All appearances and hypnotic suggestions to the contrary, identity is Dr. Mabuse’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) wager of choice. It is what allows him to move effortlessly between class-restricted social circles, from obscenely bourgeois gambling dens to seedy proletarian establishments. One night he is a young nouveau riche possessed of an ingratiating and fresh-faced eagerness, the next an elderly man of the world whose Chinese spectacles (wriggled in conjunction with a particularly memorable incantation: “Tsi-Nan-Fu!”) can mesmerize even the most stalwart state’s prosecutor (Bernhard Goetzke). Psychoanalysis is Mabuse’s voodoo science: whatever his disguise, his ultimate goal (be it power, money, or—his undoing—love) is predicated on getting deep inside his opponent’s head. As played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s two-part adaptation of the Norbert Jacques novel, Mabuse is a true bogeyman, a hollow shell of surface tics with a terrifying dead-eyed stare. Some have seen him as myth personified (a precursor, in ways, to Adolf Hitler), though I would say that only comes across in the hindsight of Lang’s sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (a much better film, to my mind). This Mabuse has only pretensions to myth; he’s as mortal as they come and Lang’s film slowly (very slowly) leads him down a Fibonacci-spiraled path to the one true salvation—insanity. Only there, in that post-psychological headspace, does he become God. Until then he’s just a showman and, indeed, appears most alive while cloaked in his copious succession of highly theatrical guises. When masquerading as the hypnotist Sandor Weltmann (whose cruel gaze makes even an attempted suicide play as rousing populist entertainment), Mabuse seems a precursor to the mastermind Haghi, also played by Klein-Rogge, from Lang’s Weimar-era masterpiece Spies, but when forced to act the tortured romantic in his pathetic pursuit of the sleepy-eyed Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker), Mabuse loses his edge and so does the film, already bogged down by its indifferently rendered police procedural narrative (so close to, if not actually Dada that one can see, as critic Dave Kehr has noted, why the Surrealists held Lang’s film in such high esteem). The ghosts of conscience that torture Mabuse in the film’s final scene, like most of the plot particulars, make little sense with what’s come before (the character is so resolutely amoral that one doubts he’d ever be plagued by such easy guilt), but the image that this confrontation precedes and heralds is one for the ages: a stirring piece of black-and-white moving portraiture (not to mention slyly coded satirical agitprop) entitled—for all eternity—“The Man Who Was Mabuse.”
- Universum Film
- 270 min
- Fritz Lang
- Thea von Harbou
- Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Alfred Abel, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, Georg John, Karl Huszar, Grete Berger, Julius Falkenstein, Lydia Potechina, Julius Herrmann
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