Fritz Lang’s 1922 film Dr Mabuse the Gambler is in many ways the daddy of all movies in the gangster, crime and film noir genres. Interestingly enough, Lang also invented the science fiction film (Metropolis) and the spy film (his 1928 film Spies). Every criminal mastermind or mad scientist or evil hypnotist from that time on also owed something to Dr Mabuse, although it could be argued that the type originated in earlier German movies like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Dr Mabuse the Gambler is a very long film (you could consider its two parts to be two moderately long films but they don’t stand alone so really it’s one film) but it can’t be accused of being boring. There’s just so much going on, so many wonderful visual touches, some terrific 1920s special effects (especially the use of text on screen, in the scene involving the state prosecutor’s car). And there’s so much outrageousness. It’s a movie that manages to be very pulpy and very arty at the same time. It has a lot to say about the disastrous conditions in Germany in the early 20s, the hyper-inflation, the appalling poverty combined with nouveau riche war-profiteers and black marketeers, and of course Berlin’s famous decadence.
At the same time it’s a great deal of fun, with Dr Mabuse the master of disguise matching wits against the determined and courageous State Prosecutor von Wenk. And there’s psychoanalysis, hypnotism and mind control. What more could you want? Dr Mabuse himself has often been seen as a kind of prophecy of the coming to power of Hitler, a suggestion vehemently denied by director Fritz Lang in the documentary that accompanies the Kino DVD (although he admits that his 1933 movie The Testament of Dr Mabuse does address the issue of the Nazis). The documentary is quite interesting, with plenty of information about Norbert Jacques, who wrote the Dr Mabuse books which were apparently immensely popular in Germany.
The score is as atrocious as every other modern silent film score I’ve come across – it was clearly composed by someone who’d never seen the movie and had no ideas what it was about. But if you let awful scores put you off you’d never get to see any silent movies. Don’t forget folks, they’re silent movies, so don’t be afraid to turn the volume down to zero and just enjoy the movie. The good news is that the Kino DVD looks terrific. And it’s a fantastic, bizarre, unique and very entertaining movie.