Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)
dir. Fritz Lang
This film concerns Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an evil man who disguises into many different characters and uses hypnosis and powers of persuasion not only to swindle a financial institution, but also to aide in a kidnapping, destroy a marriage, betray loyal ones, drive innocents to commit suicide, and lastly, to order murders. He is a well respected psychoanalyst; the problem is that he is also a gambler, alcoholic, misogynist, hypnotist, and above all, an authoritarian bully whose one redeeming feature, he boasts, is, “I‘m no Pickpocket.”
Rudolf Klein-Rogge is phenomenal as the conniving Dr. Mabuse in this German Expressionist film, with elaborate set designs, that help establish the dark world that he wants to control.
Aud Egede-Nissen’s heartbreaking performance as Cara Carozza is memorable. She’s not on screen long but the film would not be the same without her.
1. Unusual narration or plot development Half.
The delineation of a film, I’m guessing could be construed as aiding a narrative and/or a narration. If so, here we have a film of unusual length- 4 hours and 30 minutes divided into Part 1 (2hrs 35 min.) and Part 2 (1hr. 55 min) then divided further into 6 acts each.
These pauses work wonderfully because they give structural breaks as determined by the film makers, as opposed to the audience arbitrarily choosing when a break is necessary. The longer the film, the better the benefits of this strategy.
2. Flashbacks N/A
3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes.
4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A
5. The instrument of fate Yes.
Cara Carozza tells Dr. Mabuse:
You gamble with money, with people, with fates, and most horrifying of all, with your own self.
Later he acknowledges his appreciation for the power fate:
… nothing in this world is interesting in the long run, except for one thing. . . Gambling with people and with the fates of people.
Anyone who crosses paths with Dr. Mabuse, risks losing control of their destiny and having their fate altered.
6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes.
Having once fallen under Dr. Mabuse’s hypnotic spells, his subjects come to appearing confused. An example is when prosecutor Von Wenk walks into his office and Dr. Mabuse, sitting quietly reading a book in the corner, suddenly makes his presence known by slamming the book shut. After walking the Doctor out, there is this exchange between Von Wenk and the men who guard his office:
Von Wenk: How did it happen that this man was let into my office without anyone informing me of it? Can’t you be counted on for anything?
The men (subordinates) look to each other befuddled: Yes, how did that happen?
Dr. Mabuse’s powers are far-reaching.
All who work for Dr. Mabuse are fearful of ever crossing him because they have witnessed the implication of their Termination Agreement: death.
7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.
8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes.
I do not recall the name of the city being mentioned, or ever seeing a wide view of the city, however there were numerous inferences suggesting an urban location: stock exchange floor, jam-packed with floor brokers and sales agents; a big and lavish hotel with high-society guests roaming about. There’s even an underground infrastructure used as an escape route.
9. Greed Yes.
Dr. Mabuse cheats the stock market and makes a bundle. He cheats at poker and has others cheat for him. He’s also involved in making counterfeit money.
10. Betrayal Yes.
Dr. Mabuse betrays his loyal and devoted assistant Cara Carozza.
Here she has been arrested for participating in one of Dr. Mabuse’s schemes and Prosecutor Von Wenk pays her a visit in prison.
Von Wenk: You have yourself to blame for your predicament, Miss Carozza… If you finally resolve to help us clear up Hull’s murder, I could obtain certain privileges for you. You sacrifice yourself for a rogue (Dr. Mabuse) who has abandoned you to your fate. You sacrificed yourself in vain because we’re right on his trail.
Cara: He’s stronger than all of you! He can destroy whomever he wants to. He will even destroy you, if you stand in his path.
Von Wenk: The man for whose sake you are being held has tossed you like fruit that’s been squeezed dry. He knows full well that your life is at stake, yet doesn’t lift a finger to help you…
A short while later, Dr. Mabuse is told, “Wenk is softening Carozza. She can‘t be counted on to keep her mouth shut.” He then instructs the informer, “Then get rid of her,” and hands him a vile. See No. 16-1 for more.
11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.
In a way, Cara alienates herself from social norms, mostly because her loyalty blinds her of certain truths. As Dr. Mabuse personal assistant (if not more) she knows of his crimes and schemes even recently stating, “Nobody knows who he really is… He towers over the city. He is Damnation and heavenly bliss. He’s the greatest man alive.” Her devotion is such that it costs her life. See No. 16-1 for more.
12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes.
