Tuesday 12 November 2013

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

A disguise of Dr Mabuse
Many months ago, I wrote about this film's sequel, 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), which pitted Inspector Lohmann from 'M' (1931) against the villainous Dr Mabuse from this silent picture, 'Dr Mabuse, the Gambler'.  At the time I was faintly curious to know what Mabuse had been up to before his insanity and institutionalisation, but at the time I was wary of silent films, so passed the opportunity by.  However, my trusty CRT television broke down and died a few weeks ago, so I upgraded to HD at last, and ordered myself a copy of this movie to test it out.  I learnt early in The Penciltonian that director Fritz Lang created pictures worth looking at.  As in 'Metropolis' (1927), he casts Rudolf Klein-Rogge as a charismatic villain, and as in 'Die Nibelungen' (1925) he tells his story over almost five hours, with the audience watching the first half of the film one day, returning to the cinema a day later to find out what happened in the second half.

Nice hat and pattern there, Aud Egede-Nissen.
This film breaks the division I'd imagined in Lang's directorial career.  In my mind, he spent the 20s making epic sci-fi and fantasy silent films, before moving into (slightly) more grounded Berlin-based crime thrillers with the advent of sound in the 30s.  But this is a silent crime film of gargantuan character, and feels like it belongs in both portions.  It's the age of monocles, of cocain and of intertitles.  Dr Mabuse is a psychoanalyst, a gambler and a hypnotist.  An evil hypnotist, mind.  As in the sequel, there's something of a mystery over whether his powers are granted by a knowledge of human psychology, by a triumph of patented German will-power, or by some force yet more malign and magical.  Mabuse is a brilliant and terrible individual, a stylish and intense fellow and a master of disguise.  He dresses up a lot, coaxes people into losing vast sums at cards, and uses his pawns to engage in the more practical criminal fare of theft, un-theft, stock-market cunning and (eventually) murder.  In short, he's The Master, 48 years early.

Chief Inspector Norbert von Wenk regards the artworks of high society.
Within ten minutes of the start, I was excited about some day rewatching the film.  It had an energy, a flair and a visual style that I found very alluring.  I used to have a rather dim opinion of silent films (an opinion you can share if you watch 'Birth of a Nation', 1915, first), but films like this are so rich and exciting, and tell their stories with a directness and drama that you wonder why spoken dialogue ever seemed like a necessary invention.  I love the scene of hypnosis that we see from the point-of-view of the hypnotee, as everything except Mabuse's face grows blurry and the playing cards change their faces.  I love the scenes of miss Cara Carozza dancing - she's an amazing dancer, but not necessarily a good one, but her unembarrassable flailing and jiving is something I one immediately wished to imitate - a strangely attractive, undisciplined style, with plenty of gusto.  I dig the amazing and scary expressionist art that stocks the houses of the city's upper crust; Mabuse says expressionism is just 'spilerei', 'playing about' - but he sees nothing wrong with playing about.  He's a Spieler!

The film very briefly passes the Bechdel test when Cara and Gräfin Dusy Told talk to
each other in prison, but in no time they're on about Dr Mabuse this and Dr Mabuse that...
It's a fine thriller, with a timeless flavour, if not a modern one.  Scenes that I take to be innovative (though they may already have been old hat) are things which later became clichés, but remain ever exciting: a taxi-driver surreptitiously pulls a lever releasing knockout gas in his passenger compartment, for instance.  It feels as if James Bond could break out at any moment.  This is so far advanced, so far advanced in terms of ambition, style and depth from that other tale of silent criminality, 'Dr Nicholson and the Blue Diamond' (1913, and yes, all doctors in cinema were evil until 1965) that it's hard to believe only a decade has gone by.  This is a sinister and exciting story, and is comfortably up to the standards of Fritz Lang's more famous crime-films.  And it's impressive indeed to remain exciting for so many hours.

P.S. This was the same year as 'Nosferatu' and the amazing 'Häxan'.  What a year for European cinema!  Over in the states 'King of Kings' was happening, so the year's merits may have been international.  Of the lot, I believe this is my favourite.  I may need to re-watch 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' again now, to remind myself what happened next.

It may surprise you to learn that ancient cinema looks beautiful on blu-ray.  It isn't a format I advocate often, but it brings out every crinkle, every wall-paper, and is a fine way to take these thrilling stories.

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