Thursday 14 February 2013

Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse (1933)


Mabuse, villain of the earlier 'Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler' (1922) has, since his arrest, gone insane and possibly then gone sane again.  He sits in the asylum, wild-eyed and wild-haired, never speaking a word, but writing page after page after page of instructions on how to commit perfect crimes.  And far across the city, somebody is committing those crimes.

This is recognisably the same Berlin as in 'M' (1931).  The criminal criminal underworld acts with a certain gusto, and seems a relatively agreeable side of society, for those willing to join in - living, laughing and cooking sausages together when not indulging in petty crimes.  The only real evil among them comes from those rare crimes, murders.

Thomas Kent and Lilli in a soggy situation

At the four corners of this adventure are are the aforementioned Dr Mabuse; Professor Baum, the psychiatrist who studies him; Thomas Kent, a handsome and for-some-reason-American-named, basically law-abiding crook who won't commit the murderous instructions passed down from his unseen master; and reprising his role from 'M', the excellent Otto Wernicke as the equally excellent Inspector Lohmann.

Unusually, the presence of both Lohmann and Mabuse makes this a sequel to two different films, taking the hero from one and the villain from the other.  I haven't seen 'Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler' (1922), but I was delighted to see the return of Lohmann (or rather, I'd forgotten him utterly, as I hadn't seen 'M' for five years when I watched this, but he was so enjoyable here that I immediately rewatched 'M' and was delighted to see him return there, even if it was more of a pre-turn).  It's a full-blooded performance with a great amount of humour where it's needed.

The Spectre of Mabuse over Professor Baum

Mabuse is suitably sinister and cadaverous, and is played here by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who was the fascinatingly alien Koenig Etzel (that's Attilla the Hun, to you or me) in 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) and Rotwang in 'Metropolis' (1927).  Yet more frightening, perhaps, is Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.).  Film after film, from the thirties to the sixties, show psychiatrists as more prey to neuroses and what used to be termed 'criminal insanity' than anybody they might actually treat, so it's little wonder they're so feared today, and 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' gives us a classic example.  It beats Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' (1945, often counted with popularising all the main psychiatrist stereotypes) by a good decade.  This whole film, in fact, has a great deal of Hitchcock to its style and flavour, and it would surprise me very little to hear he'd given it his attention.

I can see why this is less well remembered, at least in the English-speaking world, than 'M' (1931), which got there first, and had Peter Lorre on its side - but it's a pity that, bar the odd Amazon recommendation, I've never heard this spoken of.  Anyone who enjoys 'M' enough to rewatch it will find a great many of its merits reproduced here.  The special effects are as bold as I've now come to expect from 20s and 30s cinema, and the DVD cover is an exciting one indeed.  Perhaps not the right way to judge a film, but it's a test that's often led me right in past.

Tempted to investigate?

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