Dr. Mabuse is a master hypnotist. Disguised as Mr. Hugo Balling, he hypnotizes millionaire Edgar Hunt and joins him at a table to play cards. After a long losing streak lasting 3 hours, Mr. Hull insists on one last hand. He draws a natural (10 of clubs and an Ace) twenty-one, and declares, “I’ve lost again.” Mr. Balling leaves the room a richer man all thanks to he manipulating Hull’s mind through some form of psychic, mental telepathy.
Once alone with his friends, Mr. Hull has this conversation with them:
Hull: I played and I lost. But to whom exactly?
Friend: To your friend.
Hull: Friend? What do you mean? It’s the first time I see the man. Who brought him into the club?
Friend: I think you’ve had to much to drink, Hull. First with your bad luck, you call “Go bank” and then you claim not to know the very man that you yourself invited into the club.”
Hull now sees the hand again, eyes wide open in disbelief.
Friend: You call “Go bank,” you’ve got the highest cards in your hand and you throw them away?
Hull: What’s the matter with me?
13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A
14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes.
Chiaroscuro lighting is used throughout particularly to contrast dark alleys, elevated rail trains, streets, gambling rooms, and occupants in car interiors. See No. 16-2 for more.
15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Half
It doesn’t seem right not to give this a yes. The camera captures so much and always seems to be at the right position and proper angle, but as was the norm in the silent film era, there is little camera movement in this film. I give it a half point because I believe the lighting/shade techniques used throughout, has an effect on the drama itself and the characters’ visual expressions. See No. 16-2 for more.
16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes.
Most of the emotions observed on individuals are advanced by Fritz Lang’s Expressionist directing. Some characters seem like caricatures and their expressions exaggerated.
Here are two examples:
1. Immediately after Von Wenk’s last visit, Cara exclaims “Idiot” in disgust to his notion that she would ever help him build a case against her boss, Dr. Mabuse. Later, the informer/guard enters her cell and she’s taken aback by the stoic expression on his face. She senses something is wrong. He reaches into his pocket and offers her a vile (poison):
Cara: From him?
Cara: But why? I’ve done nothing to him.
At first she is reluctant, shaking her head and holding her throat with both hands.
When she at last she accepts the poison, we see all joy being sucked out. Her shoulders, once rigid, droop lifelessly; her head then follows, hanging down as if asleep. When we see her next she lifts her head, walks a few steps to her bunk, sits and ingests the poison. There’s a look of despair on her face as she reaches out with both hands extended, yearning, saying, You? until she falls to her knees and dies (all in dramatic manner).
2. There is a scene, (Part one Act 4), approximately six minutes long, that for me, typifies the use of chiaroscuro to heighten expressionism in films. It begins with Von Wenk entering the actual game parlor and ends with he exiting it. Von Wenk is disguised and hopes to lure the unidentified swindler, Dr. Mabuse, who now happens to sit across from him at the table. Quickly noticing that Wenk has plenty of money, Mabuse pulls out a pair of eyeglasses and begins his exploits as a hypnotist. The images that follow are too many to describe in detail ( extreme close-ups, isolation shots, slow zoom-ins, double exposure, special effects, make-up, acting, editing), but I would say that it is film making at its best, of any era.
17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes.
Dr. Mabuse is a well respected psychoanalyst who lectures in conference halls to professional colleagues. We also see him mingle at social gathering with the affluent societal circle where once he is asked, “What do you make of expressionism, Doctor?”
Away from this world, the doctor is a monster and no one is privy to this except his pursuer, Von Wenk.
18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A
13 of 18 listed and an early proto-noir.
It is possible to present another write-up for this film using the same list and not draw on any of the scenes or examples included here; such is the vast amount of material never covered here:
Music (very appropriate and grows on you)
Mise-en-scene (very detailed )
Train Heist (the theft of strategic bag aboard a speeding locomotive)
Car Chases (two that are well photographed)
The spacious rooms in Countess Told’s residence and its art collection
Characterization of various disguises (all brilliant and amazing)
The Sandor Weldmann Hypnosis show and chase that follows (A highlight for sure)
The final act 6 (The pursue and apprehension of Dr. Mabuse)
There is no doubt that this is a German expressionist film and that director Fritz Lang was influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Going in, I did not expect much from this film. Having seeing it, it is one of my favorites.
This write-up is based on the restored version, running 4 hours 30 minutes, which aired on TCM last April.