In 1933, Fritz Lang continued the adventures of one of his earliest successes, that of the demagogic madman and criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Confined to an asylum at the end of 1922′s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), the good (bad) doctor (again portrayed by Rudolph Klein-Rogge) has been locked away for the last ten years, staring into space and doing nothing but writing … and writing … and writing. At first the writing is nothing but doodles and scribbles, nonsense words that fill up pad after pad. Over time, however, the writing starts to make sense, a word here, a sentence there, until it all comes together (complete with complex drawings) for Mabuse’s Manifesto on how to run a Criminal Empire.
In the original 1922 film, Mabuse used “telepathic hypnosis” to bend people to his will and control his victims. Lang suggests that the doctor’s power has grown exponentially (since he has been locked away for over a decade, both physically in the asylum and psychically piecing back together his shattered mind, making it stronger and more dangerous) and that he is getting the cogs running again for his second stab at world conquest. The question becomes how is he doing this while locked away in solitary confinement? We are shown a gang of men, all with different code names and departments, getting the typewritten summons from “Dr. Mabuse” to meet at a certain time and place for criminal instructions. Upon their arrival at a warehouse, they are ushered into a curtained room, whereupon they are given orders by an anonymous shape behind the curtain.
One such hireling is Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl), an executive who has made bad decisions before in his life and served his time in jail, a man who has the love of the beautiful Lilli (Wera Liessem) and wishes to go straight, but who is caught up in the strangling web of Mabuse. Tom tries to break off the love affair with Lilli, telling her of his prison time for murder and his past. She assures him it doesn’t change her feelings for him, which gives him the courage to confront Mabuse and refuse to do any more of his dirty work. Announcing his intentions to quit the group, Tom and Lilli are told they have walked into a death trap and have only three hours to live! Tom shoots the character behind the curtain, only to find a wooden cutout of a man and a loudspeaker … and an ominous ticking noise.
The police have been trying to track down the mastermind of the rash of crimes going on. Celebrated police Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, reprising his role from Lang’s earlier hit M) is investigating the case of informant Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), whose mind has snapped after a run-in with Mabuse’s men (he is also now a patient at the asylum) – before they got him, he had time to scratch Mabuse’s name in a windowpane. Lohmann remembers the name and rehashes the events from the first film. Thinking he has the case wrapped up and the culprit caught, Lohmann calls the asylum – only to hear that Mabuse has died that very morning. Lohmann goes to the asylum to confirm this and is met by the director (and the man who had worked on Mabuse’s case the entire time he was interred) Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) – much has been made of the following scene, where Lohmann (in the morgue with Baum and the corpse of Mabuse) dismisses the dead man as another harmless crank and Baum, rather than agreeing with the Commissioner, goes off on him extolling Mabuse’s genius and what he was trying to accomplish with his Manifesto. The reason why is because Baum’s words here (and some of Mabuse’s notes later on in the film) are taken from Adolph Hitler’s political screeds – this was Lang’s way of trying to warn the German people of the very real madman already in their midst. Unfortunately, it was a warning that was to fall on deaf ears.
Back at the curtained room, Tom and Lilli have tried to find the ticking bomb, only to be driven to frenzy as they find walls and doors are all lead-shielded and there is no way out. In desperation, Tom cuts a water main pipe to flood the room and dampen the blast of the explosion. It now becomes a test of which way they will die, by explosion or drowning. As they are gasping for air, the bomb (which was set in the floor) goes off, blasting a hole in the floor and releasing the water … and providing their exit. They instantly go to Inpsector Lohmann with their case and with Tom’s typewritten instructions from Mabuse. Lohmann informs them of Mabuse’s death, yet the crime reign still continues … but how?
As Doctor Baum had worked so closely with Mabuse during his stay at the asylum, collecting and reading his voluminous notes, Mabuse slowly took over Baum’s mind, until at the moment of his death, he performed his greatest feat: that of soul transference (seen on the screen via double exposure of Mabuse’s astral self leaving his body and entering Baum’s). Lang said that he regretted this portion of the film and that if he were shooting it again, would have left it out (leaving the plot more ambiguous). Tom and Lohmann go to Baum’s house and hear a recording from his study, saying, “I do not wish to be disturbed”. Tom recognizes the recorded voice as that of “Mabuse” at the warehouse, and looking at Baum/Mabuse’s notes on his desk for the next act of terrorism, sees it is for a chemical plant explosion that night. They arrive too late to stop the explosion, but Lang does manage to film an eerily-lit nighttime car chase of the fleeing Baum back to the asylum. Lohmann and Tom follow Baum/Mabuse to Hofmeister’s cell (which was Mabuse’s old cell), where they hear a violent, life and death struggle break out between the two men. Looking inside, Hofmeister is being led out and Baum is sitting on the cell bed, slowly tearing the Mabuse Manifesto into small strips, a page at a time. Mabuse’s tenuous hold on Baum’s soul has been broken, but at the cost of the man’s sanity.
The tales of the making of this film are nothing short of astonishing, including Lang demanding as much authenticity as possible of his cast by shooting real bullets during certain scenes! There is inventive use of sound throughout, but at the same time, there are long stretches of silence. This may seem disconcerting to modern viewers who are used to music playing in every scene, but keep in mind the first synchronized score for a film would not appear until Max Steiner’s composition for KING KONG (released this same year). Silent films had musical accompaniment, of course, to set a general mood, but it was not scene-specific for an entire feature.
The DVD of TESTAMENT is another Criterion Collection gem, a two-disc set featuring both this edition of the film and the French edition (which Lang shot simultaneously with different actors); audio commentary by David Kalat and many featurettes about all aspects of the character and the film, as well as a look at the advertising campaign and posters. The Mabuse-thon concludes next time with Lang’s final film in the trilogy (and his final film as a director), 1960′s THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE. I hope you will use at least two of YOUR eyes to join me then.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services