Mabuse. That name, pronounced Mab-ooz-a, may not resonate with present-day moviegoers, but in the 1920s it struck fear into the hearts of those lucky (or should that be unlucky?) enough to witness the two-part German epic Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler) and the birth of a criminal mastermind.
It was in 1922 that young German director Fritz Lang, perhaps best known today for directing the seminal sci-fi classic Metropolis, brought his version of Norbert Jacques’ novel detailing the exploits of criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein Rogge) to the screen.
Made at a time of great upheaval, both politically and socially, in Lang’s home country, the two-part Der Spieler was a visually hallucinatory attempt to tell the story of a man determined to destroy the economy and legal system of Germany in various dastardly ways.
Using mind-control, violence, con tricks and illusion, this master of disguise would stop at nothing to ensure dominance of the criminal underworld.
Lang’s singular vision, much copied but rarely equalled, ensured that audiences of the time were treated to visually stunning set-pieces and camera tricks the equivalent of today’s computer generated effects, generating gasps in auditoriums as Mabuse’s head detaches itself from his body in one standout sequence.
Clocking in at nearly five hours for both films, originally released a few months apart in cinemas, these are epic in more ways than one.
The story of Mabuse continues in the 1933 sequel The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Der Testament Des Dr Mabuse), in which Lang brought him – and by this time Mabuse was a legend rather than a person – back to a Berlin waking up to the full terror of the rise of Nazism.
This time made with sound, Mabuse has been driven insane following the events of the first film, yet his power manages to transgress the walls of his prison cell into the alleys and dens of Berlin. The strongest, certainly the creepiest, of the three films in this set, Der Testament may be more accessible than its predecessor but it’s equally dramatic.
Lang would return to Germany thirty years later for the final part of his Mabuse trilogy, The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen Des Dr Mabuse), a prescient look at a surveillance society in which once again the spirit of Mabuse is alive and well in the Cold War era.
Goldfinger’s Gert Frobe takes on the role of the lawman faced with the return of a name from the past as new technology clashes with superstition in 1960s Germany, in what would be Lang’s final film.
Dark, multi-layered and historically important, the films in this set are accompanied by some near-perfect audio commentaries from film historian David Kalat which entertain and illuminate in equal measure – if any finer yack tracks have been laid down on DVD this year then I’ll be amazed.
Other extras include 90 minutes worth of video essays, an interview with the star of 1000 Eyes Wolfgang Preiss and three in-depth booklets discussing the significance of the films to both audiences and film scholarship.
A truly stunning DVD set, this is certainly one of the most important releases of the month and perhaps even the decade.
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset is out now from Masters of Cinema.