An unseen heavy machine pounds rhythmically, hypnotically, eerily… it pounds like a heavy heartbeat…it pounds the foundations of a storage room – shaking tables, bottles, and wooden boxes, rattling order and stability. Unlike the machines in Metropolis (1927-Lang), we don’t see this machine. We don’t know what it is or why it pounds. As it pounds, we track through the trembling room to a frightened man trying to hide.
The opening scene foreshadows the rest of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (a.k.a. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse). The film is a suspense-thriller about criminal insanity, anarchy, and terror.
It’s Fritz Lang’s second sound film after M (1931), and the last he made in Germany before WWII. It contains outstanding examples of cinematic German Expressionism by one of its leading proponents.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse vibrates with bizarre energy and visual pyrotechnics. Pacing strikes like lighting; abrupt cuts startle and tell multiple stories. Sound arcs from one scene into the next scene. Despite a pulpy plot, the film’s brooding atmosphere menaces.
The Plot – The Mastery of Crime
The man in the opening scene is Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a disgraced cop kicked off the force for taking a bribe. Seeking redemption, he tracks down a secret gang of criminals and their mysterious mastermind. He calls his former boss, the cigar smoking Homicide Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) of M fame. But before Hofmeister can tell Lohmann about his discovery, shots ring in the dark and render Hofmeister incoherent.
Hofmeister’s failed call and disappearance sets irritable Inspector Lohmann in motion.
Clues eventually lead to Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). He is an insane criminal genius with hypnotic powers, who has been locked up in an asylum for a decade, under the care of the psychologist Professor Baum (Oscar Bergei).
Unable to speak, Mabuse writes criminal plans in cryptic detail. From the confines of his asylum cell, Mabuse directs terror, mayhem and chaos. He plots bank robberies, currency forgery, jewelry heists, and the destruction of industrial plants, water systems, crops and the economy. A secret gang carries out Mabuse’s anarchy. Organized into terror cells, gang members include currency counter-fitters, arsonists, blackmailers, jewelry thieves, and hit men. Fearing their unseen master, the gang members blindly obey him.
On the day Lohmann figures out Mabuse is the mastermind, Mabuse dies of natural causes in the asylum. Lohmann witnesses the body. When Lohmann questions Professor Baum about Mabuse, Baum lapses into a second personality. An enraged Baum defends Mabuse as a genius. During his rant, Baum’s facial expressions and hand gestures mimic Hitler’s.
Despite Mabuse’s death, the plot to destroy society’s infrastructure marches forward.
Meanwhile a police raid nets lower rung gang members, who yield little intelligence. They don’t know the identity of their real master.
Then, the cops get a break. Kent (Gustav Diessl), an unwilling gang member condemned to die for trying to leave the gang, escapes his time bomb trap, meets Lohmann, and fingers Dr. Mabuse as the evildoer.
Lohmann is perplexed, but says, “All the clues lead to the asylum.”
Lohmann and Kent rush to the asylum, into Baum’s office, and discover criminal plots, including plans to blow up a chemical factory. But Baum is not in his office.
Baum is the executor of Mabuse’s testament – his maniacal will.
In an earlier eerie scene, Mabuse’s spirit infected Baum and said, “When humankind becomes ruled by terror…then is the hour for the Mastery of Crime.” Hypnotized and possessed by the psychopathic Mabuse, Baum transformed from respected university professor and asylum director, to schizophrenic, and eventually into Mabuse’s automaton.
The chemical plant blows up. Lohmann and Kent see Baum at the scene of the crime.
They chase Baum, cars streaking through the expressionist night, but Baum escapes. Guided by the spirit of Mabuse, Baum checks himself into his own asylum as a patient. Entering the asylum cell containing Hofmeister, a deranged Baum introduces himself as Dr. Mabuse.
Eventually, Lohmann arrives at the asylum. Seeing the delirious Baum sitting in an asylum cell tearing up the testament into tiny shreds, Lohmann says, “…this is no longer a police job.”
Cinematic Expressionism and Lang’s World
The film displays several examples of German Expressionism.
Lang’s opening scene of the unseen pounding machine shaking the room unsettles, rousing base emotions. Our reptilian cortex reacts alert.
We witness Hofmeister’s paranoia. In his delirium, he babbles in an office surrounded by delicate glass objects, mimicking phone calls or singing meaningless songs, although in reality he is trapped in an asylum cell. When Lohmann enters Hofmeister’s asylum cell, through Hofmeister we see assassins, geometric distortions, and acute slanting angles similar to those in the expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
We watch Baum’s mind twist and sink into madness. In Baum’s office, primitive masks, skulls and a painting of distorted faces hover and haunt. We see Baum’s view of Mabuse’s warped face, in extreme close up.
