the Mabuse myth might have shoved aside the common sense reminder of good versus evil. It's a credit to Lang's filmmaking and Klein-Rogge's performance that, just this once, the viewer sort of wants Mabuse to triumph.
The chaos continues in Part 2 of the Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler saga, released as Inferno to German audiences in 1922. The two parts of der Spieler really are of a single whole and do play best when considered together. They don't so much contrast against each other as combine to form the full story. This second installment lets Mabuse's criminality, whether in counterfeiting or the destruction of easy target Count Told, flourish before it all begins to crumble amid the increased scrutiny of von Wenk. It is, I'd say, more filled with action and plot contrivances than Part 1, but maybe without the same level of slow-burn intrigue. Lang's emphasis on detail and technology is already in full bloom. His preoccupations with suicide, guilt and that old demon of self-destruction are likewise present and accounted for, albeit in a somewhat crude state. The thing with der Spieler is that it never shows the sophistication of Lang's later silents, even when compared against a relative knock-off like Spione. The film is remarkably accomplished as a multi-part, serial-type of work like Lang favored with Spiders and Die Nibelungen, but as a single-serve movie there are undeniable, installment-dictated shortcomings. Keep in mind that there's no shame in watching it over two nights instead of cramming everything into a single viewing.
The epic quality of der Spieler necessarily gave way to more practical concerns of a cinematic audience with increased options by 1933. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is, in my mind, the superior accomplishment for a number of reasons, though hardly as Mabuse-centric as its predecessor. Those only interested in Dr. Mabuse absolutely must see der Spieler as it lets the character run rampant over a city and, quite frankly, an era. Things had changed a good deal by the thirties, both in Germany and within the bounds of cinema. Lang was coming off the success of M, a film obviously more attuned to the filmic landscape of the time than the silent der Spieler from over a decade earlier. It should probably come as little surprise, then, that Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse resembles M more than the earlier Mabuse film. Importantly, the innovation of sound welcomed Testament and allowed for Lang to expand on the iconic whistle and various other effects he'd used on M. Factor in the presence of Otto Wernicke as the returning Inspector Lohmann, and Testament seems like a sequel to M as much as it does der Spieler. The mistake in that line of thinking might be declaring the 1933 picture a traditional sequel at all, considering how unique and utterly innovative it remains even for modern viewers.
A sound film that eschews dialogue for its initial five minutes or so in favor of the atmospheric noises of a criminal enterprise immediately calls attention to how special it is from the onset. That the titular character, Dr. Mabuse, remains mute throughout, heard only as a ghostly apparition in a single scene, almost implies that Lang is intentionally goading his audience into false expectations. The Mabuse films directed by Lang revel in misdirection. If the viewer does happen to perceive something which proves incorrect, or off in any way, there's little use in looking anywhere other than the influence of Fritz Lang. His preoccupations throughout a long and distinguished career focused heavily on paranoia, guilt, distrust and, yes, disorientation. The first words heard in Testament exemplify this perfectly. We hear the clanging and pulsing of a mechanical rhythm give way to the day's fearful silence before a loud, explosive burst of fire. But when dialogue joins the chorus, it's the words "Magic Fire Music," spoken by Lohmann, and, illustrating Lang's acerbic playfulness, it has nothing to do with the scene we've just witnessed. These little ellipses where an image or piece of audio swiftly cuts to another that's at once both explanatory and unhelpful work as trends in Lang's Mabuse films. You see it used often in Testament and reignited again in 1000 Augen.
Indeed, Lang's intentional references and callbacks across the Mabuse trilogy pulpily serve their creator well. In Testament, some of the dialogue is so laced in Nazi propaganda as to immediately cultivate that mythic Hitler-Mabuse connection. A line like the "ultimate goal of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime" drips with such knowing irony that it's no wonder Lang's film was unseen by German audiences until 1951. Regardless of the director's exact intentions, the effect almost certainly was to align Mabuse's widespread chaos with Nazi crimes while still leaving room for the idea that a Mabuse-type figure was capable of spoiling the orderliness of a system that didn't tolerate dissent. Either interpretation is defiantly anti-Nazi. And whereas the Mabuse of der Spieler was portrayed somewhat glamorously as the clear protagonist, the character is transformed in Testament to a more malignant figure of terror - a Mabuse for a deservedly pessimistic time.
This repositioning of Mabuse's role in Testament when compared with der Spieler seemed to reposition the character, allowing for him to be a shadowy specter whose tentacles stretch far and wide. Testament plays up Mabuse's influence and better shows the reach of power for what is, more than a single man, an ideology, even a religion, of chaos and anarchy. When the scratched letters in a window pane done by the informant Hofmeister dramatically reveal the name of Mabuse, we recognize and associate it with sheer evil. The mere name Mabuse, like any of the various enemies to our national safety in the decades since, is understood as being synonymous with terror and destruction. It goes beyond simple flesh and blood to instead encompass an horrific force intent on ruination. The mythology of such a cipher of venality is established right here by Lang. It's not necessary to be familiar with the 1922 exploits of Dr. Mabuse to appreciate the 1933 sequel, but seeing Mabuse's actions and his resulting downfall in the earlier film furthers the anxiety felt by witnessing the character's seemingly inevitable reemergence in Testament. Lang's decision to echo the ending of der Spieler only reminds us how dangerous Mabuse will always be. It could hardly be less comforting.
