Criminal mastermind, master of disguise, hypnotist, psychoanalyst, destroyer of men and seducer of women – all these and more describe evil genius Dr. Mabuse. Created by author Norbert Jacques, Mabuse is the literary great-grandfather of other Machiavellian villains, from Fantomas to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and beyond. The pulp thriller was an immediate hit upon publication and was turned into a four hour extravaganza by noted director Fritz Lang, adapted for the screen by his wife Thea von Harbou.
In the film, Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) controls his underworld empire through intimidation and terror. He knows all the illegal gambling houses and delights in going in disguise to find the foolish and the weak-willed, playing cards against them (while hypnotizing them across the table), feeding on their desperation as they lose more and more, then either making them his slaves or sending them off to destroy themselves if they are of no further use to him. He also controls a counterfeiting shop, with the use of blind workers to count and stack the bills (a motif that would be carried over in the Edgar Wallace thriller and film Dark Eyes of London).
Mabuse, in turn, is being pursued by State Attorney von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). For the majority of the feature, he does not know the identity of the master criminal, referring to him as “The Great Unknown”. Von Wenk captures one of Mabuse’s gang, his femme fatale Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) and tries to get her to talk. Instead she remains in jail, knowing the Doctor will come for her. And he does, but not as she expects. Another confederate arrives at her cell, with a suicide pill and instructions to end her life. La Carozza sees the error of her ways too late, but rather than turn in the man she loves, she takes the pill and buys him more time.
Mabuse turns his appetites (both sexual and monetary) on the Countess and Count Told. The Countess (Gertrude Welker) is a jaded sophisticate, one who has seen it all and done it all and is bored with life. Von Wenk tries first to get her assistance in breaking down La Carozza, but she is so shaken by the fierceness of the woman’s love for Mabuse, she cannot go through with it. After La Carozza’s death, Mabuse kidnaps the Countess to make her his latest sexual conquest, either by privation, starvation or hypnotism – it’s all the same to him. He has other plans for the Count (Alfred Abel): at a upper crust party, he hypnotizes the Count from across the room and has him cheat at cards, in full view of the other players. The Count’s reputation is destroyed and he comes to the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse for help. Mabuse agrees to take his case and sends him on a series of spiraling post-hypnotic suggestions, culminating in the Count’s throat-cutting suicide with a straight razor.
Von Wenk closes in on Mabuse, still not sure of his enemy’s identity, prompting the megalomaniac to attempt his greatest triumph. Disguised as mentalist Sandor Weltmann, Mabuse succeeds in hypnotizing von Wenk on stage and orders him to leave the theatre and destroy himself by driving over a cliff. Von Wenk’s deputies follow and save him before the fatal plunge, whereupon he finally figures out the identity of the mastermind. Surrounding his house, a shootout occurs between Mabuse and his gang and von Wenk, his deputies and the Army! Wounded, Mabuse escapes through the sewers to the counterfeiting house, only to be irreversibly locked in with the blind. As they shamble toward him, Mabuse’s mind finally cracks and he sees not the blind, but his dead victims approaching him, seeking revenge. Upon tracking him down at last, von Wenk and his men find a hopelessly mad Mabuse, who is led off to an asylum.
Seen today, the film is a quaint reminder of other pulp thrillers and cliffhanger serials that populated the movie theaters of the 1920s – ’50s. What one needs to remember while watching it, however, is the many innovations cinematographer Carl Hoffmann brought to the screen, breathing movable life to many scenes which had been static before. The casting is impressive, as well, with Rudolph Klein-Rogge’s Mabuse a dry run for his most famous role in another Lang production, the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis (1927). Ironically, his enemy in that film is the iron-willed Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, played by Alfred Abel, who plays the weak-willed Count Told here.
Kino Video has released a magnificent two-disc DVD print of this title, with a masterful music score by Robert Israel and David Kalat performing commentary track duties. If you’re a fan of silent cinema or just want to see where cinema’s madmen got their start, this is a good jumping-off point. I’ll be back later as I continue my Mabuse-thon with the direct sequel, Lang’s 1933 film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services