The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse)
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou (based on the novel by Norbert Jacques)
Stars: Otto Wernicke (Commissioner Lohmann), Oscar Beregi Sr. (Professor Doctor Baum), Gustav Diessl (Thomas Kent), Wera Liessem (Lilli), Georg John (Baum's servant), Karl Meixner (Hofmeister), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse), Adolf E. Licho (Dr. Hauser), Klaus Pohl (Müller), Rudolph Schündler (Hardy)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1933
Country: Germany
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse DVD
Check out these eyes!Fritz Lang was a great storyteller, both on film and about his personal life. Although the veracity of much of the lore he generated about himself is highly debatable if not outright fabrication, it makes for great contextual fodder.

Take, of instance, his 1933 crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse), a sequel to his 1922 smash hit Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler). The film was never shown in Germany until long after World War II had ended because Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, banned it. According to Lang, it was banned because Goebbels realized it was an intentional satirical swipe at Hitler and the Nazi party, and as a result Lang had to sneak out of Germany in the dead of night, leaving all his possessions and money behind. This story has been told and retold by Lang to the point that most scholars and writers simply take it for granted. However, that tale is as much fiction as the character of Dr. Mabuse himself, but it still makes for a great story.

Peter Bogdanovich described Lang as “a troubling and troubled man,” one who had no interest in notions of normality, which is reflected in almost all of his films. The character of Dr. Mabuse predated Lang—he was the creation of novelist Norbert Jacques—but it was Lang and his twisted worldview who truly brought the master supercriminal to life, making him a part of the collective unconscious. Because he is such a broad figure, a criminal mastermind to end all criminal masterminds, it is easy to see Mabuse in purely metaphorical terms; he’s a blank canvas waiting for each subsequent generation to fill with their fears. In the 1920s, he was seen as a representation of the social ills of the Weimer Republic. In the 1930s, he was a symbol of Hitler and fascist ideologies. In the 1960s, when he appeared in Lang’s last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1962), he was seen in light of Cold War paranoia. Even today, people want to graft modern terrors onto the evil doctor, seeing him as a prototype of the modern political terrorist—an early Osama bin Laden.

What’s so amazing about the character of Dr. Mabuse is that he can support all of these readings. As played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse says virtually nothing in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, yet his presence haunts every frame of the film. When the story opens, he has been locked away in jail for more than a decade since going insane at the end of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Suddenly, he begins feverishly writing page after page of what is at first meaningless gobbledygook, but soon develops into a striking manifesto about how to create a world of crime—it’s Mabuse’s Mein Kampf. The authorities begin to take notice when the crimes Mabuse writes about in his asylum cell are enacted in perfect accord in Berlin.

Mabuse’s reign of terror would seem to end when the bad doctor suddenly dies, but such is not the case. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse adds an aura of the supernatural to the titular villain, as Mabuse takes over the body of his psychiatrist, Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.). Not just a brilliant supercriminal, he is also a powerful ghost-figure beyond the reach of rationality who can possess the bodies of others and cause them to do his bidding. To add to his metaphorical openness, Mabuse becomes less a person than an idea—a free-floating state of mind. It doesn’t matter in whose body the ideas are enacted, only that they are. Thus, Mabuse is inescapable, a phantom presence that can pop up at any historical moment and wreak havoc.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which was Lang’s second sound film, is also a sequel of sorts to his first sound film, 1931’s M. The two films share in common the protagonist, a slightly rumbled, blue-collar police commissioner named Lohmann (played in both films by Otto Wernicke). Lohmann is smart, but he’s not pretentious, making him a perfect foil for Mabuse (Wenicke’s genial performance also brings an edge of comic relief to the thriller).

The other main characters in the film are Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl), a decent man who’s forced by dire economic conditions to turn to a life of crime, and his girlfriend, Lilli (Wera Liessem). Many have rightly pointed out that the romantic angle between Kent and Lilli is the film’s weakest aspect, dripping as it is in syrupy sentiment. The scene in which Kent tries to get Lilli to leave him by telling her all the horrible things he’s done in his criminal life, to which she replies with bright-eyed earnestness that she just doesn’t care, is unintentionally funny). However, the character of Kent is crucial to the film because he’s an intermediary, a figure who straddles the film’s clearly demarcated lines of good and evil. Although he turns to crime in order to live, he gets on the wrong side of Mabuse by reacting negatively against the doctor’s more stringent and sadistic orders, which culminates in an extraordinary sequence in which he and Lilli are trapped in a room beneath which is a ticking bomb that’s set to explode.

