Dave Finally Watches: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

When I first came up with the Movies to Watch Project I had just read some “Mister X” comics, which are heavily influenced by German Expressionism and noir. I wanted to go straight to the source, so I got some recommendations from Leonard Pierce of good places to start, and many of the films on that list came from his suggestions. This was sort of one of them.

I sort of knew of Dr. Mabuse from references (and one deep cut) in other places, but beyond that I only knew it was a Fritz Lang joint, and that was enough for me. This one, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, is actually a sequel to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, but I’d heard that one was overlong and slow. When Testament first started I thought I’d made a mistake in not starting at the beginning, but it quickly got me up to speed.

Dr. Mabuse is your usual criminal mastermind. Lurking in the shadows and working through intermediaries, he tears at the social order with offenses large and small. His motive is nothing less than the establishment of an Empire of Crime, an essentially anarchistic world in which humans no longer have to hide their base desires under the false cover of society. His path to this world is terrorism, crimes designed solely to make every citizen paranoid and malleable.

Unfortunately for Dr. Mabuse, he starts out the movie in a catatonic state in a mental hospital, having been thwarted in the first part. Soon, though, he begins silently writing, at first a manifesto and then detailed plans to continue his goals. Before long someone else has taken up the Dr. Mabuse mantle and is using his notes and methods to once again threaten the city. (I was looking for a better word than “the city” but honestly, as with M there’s a sort of claustrophobic feeling to the setting, as though this takes place in a bottled Berlin cut off from the rest of the world.) We see all sides of this conflict, from the police hunting him to the criminals working for him. Mabuse as a concept and character invisibly inhabits every scene, pulling levers and twisting knives.

Ultimately he’s foiled, but the message of his testament is clear: there will always be a Dr. Mabuse; if not this one, then another. He’s not a person but an idea, and a hypnotic, seductive one.

I enjoyed The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and am kind of curious now to check out the first movie in all its languid 4-hour long silent glory.

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