#14 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang’s last film he made with his wife Thea von Harbou and in Germany before he fled after a meeting with Joseph Goebbels where the chief propagandist of the Nazi Party offered to make him legally Aryan (Lang’s mother was Jewish, though he was raised Catholic), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a follow up to both the earlier Dr. Mabuse film as well as M. It’s another crime film in Lang’s body of work, another solid thriller to end his time in his native country before he said goodbye to it for decades. The film is a portrait of a nation on the verge of being consumed by chaos and terrorism, obvious fears of a half-Jewish man who was seeing everything he knew either flee or disintegrate. It provides a sharply poignant subtext to the affair.
It’s been ten years since Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) went insane on the verge of capture, and his psychiatrist, Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi) has become obviously obsessed with the mad genius. He explains to a class of students how, over time, Mabuse has gone from completely catatonic to automatically writing endlessly page after page of coherent, logical, and dastardly plans of crimes, crimes that seem to be happening as discovered by Baum’s associate Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos). At the same time, police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who was the main police investigator in M, is looking for a former and disgraced policeman, Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), who is trying to make amends for his dismissal by looking into a counterfeiting ring. Hofmeister disappears in the middle of a phone conversation, and Lohmann starts investigating.
The criminal conspiracy that Hofmeister is on the verge of uncovering is being operated in the same way that Mabuse operated his own conspiracy a decade before, but Mabuse is in a mental institution, unable to communicate with anyone outside of his cell. It’s…obvious what’s going on, but the movie treats it like something of a mystery. It keeps an aura around the identity of the boss, hidden behind a curtain in a special, locked room of criminal headquarters, like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. However, it’s not Mabuse, it’s Baum. That reality is somewhat mundane, but the film gives the explanation another level that’s creepy and interesting.
Baum is getting possessed by Mabuse, and it happens when Baum sees the spirit of Mabuse in his office, complete with unnatural, huge eyes, who takes control of Baum’s body. That’s the literal explanation, but there’s a subtext of ideological infestation that’s more terrifying, that the film doesn’t explore this in any sort of depth. It prefers the more literal criminal story.
That story is carried by one of Baum’s underlings, Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl) who entered the gang as an engineer on the counterfeiting team some months back and has also developed a relationship with the cute girl in the unemployment office, Lilli (Wera Leissem). Thomas is in conflict with his sense of self-preservation that keeps him in the gang and his desire to life a peaceful, crime-free life with Lilli. This stuff is fine, but it’s more purely melodrama in a film that’s not really designed for it. The film around it is more hard-edged. That narrative conflict I find a bit frustrating.
The investigation turns on a murder that closes in on Mabuse’s plans all working in tandem to create chaos. While watching the first Dr. Mabuse, I was struck at the similarity between the titular character’s outlook on life, the embrace of anarchy, and Christopher Nolan’s take on the Joker in The Dark Knight. Well, reading up on this film, I was not terribly surprised to see that Nolan had used The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as a direct inspirational tool for his brother’s script. It makes sense. Mabuse himself has, essentially, just one scene of dialogue, as a ghost, and it’s wildly compelling where he details his embrace of the vision of a world reigned by crime.
The confluence of storylines, including an escape from a room that involves flooding it before an explosion, is quality thriller stuff as characters come together to find the real power behind the curtain.
I enjoyed the film, probably more than the first film, but I feel a conflict within the storytelling that I can’t quite get past. Very coincidentally, I’m currently reading the Joseph McBride book Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, and I’m on the part where he describes Wilder’s time at Ufa at the same period that Lang was making his final German films (the two fled Germany within a few months of each other, both stopping in France for a short time before heading to America). McBride describes the kind of films that audiences and the studios were trying to make, and they were light films. Operettas and melodramas designed to distract the people from their economic plights and push their own personal concerns in favor of needs of the state. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse does none of these things. It’s far more pessimistic about the state of affairs in Germany at the time, and its ending, while leading to the good guys winning over Mabuse’s spirit, is not uplifting in any way shape or form. Mabuse essentially enters hibernation, ready to strike again later. If you consider Mabuse a metaphor for Nazi-ideology, like the Nazis pretty obvious did since the film was very quickly banned (not seen in Germany until 1961), then it’s a warning against the state of Germany in 1933, not trying to lull the populace back to sleep.
That’s a very interesting subtext to the film which I do appreciate, but I still stumble a bit around Thomas’ storyline and the preference of thriller mechanics over a tighter focus on how Mabuse influences Baum.