Technically, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a tour de force for Lang, his last great film before moving on to the United States where he would make consistently interesting films that were unfortunately hampered by budgetary constraints and censorship codes. The sound design of Testament is remarkable for a film of its age, as Lang understood that the power of synch sound was much more than just dialogue and extradiegetic music. His use of sound effects, always intriguing and sometimes outright startling, is testament to his keen understanding of the connection between image, sound, and narrative. An excellent example is the opening sequence, in which a disgraced police detective is spying on one of Mabuse’s counterfeiting operations. As it is the opening scene, the action is ambiguous in that we don’t know who is good and who is bad, and this narrative disorientation is enhanced by Lang’s decision to flood the soundtrack with the mechanical thumping and grinding of an offscreen machine that we never see.

Even though Lang almost completely dismisses the crimes in the film, relegating them to dialogue, rather than action, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is filled with memorable action and suspense scenes, including an assassination that takes place in the middle of a traffic jam, an extended shootout between police and a gang of jewel thieves trapped in an apartment, and the climactic explosion at a chemical factory that Lang shot full-scale, gleefully pushing the buttons for each explosion himself.

As a master of suspense, Lang was unrivaled in his time except for Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker with whom he also shares a macabre sense of humor and an often bleak worldview. It’s no surprise, then, that early in his career Hitchcock was referred to as the “British Fritz Lang” and Lang was referred to later in his career as the “German Alfred Hitchcock.”

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.19:1
AudioGerman Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by film scholar David Kalat
Excerpts from For Example Fritz Lang, 1964 interview with Lang
Mabuse in Mind 1984 film
Comparison of three versions of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Interview with Michael Farin, German Mabuse expert
Gallery of production design sketches
Galleries of stills, pressbooks, and posters
Essay by Tom Gunning
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMay 18, 2004

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is presented in this excellent two-disc set in two different versions. On the first disc is the recently restored German version of the film, pieced together into a 121-minute edition that is just a minute shy of the original 122-minute running time. The transfer was taken from a restored 35mm duplicate negative, and it looks positively outstanding. For the first time on home video, the film is presented in its correct aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which results in slight pillarboxing within the 1.33:1 frame (other video versions and most duplicate prints shown outside of Europe simply zoomed in to fill the 1.33:1 frame). The restoration work on the original film elements, along with further digital restoration, has done marvels in bringing out the clarity of the images, allowing us to see great levels of detail. Some shots here and there appear a bit soft and there is some minimal damage at times that obviously couldn’t be digitally erased, but otherwise this is as good as a 70-year-old film is going to look. On the second disc, Criterion gives us the French version of the film, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, which was shot simultaneously with the German version on the same sets by Lang, but with French actors. Unfortunately, there are few surviving prints of this version of the film, and the best Criterion could come up with is a ragged 16mm print from a French archive (it also has burned-in Dutch subtitles that are mostly covered by the newly translated electronic English subtitles). Nevertheless, it’s great that Criterion included both versions.

The original monaural soundtrack was also restored to great effect. It has the expected limitations of an old mono soundtrack, but the clarity is surprisingly good (at one point in the audio commentary, David Kalat notes that dialogue that had previously been murky is now understandable, marking the first time some audiences have actually heard what the characters are saying). Lang’s impressive use of sound effects is well presented, as is his use of silence, which is largely free of ambient hiss. The soundtrack of the French version is about on par with the image quality; it’s mostly understandable, but filled with clicks, pops, and ambient hiss.

Criterion continues to line up the best person for the job when it comes to the audio commentary. This time around we get David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse. Kalat is clear, organized, and articulate in his discussion, which ranges from the details of Fritz Lang’s life (most of which, he points out, contradict the stories Lang told about himself), to the political and historical context of the film, to his own interpretations of it. He can also be quite funny, as when he does a hilarious riff on Lilli’s ridiculously saccharine responses to Kent’s confessions of all the bad things he’s done.

The second disc is packed with additional extras, starting with the complete French-language version of the film. Then we get a 20-minute 1964 television interview with Fritz Lang conducted by German documentary filmmaker Erwin Leiser. Also included is Thomas Honickel’s 1984 film Mabuse in Mind (15 min.), which is about actor Rudolph Schündler, who played the role of Hardy. For those interested in the literary and cinematic histories of the Mabuse character, there’s a great 10-minute interview with Michael Farin, a German Mabuse expert who discusses the little-known life of the supercriminal’s creator, novelist Norbert Jacques. For those interested in the history of the various versions of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, there’s an intriguing comparative featurette that shows crucial sequences from the German, French, and American versions of the film side-by-side. Also included are a bunch of stills galleries with rare production sketches, production photos, publicity posters, and pages from the original German pressbook.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Atlantic-Film S.A.

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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