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During the 1960s Germany, criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse is using hypnotized victims and the surveillance equipment of a Nazi-era bugged hotel to steal nuclear technology from a visiting American industrialist.
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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
I really urge you to watch this, but watch beyond the caper, watch the character beyond the simply nefarious evil mastermind that he appears as, and you'll be stunned with the the complexity of forces at work; at the center is a man who - having mastered the mind - can guide vision into shaping worlds and, from the inverse point-of-view of the unwitting victims, the shaped world as the stage of some indecipherable, chaotic spiel.
So what this really is, is the precursor of film noir. The genre as later assumed by American hands - once Germans fled there - transferred Mabuse out of sight, but the fundamental movement remains: we had to assume the notion that somewhere, on a cosmic station above, the images that down here formed reality were being controlled and manipulated. What the protagonists in these films experienced as a world of fertile, opportunous chaos, and would therefore exploit to their own advantage, was eventually revealed to be a chimera of the mind led astray; the world was being supervised and kept in ledgers all along.
This is pretty amazing stuff to have then; we can see the manipulator inside the manipulated world, and the motions that bring consequences on both ends of the illusion. The first scene shows Mabuse dealing cards with on them the faces of the players, the actors who are about to perform in the orchestrated fiction - Mabuse's inside the film, and also Lang's film about Mabuse. And there is a woman who is our surrogate viewer in all this; she watches the gamblers from a distance, searching faces for thrills and sensations.
All this touches at the heart of self-referential cinema in ways that still astound by how erudite, how in-sightful. Viewers who are looking for films about the mind weaving films will be delighted.
There is one scene that will be absolutely unequaled in film until the second great cinema of Resnais and Tarkovsky some forty years later. It shows Mabuse operating an illusion on stage before a packed theater; the entire audience watches transfixed at people magically walking out of a screen into the middle of the auditorium - and vanishing at a snap of the fingers - none of them realizing the confrontation that is actually playing out within the fantasy.
But there is an extra layer that further elevates this. So what is perceived by the players as unluck or the chance turn of a card, from our double perspective rooted in Mabuse's mind is revealed as part of the same, decisive plan. Yet Mabuse is not a godlike presence, he is steeped in human passions; icy but on occasion petulant, seething, lusting, the mask full of emotional cracks.
So, on one level we have a controlled reality as a puppet show of absurdities, but on the other end finally we get a glimpse of the mind cracking under the weight of what it must control, under the burden of the operated illusion. The final vision is a nightmare where these controlled images animate themselves against their tyrant. Tellingly it happens in a locked room; the blind people that were tasked by Mabuse to deal with his fortunes, in fact his counterfeit fortunes, now transform into apparitions of guilt.
Few films have so deeply influenced our cinematic vision, from Vertigo to Lynch. It has been since disguised and embellished, but it's revealed here for the first time.
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