‘Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler’ or — Fit For a Reboot?
“Eat some cocaine, you limp-dick!”
Well, I guess this must be Weimar Germany we’re in then.
Or maybe I should be the one eating the cocaine as I have to admit a slight heretical confession — some of Lang’s silent work can make me a little sleepy, just during the first 45 mins or. It’s not that I get bored but I can, sometimes, feel my eyelids droop and the room blur dreamily, much like one of Mabuse’s victims as the evil Dr bores his hypnotic energy into the back of their brain. Is it the pacing which, dynamic for the time, might now feel ponderous? Is it the lack of sound to punctuate action? Is it acclimatising to a movie that’s almost 100 years old? Or maybe the five hour run time?
Personally I think it’s the score which, for Fritz Lang’s ‘Dr Mabuse, der Spieler’ (1922) is a little sparse in its instrumentation being, essentially, a piano/string quartet and lacking the rousing bombast of a full orchestra to jolt me. But that’s my own personal preference and greedy need for excessive stimulation and if I’m complaining about a lack of excessive stimulation in a Fritz Lang movie then I know the problem is a huge nit-pick on my part, because once you can settle into this film, find its wavelength and give in to its hypnotic gaze there is a staggering amount to enjoy here and you most certainly won’t feel sleepy by the end.
The film opens in typical Langian style as technology, systems and machinery are both high-jacked, subverted and fetishised. So there are shots of speeding trains, timetables, intercepted telephone wires, stock exchange information corrupted, financial mayhem on a national scale, motorcars driven with stopwatch precision to specific destinations and all this within the first 7 minutes.
Dr Mabuse, criminal mastermind of the German underworld, has stolen secret corporate information and used it to pull off a stunning piece of insider trading. Manipulation and money mean everything to Mabuse and he knows both can be played with. Weimar Berlin is rotten to the core, but ripe for Mabuse to pluck and devour.
A master of disguise, Dr Mabuse remains untraceable, a spectre (there’ll be more than one Bond reference throughout this) who’s diabolical plans of financial chaos and counterfeiting could bring the entire German economy crashing down and the end of Berlin society as we know it (sound familiar?). The only hope lies with the determined State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk, a man obsessed with bringing Mabuse to justice and seemingly impervious to the Dr’s hypnotic powers.
Will Wenk succeed and capture his man or will Mabuse get away with his utterly fanciful and unrealistic plan of exploiting a Germany riddled by hyperinflation to seize absolute power for himself and his gang of violent thugs?
It’s only when you watch Lang and von Harbou’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ that you really get the impact this film had on almost every pulp and genre movie that followed. Here are the antecedents of not only James Bond (Mabuse is, effectively, Blofeld) but spy and action films, Hannibal Lector (and evil psychiatrist using his powers for bad) and even superhero movies, especially Batman with Mabuse and his dumb henchmen sometimes feeling like the Joker or the Riddler and their gangs as they lob knockout gas about against elaborate and surrealist set designs. And it’s not just the Adam West Batman but the Nolan one too with the attacking of a police convoy carrying to get to someone under police protection being of note.
Then there are the complex scenes that withhold information from us, the audience, like so many “sophisticated” modern thrillers. Lang was pulling the rug out from under us and demanded we keep up with him all the way back in ’22 and his ‘Mabuse’ film is littered with such traps that keep us on our toes.
Yet it must be stressed that this isn’t just Lang’s film but also very much his wife’s, Thea von Harbou’s, too as she always gave Lang the narrative backbone on which to hang his visual muscle and provided a clarity and thrust story-wise Lang was sometimes less capable of. Plus there’s Carl Hoffman’s cinematography which is rapturous and innovative as well as a surprisingly large amount of effects work, all of which are startling.
Needless to say the set design is stunning with a feel reaching out for a modern hyper-realism as opposed to broody German Expressionism (although you do get elements of that). At one point Mabuse himself remarks, whilst looking at a clients Expressionist paintings hanging on the wall, that “Expressionism is just playing about”. In its place there’s a real eclectic visual aesthetic to Mabuse with African, Oriental and Modernism all provocatively rubbing up against each other.
Top all this off with a fantastic climatic shoot-out (this is where one of Mabuse’s henchmen is ordered to “Eat some cocaine, you limp-dick!”) that must have influence… well… everyone who ever made a film shoot-out afterwards, and you’ll find yourself greedily wanting to snort up another five hours worth of pure, uncut Mabuse straight after.
What is interesting though is that in a day and age or remakes, sequels and franchises is that I can’t think of another I.P. that is so relevant and so ripe for a remake, an update, than Dr Mabuse. The themes of financial corruption, social manipulation and chaos, subverting of technology and systems of information, fluid identity and all wrapped up in an exciting pulp packaging would be a perfect fit for now. A true “Inferno: A game for the people of our time.”
Just maybe don’t make it five hours long. After all — a little Lang goes a long way.