Relief actually came many years later, after Fritz Lang barreled through the dark and dusty genre alleys of Hollywood and discovered you could indeed come home again. Lang's final effort behind the camera stands undoubtedly as the least respected of his Mabuse pictures, which isn't to say that Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse deserves to be overlooked. Most interesting is how Lang effectively defangs the Mabuse character in comparison to Testament, making him once again accessible as a pulpy movie villain instead of a frightening allegory. As such, 1000 Augen is great fun and a fitting close to Lang's career both on the whole and as the man who pulled Mabuse's strings on film. That the mood is a little campy and slightly hysterical at times only makes it easier to enjoy. How can you resist a picture which so blatantly repeats a scene from Testament and then justifies it in the most clever way imaginable?
The Bond-like, cheap espionage thrills are present in 1000 Augen, but what really drives the fascination is Lang's still vigorous filmmaking. The director was approaching 70 years old, nearly blind, and more or less discarded by Hollywood when he made what would be his final film yet there's no sense of weariness or quit in the picture. Misdirections, again, abound, with literally no one exactly who he or she appears to be at first glance. There's a dive into voyeurism, but not in the traditional sense. What we see here seems to tease the artifice of voyeurism, of watching something carefully staged so as to appear natural - like movies themselves. The surveillance and technology motifs Lang frequently enjoyed also return in force. Whereas the Mabuse of old gained the upper hand through hypnosis, here it's a sophisticated series of cameras and monitors which allow him to wield power. Even if this Mabuse isn't quite as threatening as Klein-Rogge's version, his ability to adapt is a sober reminder of the persistence of evil. The repetition of Lang's Mabuse films - always involving a man of the law trying to catch up to the doctor and eventually doing so but not before at least one act of violence occurs - makes for a fascinating way to explore the same general ideas happening in the same general place but at distinctive (and important) times.
The three films Fritz Lang directed featuring the Dr. Mabuse character - Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, and Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse - are collected here by Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series for a single release and available only inside this box set. My understanding is that three individual keepcases are housed inside a sturdy box similar to the previous Mikio Naruse and Buster Keaton MoC releases. One difference here is that each of the films receives its own booklet instead of there being a single book. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, owing to its four and a half hours of running time, is divided between a pair of discs. Each part - Der große Spieler (155 mins.) and Inferno (115 mins.) - gets its own disc. Individual cover art (beautiful as usual) can be seen at the Masters of Cinema site.
All discs are dual-layered, region-free and PAL. My previous experience with the first two Mabuse films comes from the Kino edition of der Spieler and the Criterion Collection's Testament, and I've included some comparison screen captures. Both of those films have also been previously done by Eureka, earlier reviewed at DVD Times by Noel Megahey. (I can't speak to how 1000 Augen measures against previous editions, though the R1 disc has been out of print for some time.) The short of it is that the Masters of Cinema der Spieler clearly trumps Kino's effort, not the least of which because it uses German intertitles. While both transfers are interlaced as a necessary result of the film running at 20 frames per second instead of the non-silent standard 24, Kino's image is far more grey and hazy than the comparably attractive contrast exhibited by the MoC transfer. This could be a case of boosting the blackness on the latter but, to my two eyes anyway, it looks much better than Kino's overly bright choice. Scratches are still present, but often less noticeably so. Overall, this looks remarkable for a film over 87 years old and plenty good by most any reasonable standards. Here are a couple of screen capture comparisons between the Masters of Cinema and Kino editions, with the former on the left:
Not surprisingly, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse looks better still. Some scenes may be softer than others and minor damage pops up on occasion, but this progressively transferred image is gorgeous more often than not. Contrast is well-balanced, grain is present without being overly intrusive and the sharpness is fine if not ideal. Those who've had a look at Criterion's 2004 release will already have an idea of the picture quality since the Masters of Cinema edition compares well against it. The two transfers are not absolutely identical, though we're basically splitting hairs for the differences. Both come in at around the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, pillarboxed a small bit at the sides. The MoC might have a sliver more information in the frame. It's also ever so slightly darker I think. But, again, it's difficult to detect any obvious superiority. The Criterion definitely has more supplements for this one film on its release, but more on that later. Here are two comparisons, with Masters of Cinema on the left and the Criterion Collection on the right:
Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse is presented with a progressive transfer close to the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio (about 1.70:1 by my measurements), enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image here is fine but not stunning. Contrast could look better, particularly the brightness of some whites and a general lack of strong blacks. It's not quite tinged with greenish hues but the shadows aren't inky either. At least there's no damage to speak of and detail, while also not likely to amaze most viewers, seems more than acceptable. Some scenes and shots, like the one I've included with Gert Fröbe, do look crisper than others.
