Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

Fritz Lang’s Weimar thriller out on Blu-ray

Sep. 19, 2016
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Dr. Mabuse was an archetypical cinematic arch-villain, an insidious shape-shifter with the power to distort perceptions of reality. He became the subject of several films after debuting on screen in director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Lang’s multi-act epic, clocking in at four and a half hours, is out now on Blu-ray in a brilliantly restored version.

In the opening scene, Mabuse organizes an elaborately choreographed theft of secret documents involving fast trains and speeding cars and uses the information to manipulate the stock market. He also operates a counterfeit money plant and loves to cheat at cards—winning by hypnotizing his opponents to fold when they really have a winning hand.

Mabuse has often been cited as a prototype of Hitler and indeed, he occasionally expresses a nihilistic ambition to build his own world order out of chaos and ruin. He is an embodiment of a cruel Nietzchean superman who deems himself beyond good and evil. He thwarts the machinery of authority in order to exercise his own authority. His motive is the will to power.

With Dr. Mabuse, Lang demonstrated his growing command over the tools of cinema; he turned the ostensible limitations of silent movies into strengths—a play of shadow and light in a luminous world of the uncanny. Even the opening and closing of irises are used expressively. The decadent nightlife of Weimar Republic Berlin is the backdrop for many scenes, including visually disorienting nightclubs with crazily painted walls and burlesque theaters with strangely grotesque stage props. The upper classes are numbing their pain with alcohol, cocaine and who know what else. “We need new thrills of a special nature,” one woman says.

Given the insanity, it’s little surprise that Mabuse is a psychoanalyst by profession. The id and ego, the subconscious and the conscious, are mirrored even in the Berlin architecture. The exteriors of the film’s buildings are often unrevealing. Their doors open to unexpected wonders or horrors.

The Blu-ray release includes several informative min-documentaries, including 1960s-era interviews with Lang and a recent discussion with the biographer of Norbert Jacques, the Luxembourg-born travel writer who invented Dr. Mabuse as the character of a novel that seemed written to be adapted for the big screen.

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