Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse


What a history this movie has! Fritz Lang made it, and then had to submit it to Joseph Goebbels of the brand-new Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda. (Hitler had come into power only three months previous.) Goebbels told Lang that the film could not be shown in Germany because it showed how a single individual could rock the State to its foundations. (Something that was proven beyond doubt on September 11, 2001.) However … Hitler liked Lang’s style, and wanted him to go on making movies for the Third Reich. I can imagine Lang’s—a Jew—response: “Sure, Joe, that’s swell, Joe.” Whatever he said, he left the room and went pretty much directly to the train station, hied himself to France, and didn’t return until the war was over. Thereby certainly avoiding a bit of unpleasantness known as the Holocaust. (This story may be a lie, but I don’t care. Sometimes a lie is better than the truth.)

This was the second of three films Lang made about the criminal mastermind, Dr. Mabuse. The first was silent, in 1922: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Later, in 1960, his last film was The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. I’m betting that a lot of comic book writers saw these films, because Mabuse is the archetype (Moriarty notwithstanding) of the man who does evil just for the sake of evil. Any of Batman’s or Superman’s enemies probably studied at Mabuse’s feet. His schemes involve breaking into a bank and substituting counterfeit for genuine currency, to destabilize the economy, or blowing up a chemical factory just to kill a large number of people. He has access to lots of money, but he doesn’t do his crimes for profit, but simply for to be a mean motor scooter and a bad go-getter. He is called a criminal, which he certainly is, but the word we would use today is terrorist. Unlike today’s mass murderers he has no cause other than nihilism, but that’s good enough for me. He just wants to fuck things up.

He is slightly handicapped by being incarcerated in a mental hospital! But not to worry. He is such a master hypnotist that he can dominate his loyal henchmen by remote control. They are terrified of him, and though they may gripe about how much money they could be making, no one dares object. In his cell, he is frantically writing out his “testament,” a bible of how to pull off terrible crimes. His power is so great that he takes over the mind of the head headshrinker. Even when he dies, he is still in control. Now that’s a devotion to evil that would give Lex Luthor or The Joker pause!

The film looks great, and the acting avoids the depths of manic gesticulating that dominated German film-making only a few years before. The character of Mabuse’s nemesis, Herr Inspector Lohmann, is very well written and played by Otto Wernecke. There are thrills and perils and shootouts, and it all climaxes in a terrific explosion and fire in a factory, which I at first thought was a model, but isn’t, and a really good, for it’s day, nighttime car chase.