By Jeffrey M. Anderson
This absolutely riveting crime film by Fritz Lang demonstrates the height of taut, suspenseful filmmaking, highlighting a powerful use of visuals and sound, while managing to say a little something about contemporary Germany. It's a masterpiece that deserves to stand alongside Lang's "M" (1931) as one of his greatest achievements.
"The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" was a sequel to Lang's 1922 two-part film "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler," and featured the same actor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) playing crime lord Dr. Mabuse. At the end of the silent film, Mabuse goes insane and now resides at an asylum, tended to by Professor Baum (Oskar Beregi Sr.).
The film's hero returns intact from "M," the suspicious, cigar-chomping Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who loves to take catnaps and sneak off to the opera. Lohmann receives a phone call from Hofmeister (Karl Meizner), a former policeman who has gone insane from terror. Hofmeister has scrawled a name on a windowpane, giving Lohmann his first clue.
It turns out that, though Mabuse is unable to do anything in his locked room but write page after page of criminal manifesto, he can still control people's minds. He brings together a new crime organization dedicated to counterfeiting and other dastardly deeds, using Professor Baum as his vehicle. Even when Mabuse dies, Baum is still controlled by him. We see Mabuse's creepy ghost -- complete with enlarged, transfixing eyes -- hovering around whenever Baum is alone. This "Mabuse" is as close to a flat-out horror film as Lang got.
Lang uses up the last of the German Expressionism visuals on his film (though his disciple Edgar G. Ulmer would bring them to Hollywood one more time in 1934 for "The Black Cat") showing beautifully detailed and skewed sets and unusual light sources whenever possible. In one scene, we see the world through the mad Hofmeister's eyes, double-exposed and slightly tilted, angles closing in.
But Lang also understands the meat-and-potatoes of suspense films. For an early murder scene, he places his victim in a car during a traffic jam. Under a chorus of honking horns, our killer fires his shot. Cut to an overhead shot of cars, which start to move. Only one car remains, lonely in the lower right hand corner of the frame. It's the dead man's car, as a stunned cop discovers a moment later.
The film ends the same way many contemporary Hollywood films do, with a car chase. But this one is far more exciting and atmospheric, with its spooky lighting and dream logic. In one single shot, a ghostly tree waves at us for a second in the headlights, and it's positively unearthly.
Like his countryman Ernst Lubitsch, Lang had an immediate grasp of the use of sound in film. He opens "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" with a ten-minute scene set in one of the counterfeiting houses, the chugging metallic noise of some unseen machine drowning out all possible dialogue.
While the Mabuse in the 1922 film was a man on the town, gambling, picking up women and playing the stock market, this one is more of a behind-the-scenes man, getting others to do his dirty work for him. Lang deliberately designed him this time around as to make a statement on the encroaching Nazi regime. But it wasn't subtle enough. Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, picked up on the imagery and had the film banned in Germany. It didn't open there until after the war. (It premiered instead in Budapest.) The United States didn't see the film until the 1950s, and then only in a dubbed, shortened version called "The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse."
Criterion's superb new 2-disc DVD comes with the most complete German version, running 121 minutes and just three minutes shy of Lang's original cut. It also comes with a fairly shoddy print of the French version, shot simultaneously by Lang using French actors. A 20-minute featurette examines the differences between the three versions.
The German version looks spectacular with only a few bits of flutter here and there and a couple of scratches evident during the final reel. But the blacks are strong and the picture is crisp. Criterion has presented the film in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.19-to-1, which requires black bars on the sides of the picture to increase its height. While this aspect ratio worked fine when I ran the film on my Mac's DVD-rom drive, it failed to kick in on either of my two household players, even after I adjusted the settings.
The first disc contains a commentary track by "Mabuse" expert David Kalat, who also did the outstanding four-hour commentary track on Image's "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler" DVD from 2001.
Aside from the 93-minute French version and the comparison featurette, the second disc comes with a 20-minute excerpt from "For Example Fritz Lang," a 1960 documentary made for German TV, in which Lang tells the story of how he escaped Germany after a meeting with Goebbels. We also have a 1984 interview with actor Rudolf Schundler, a featurette about the original "Mabuse" author Norbert Jacques, and production drawings, posters and stills.
DVD RATING: ****
THE FILM: ****