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Dr. Mabuse and his organization of criminals are in the process of completing their latest scheme, a theft of information that will allow Mabuse to make huge profits on the stock exchange. Afterwards, Mabuse disguises himself and attends the Folies Bergères show, where Cara Carozza, the main attraction of the show, passes him information on Mabuse's next intended victim, the young millionaire Edgar Hull. Mabuse then uses psychic manipulation to lure Hull into a card game where he loses heavily. When Police Commissioner von Wenk begins an investigation of this mysterious crime spree, he has little to go on, and he needs to find someone who can help him. Written by
This film, like many of Fritz Lang's best efforts, mixes pulp fiction, realism, fantasy and social comment, in this case to adapt to the screen Jacques Norbert's serial novel about a diabolical mastermind (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who can destabilize the national economy by manipulation of the stock market, operate an underground counterfeiting ring manned by blind slaves, hypnotize card players into losing all of their money to him and even engineer a mass hallucination. He changes his identity for every caper via costumes, wigs, prosthetics and fake facial hair. He has in his employ an army of henchmen from slum denizens and cutthroats to a celebrated follies dancer whom he uses as a lure for wealthy victims. And for what? His purpose in life is to "play the game" and undermine his opponent's will. At one point he states that there is no such thing as love, only lust and the will to power (or, as some interpretations go, the will to possess what one desires). When state prosecutor Von Wenk (the sturdy Bernhard Goetzke) launches an investigation into this one-man crime wave his pursuit covers the social spectrum from the dives and gutters of the underworld to the palaces of the nobility.
The film is beautifully designed and photographed and organized into scenes and acts. Each scene is a story unto itself. This structuring helps provide a centering or equilibrium for the viewer amidst the cascade of events and characters.
Among Mabuse's victims: A bored countess (Gertrud Welcker) who frequents the illegal gambling houses to observe the reactions to wins and losses on the faces of the players so that she can vicariously experience passion. She longs for an adventure the likes of which she can never experience at home with her wimpy husband who spends his time tinkering with antique art objects. Little does she know that she is about to be plunged into the adventure of her life.
Another young beauty, this one a prominent cabaret performer (Aud Egede Nissen), has fallen under the spell of Dr. Mabuse, lives in an apartment adjacent to his hotel suite and serves as bait for unsuspecting victims like the wealthy young Edgar Hull (the not-so-young Paul Richter), who is milked of his fortune by Mabuse.
No one can defy Mabuse. He seems to be everywhere and know everything, so that if you dare betray him you are as good as dead. This terror ensures his gang's devotion. The similarities to Hitler (or any totalitarian leader with secret police tentacles reaching far and wide) are obvious and this film has been cited often as a foreshadowing of the Hitler era. Part 2 is even subtitled "a story for our time." The notion of conspiratorial forces operating behind the scenes was on the German mind when this film was made.
There are many startling parallels between MABUSE and the 1920 classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, an interesting fact considering the legend that Lang was involved in the conceptual stage of CALIGARI. Both stories feature a spooky doctor with hypnotic powers who spreads evil through the land. In both films the identity of the central evil character changes: Dr. Mabuse assumes many disguises; Dr. Caligari remains himself until he appears as a psychiatrist at the end. The sign on Mabuse's door reads "Psychoanalyse." Caligari's somnambulist predicts a man will die within hours; Mabuse hypnotizes a man into driving himself over the bank of a canal. The villains even visually resemble each other in both films: Mabuse often wears white fright wigs and high hats reminiscent of Werner Krauss's look in Caligari. MABUSE operates on a wider canvas than CALIGARI. Whereas Caligari's only instrument is his somnambulist slave, Mabuse operates an extensive network of henchmen. At the climax of both stories a word ("Caligari"/"Melior") is animatedly superimposed over the screen action to intensify the impact. The whole of CALIGARI is designed expressionistically; expressionistic sets are used minimally and subtly in Mabuse but the subject of expressionism is briefly discussed in one scene wherein Mabuse describes it as "another game" or words to that effect. The expressionism in CALIGARI is all-encompassing; in MABUSE it is under control, part of a larger design. In both films there are scenes in prison cells. In both films a beautiful young woman who has fainted is carried off and then liberated.
In the Kino edition of MABUSE there is one apparent technical glitch: a car chase near the end starts at night and suddenly flips to daylight with no sense of transition. If this was Lang's idea of "day for night" shooting, he overshot the mark hugely.
On display here is Lang's penchant for mixing exotic pulp, unadorned realism, and pure fantasy. In MABUSE it is the doctor's magical hypnotic powers that stretch and finally break credulity, woven as they are into an otherwise naturalistic crime melodrama. This mixture of the fantastical and the ordinary occurs in all of Lang's 1920's work, right through WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929). Only with M (1931) does he begin to abandon fantasy and concentrate on social issues, whereupon he steered clear of pulp and exotica until late in life when he returned to the genre in the late 1950s with his India trilogy. But by that time film audiences had long outgrown the conventions of the 1920's. And so ended Lang's career.
But the sheer scope and expert execution of this film under the conditions that prevailed in Germany in 1921-22, supervised by a man barely 30 years old, is quite an achievement and should be seen.
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