Many more scenes and sequences of expressionism lace the film. It’s a visual thrill.
At times, we observe clinically detached, as though analyzing patients, and then suddenly Lang throws us into the minds of the patients; we join in their derangement. Inspector Lohmann, Professor Baum, and Dr. Mabuse speak directly to us. They pull us into their obsessions.
Typical Lang motifs and symbols emerge throughout. Glass windows represent dreams and desire, and mirrors symbolize narcissism and introspection. Clocks, machines, and traps dramatize suspense and suggest fate.
Themes of terror, madness, and helplessness whip through the film. Lohmann, Hofmeister, Kent, and Baum struggle against these forces of fate. The film’s theme of terrorism is as relevant today as it was in 1933 Germany.
In Lang’s world, the police and government are impotent or corrupted. He questions governments’ ability to serve and protect, and hand out justice.
In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the police always lag a few steps behind. Despite the best efforts of the police, Mabuse directs mayhem at will, even from the grave. In the car chase sequence while pursuing Baum, Lohmann’s car bursts a tire. Because of a flat tire, the police inspector fails to physically capture Baum, who checks himself into his asylum. The police are punctured.
In M (1931), Inspector Lohmann falls short of arresting Hans Beckert, the child killer. Rather, the criminal underworld captures and tries Beckert in a sinister kangaroo court, before the police can arrest him.
In Fury (1936), government fails to control the hysterical lynch mob, and the court dispenses wrongful murder convictions to several of hick-town’s misguided citizens.
In The Woman in Window (1944), despite professor Wanley’s giving away several obvious clues about himself to the district attorney and head of homicide, they ignore him. The professor is the killer (forget about the twisted ending for the moment).
In Scarlet Street (1945), the docile cashier, Chris Cross, gets his wires crossed and murders. The police wave him off, even though he wants to give up. The justice system executes an innocent man.
In The Big Heat (1953), the corrupted police department steers clear of arresting Vince Stone and big boss Lagana. Bannion, the ex-cop, a solo vengeance machine, turns up the heat and brings the thugs to truth, justice, and the 1950s American way, with the help of a couple of floozies, who get knocked-off rather than knocked-up. Cops hide behind desks, sharpen pencils, and serve coffee.
Lang’s cynicism of authority kicked up trouble.
Banned – From Auteur to Automaton
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, banned the public release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The idea that criminal anarchists could terrorize the state was unacceptable. Goebbels saw the film in March 1933, the month when the Nazis neutered the Reichstag, collapsed the emasculated Weimar Republic, and seized control of Germany.
Shortly afterwards, Lang fled Germany. His mother, a converted Catholic, was formerly Jewish. In addition, Lang divorced Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, among others. She had joined the Nazi party in 1932. His film banned, divorced from a Nazi, and politically vulnerable, the Austrian born Lang headed for Paris again and anchored in Hollywood.
Before World War One, Lang had run away from home in Vienna and scraped out a living as an artist in Paris. On the outbreak of WWI, Lang fled Paris. Plagued by fate, his nationality made him an enemy of France. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. As an officer serving on the Russian and Balkan fronts, he was wounded and decorated. Writing about post WWI Lang said, “In Europe, an entire generation of intellectuals embraced despair…young people made a fetish of tragedy.”
Starting in 1919 in Germany, he wrote screenplays and directed more than a dozen silent films at Decla-Bioscope and UFA studios, advancing cinematic expressionism and nearly bankrupting UFA with his grandiose Metropolis. With Seymour Nebezal as producer, Lang directed M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse at Nero-Film studios. A leading director in Europe, Lang practiced his craft as an auteur.
Under contract to MGM, Lang arrived in America, where he naturalized as a citizen. He made 24 films in America, starting with Fury in 1936. By 1956, fed up with Hollywood’s restrictions, Lang, an autocratic perfectionist, fled its system. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you or the American motion picture industry,” he said in an argument with his producer (Bert Friedlob) about the ending of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), another film in which Lang jabs the judicial system. He never made a film in the U.S. again.
Playing himself in Contempt (Le Mépris 1963- Jean-Luc Godard), Lang says, “Producers are something I can easily do without.” In an interview with Godard, Lang concedes to becoming a Hollywood “automaton.”
Norbert Jacques, the German author and screenwriter, originally wrote Dr. Mabuse as a pulp series. Lang directed three Mabuse films. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel to the financially successful Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), a silent four-hour, two-part film. At the end of his film-making odyssey, Lang’s last directed film was The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), which he directed in West Germany.
For fans of Fritz Lang, Expressionism, and paranormal pulp, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse hypnotizes. Beware.