Friday, November 20, 2009

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Director: Fritz Lang
Germany 1922
237 min
Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Alfred Abel, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter and Robert Forster-Larrinaga, among others.

Co-written by fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou.

Part one: Ein Bild der Zeit (transl. "A Picture of Time") 123 min.
Part two: Inferno des Verbrechens (transl. "Inferno of Crime") 112 min.

Dr. Mabuse: You have taken cocaine again, Spoerri! This is intolerable! If I see you like this again, I will drive you out like a dog!
Spoerri: If you drive me out, I'll put a bullet through my head.

Dr. Mabuse.


That is the first line of dialog in the German Expressionism masterpiece Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge) has randomly picked a photograph among many on men he steals identities from, and is just about to hand over that photograph to his servant Spoerri (Forster-Larrinaga) who assists him in transforming into the selected person.

Why do Dr. Mabuse assume other identities? Well, not only is he a psychoanalyst with a talent for hypnosis and mind tricks, but he is also the lord of the criminal underworld in Berlin. With a well developed network of underlings, he gambles and lures his victims for great sums of money.

He does however not only gamble with cards - the first crime we get to witness is a manipulation of the stock market. By stealing important documents containing a secret business agreement he manages to buy stocks at a ridiculously low prize from panicked investors. When the important documents suddenly are "discovered", the prize goes up enormously, and Dr. Mabuse is able to make a fortune selling his newly bought stocks. (I found the Wall Street term "dead cat bounce" on Wikipedia - I bet it could describe this very situation pretty well! If yet slightly exaggerated.) Clever man!

The next we know, Dr. Mabuse (now as an elder man with white mustache and a monocle) has assumed yet another alias and gone to the theatre. He spots the dancer Cara Carozza on stage (Nissen), to whom he sends a card backstage with instructions to become his ally. He also notices a rich young man by the name of Edgar Hull (Richter). After having used his psyche skills on him, he makes Hull take him to Club 17+4 ( = 21... a fool can understand that it's a gambling joint) and manages to manipulate the poor man into betting almost everything he has - and loose it. The true nature of Dr. Mabuse has now come clear to us.

Cara Carozza.

Mr. Hull.

But, as expected when being a master criminal, some stubborn enemy will always try to mess things up for you. This enemy goes by the man of State Attorney von Wenk (Goetzke), and he appears when he visits Mabuse's victim Hull. Wenk explains to Hull that the police seeks leads on this mysterious man who has suspiciously good luck in the illegal gambling joints. As Wenk and Hull begins a co-operation to find out the identity of Dr. Mabuse, the crime lord himself has put Cara Carozza to work to seduce Hull and pull out useful information of his stalker.

Wenk and Mr. Hull.

State Attorney von Wenk joins Dr. Mabuse as a main character, and from now on we get to follow both the police and the criminal actions. Following a lead on Mabuse to a gambling joint, Wenk meets Countess Dusy Told (Welcker). She's a woman so bored with her cowardly husband (Abel, a later victim for Mabuse) that she visits night clubs and studies the gamblers. Wenk can soon offer her more excitement than she could ever want to have for the rest of her life, when he requests her help in the search for Dr. Mabuse.

Wenk and Mrs. Told.

You can easily tell when I have fallen in love with a film - I include mountains of screenshots. I just can't do this film justice with only words, so I let the frozen frames to the talking for me.

What I can say is that German Expressionism has without a doubt the coolest mise en scène than any other film making "isms" (couldn't find a better word) ever after. The crooked angles, the supernatural elements... and the film feels so modern - if it had been shot in color and with sound dialog it could have been made today with no other changes. I was sucked into the story from when I heard the first D-day sounds of piano chimes and the first seconds of the first scene. Simply marvelous.

And for you guys: a really cool and climactic shootout scene between the police/army and Dr. Mabuse's gang. What is really cool about gunfires in old movies is all the gunpowder clouds filling the screen, giving the action an eerie feeling. Great for the aesthetic experience, in other words.

And talking about aesthetic experience (which perhaps is an expression that could describe this entire two-part picture), I can't forget to mention the fine use of double exposure. I just love supernatural elements in silent film, because of the frequent use of double exposure. It's so simple, yet so brilliant. (The best example of that is perhaps Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage from 1921- check it out.)
In Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler the double exposure effect becomes mighty as hell when the title character at last has to face his demons - the ghosts of his victims. Yikes, that was awesome.

Oh, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge must be the coolest German in the entire history. At least I can't come up with a competitor at the time of writing. You may recall him from Fritz Lang's most recognized work Metropolis (1927), where he plays "C.A. Rotwang, the Inventor".


Samuel Wilson said...

Dr. Mabuse is a hero of mine. If you haven't seen Lang's other Mabuse films (The Testament, 1933; The Thousand Eyes, 1960) you're in for more treats. Lang also happens to be my favorite silent film director. His two Niebelungen films (made between this and Metropolis) are incredible, and Spies (1928) is also very good. I'm glad you liked this one -- or these two, depending on how you count.

Elizabeth said...

Oooh Fritz Lang! I haven't seen this one yet though.

Lolita said...

Samuel Wilson:
I can't wait! I don't know why, but I suddenly found myself in a German Expressionism mood. Thanks for the tips! Die Niebelungen is something I've wanted to see for some time, not to mention Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse!

Wow! I have seen a silent film that you haven't! I never thought this day would come... Haha!
Elizabeth: you will love this. If you love Les Vampires, this is just right for you!

Mykal said...

Lolita: I have heard and read about this film for a long time, but never seen it. With your great description, I have to see it now. I had no idea the plot was so fascinating. Plus, what dark and passionate soul doesn't love German Expressionism? The great screen shots was the final clincher. The restoration looks great. I'm in and thanks! -- Mykal

Lolita said...

I'm glad I awoke your interest! It was a really pleasant experience watching the film, and no "dark and passionate soul" (I bet we both have one!) can NOT love Rudolf Klein-Rogge. He always plays such dirty, disgusting yet sophisticated maniacs. Aah, he's cool.