Turning to the audio, der Spieler is, of course, a silent so the only soundtrack option is a score by Aljoscha Zimmermann. It's in Dolby Digital mono and sounds fantastic. A great accompaniment presented without a hitch. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, Lang's second sound film, has only a German mono track. Some hiss and other imperfections, but well-conveyed overall. There are so many little (and big) sounds to listen for in this movie that it's hard to know if you might be missing out on something. Still, as with the Criterion release, this reveals a lot of detail for a film of this age. Meanwhile, those looking for a choice in their audio language can be comforted by having two separate soundtracks (both mono) for Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse. The film's actors spoke different languages so dubbing was heard by all audiences. The German dub track actually has a more hollow sound with increased static than its English alternative, though a hiss can be heard on the latter track too. The trade-off is a stronger volume for the German audio. For native English speakers who dislike watching dubbed movies because of how distracting the experience is, it's the German language track all the way. Most but not all of the actors do speak German in the film so mouth movements inevitably will align closer. Plus, some viewers surely prefer to read.
White-colored English subtitles are provided for all three films and are optional. The der Spieler intertitles, as I mentioned before, are in German. I didn't notice a single spelling mistake across the entirety of the set.
The main extra feature is obviously the energetic and knowledgeable running commentaries by David Kalat. If you've had the pleasure of hearing a Kalat commentary you already know he's one of the best there is and since he literally wrote the book on the Dr. Mabuse films he's certainly well-qualified to go the full eight-plus hours on these films. He provides ample background information, clear opinions and, best of all, a joy for the material. Despite Kalat having recorded commentaries before on, I believe, two of these Mabuse pictures, the MoC versions are new (with understandable repeating of material) and, I dare say, definitive. It's worth mentioning that since Kalat also did the commentary on Criterion's Testament I compared the two recordings and found that he seemed much more relaxed here while still treading similar ground. As someone who will readily admit to often finding commentary tracks a waste of time because of how uninteresting or plain unnecessary they can be, I loved listening to Kalat's insight into these films.
Beyond the commentaries, a few more supplements do appear as digital bonus features on the set. Disc two of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler repeats the trio of featurettes from the earlier Eureka and Kino editions. All three are entirely worthwhile, but I was particularly impressed with "Mabuse's Music" (12:57) where we see and hear composer Aljoscha Zimmermann as he discusses the piano-heavy score he created for the film. Also interesting is "Norbert Jacques: The Literary Inventor of Dr. Mabuse" (9:35) and the half-hour overview of the character "Mabuse's Movies" (29:55). There's definitely some overlap in these last two with Kalat's commentary, but that seems unavoidable.
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse doesn't share the same supplements that Criterion's two-disc special edition has. This means the alternative French-language version is nowhere to be found. Dedicated Mabuse and Lang fans will probably want to hold onto the R1 set, but I'm not sure how often anyone's going to pull out this film to watch and opt for the French curiosity anyway. Its absence seems insubstantial.
A couple of extras fill out the Die 1000 Augen disc. First, a brief alternate ending (1:03) which holds the final scene of the film just a few seconds longer but seemingly alters the outcome is included. It was included on only the French prints of the movie upon release. A 2002 interview (15:11) conducted with actor Wolfgang Preiss mere days prior to his death is also here.
Booklets for each film can be found inside the individual keepcases. All three are substantial in terms of page count, but maybe lighter on analysis than we've seen in other MoC reading materials. Both der Spieler and Testament have 32-page booklets while Die 1000 Augen's is slightly thicker at 36 pages. Well-chosen photographs and stills are liberally sprinkled against the text. Der Spieler has "Kitsch: Sensation Culture and Film," a 1924 essay by Fritz Lang, on 8 pages of text and a collection of quotes by the director from various interviews, called a scrapbook, for another 5 pages of text. Michel Chion's 1982 essay "The Silence of Mabuse" is the lengthiest piece at 15 pages of text in the Testament booklet. More reflections by Lang make up 5 pages there. Though it's just a single page of text and a couple more of photos, the "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" piece by David Cairns is tremendous fun, and can be found in Die 1000 Augen's booklet. Rounding things out are 12 pages' worth of interview bits from Lang and 2 by Lotte Eisner on "The Final, Unrealised Projects" of the director.
A terrific package from the Masters of Cinema Series, the Complete Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse boxset is a mouthful to say but an absolute joy to sift through and keep on the shelf. If you aren't familiar with Lang and/or Mabuse this is as much for you as it is the committed fanatics. It's a great place to start and an even better excuse for revisiting some fascinating cinema.
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