Fritz Lang’s Diabolical Dr. Mabuse Trilogy

“You have no existence except as my tool. The individual has no being except insofar as he is part of a machine. The individual is nothing; the machine is everything.”
– Dr. Mabuse, The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse

Such were the words possibly floating in famed director Fritz Lang’s mind when lunatic-on-the-rise Adolf Hitler asked him to become Germany’s de facto cinematic artist, which was about three hours before Lang wisely jumped on the nearest boat bound for safer environs. The auteur was no naïf, and knew that the coming reign of terror – one possibly nurtured by equal parts Nietszche’s Superman theories and Lang’s own celluloid monomaniacs such as Metropolis‘ Rotwang and Dr. Mabuse – about to blitzkrieg his beloved German culture would eventually destroy him as it would the psychic landscape of the entire world just getting used to the dramatic artistic explosion of expressionism of all stripes. So he fled just in time to be considered a prophet of wars hot and cold, and the knotted narratives of Dr. Mabuse, based on the novels of Norbert Jacques, served as his sermon on the mount.

And just as Hitler himself proved to be the totalitarian archetype handed down through history like outgrown clothing that landed on the backs of dictators-in-waiting such as Pinochet, Ceausescu, Milosevic, and now Osama bin Laden, Dr Mabuse became the progenitor of a range of diabolical screen villains from the similarly named Dr. No to the hopelessly anachronistic Dr. Evil. All of which is somewhat peripheral when considering the matter within the frame, but like I said, Fritz Lang was no naïf – he knew very well the power of cinema as a cultural/political construct and seized several chances to impart his warnings to the world at large. This is one of the reasons Hitler wanted him, after all.

Which brings us back to The Diabolical Cinema of Dr. Mabuse DVDs released by All Day Entertainment – God bless ’em – and the various changes wrought on the master narrative of the master of disaster. Although Lang’s original, the silent two-parter Dr. Mabuse (1922), is not contained in Volume One of the series, which picks up with Lang’s last film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, its echoes resound throughout the franchise, especially in Volume Two’s bonus feature, Lang’s The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse nee The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – the foundational text for Volume Two’s remake produced by Artur Brauner, “the most commercially successful producer in all of postwar Europe” crows the back cover. It is Lang’s 1932 version of Testament, however, which is probably the best film of the three included in All Day’s collection.

Lang’s 1932 original resuscitates the legend of Mabuse after ten years underground, brought on no doubt by the various rumblings of fascism littering the culture after its demoralization in the first World War. The real Dr. Mabuse is confined to a sanitarium but lionized by its head doctor Baum, who openly praises Mabuse’s fascist screeds to his students, and indeed uses them as the basis for his own reign of terror. But who, recalling the quote above, is the tool? Whereas the postwar exercises on the Mabuse legend locate technology and its inherent connection to fear and power as the not-so-good doctor’s strength, Lang’s original is much more daring and metaphysical. The tendency toward the totalitarian is a state of mind, a dive into darkness that those who dabble with illicit fantasies of immortality – like Hitler and his Third Reich or bin Laden and his pretenses to divine interventions – are wide open to, like sensitives subject to the whims of a master hypnotist. And it is Lang’s 1932 Mabuse who drifts through the frame and Doctor’s Baum’s mind like a phantom, opening doors and placing plans, pointing the way and waging the war.

Fritz Lang Testament of Dr Mabuse

Conveniently enough, Mabuse and Baum’s metaphysical origin point is Nietszche’s Superman, proffered by Lang as an egomaniac bent on the destruction of those he considers mere animals, pawns in the game. But Lang takes Nietszche’s theory out of philosophy and into his version of international politics, into practical application. “He was a man who knew this world was doomed, and he offered us salvation,” Baum argues hysterically as Inspector Lohmann (the Sherlock Holmes of the series) ponders the real Mabuse’s dead body. “He knew the average man was unfit to govern himself. He knew that only a Superman could bring order to this rotten world. He was going to prove the power of the Supermen. He was the Superman, who alone could save us, the one man who could build, could create from the ruins, the chaos that fools call democracy.” And it is in this conjunction of the rise of Nazism, its fear of democracy, and the Will to Power of criminality overtaking the civil liberties of the general populace that Fritz Lang staked his legend on.

And so Baum, in turn, becomes yet another phantom machine behind the dictator’s curtain who employs scores of small-time crooks, one of whom is a physical dead ringer for Hitler himself and another of whom – suspiciously named Kant, recalling the German philosopher whose Critique of Judgment was more concerned with contemplation of beauty not murder, arguing, contra Mabuse, that a beautiful object or “tool” has no purpose external to itself – wants to get out and finally does, escaping one unwieldy hit involving a room with a bomb that, of course, doesn’t go off immediately, but takes what seems like hours.

Indeed, it is this labyrinthine diagram for destruction that doesn’t necessarily jibe with Lang’s positing of Mabuse as an intangible and contagious terror, one that leaps from “tool” to “tool” like William Friedkin’s possessor in The Exorcist. The film asks you at once to believe that Mabuse can take over the mind – which he does with creepy accuracy with Baum – a domain which he considers his specialty, but then can only proceed to execute the most laborious and harebrained schemes that have more holes in them than his victims. As part of the pre-war environment, such failed master plans are endearing, even fun to watch. Watching Kant spend what amounts to probably ten minutes of screen time trying to break out of his room through the door, then a bricked-over window, then beneath said window, before he decides on breaking apart the pipes, hoping the water will lessen the blast, well, you can only smile and shake your head. Same goes with the verbal cat-and-mouse that is exchanged between the intrepid Lohmann and Dr. Baum – or even funnier, Lohmann and Mabuse’s dumb-as-dirt disciples – especially considering how much shrift the police of the time gave suspected criminals, even famous ones.

But once you enter the realm of the Cold War environment, as Lang did when he left America for his homeland after the war was over and he had burned several bridges in Hollywood, such elaborate and eventually bungled criminal designs don’t fit well with the postwar reliance upon technology and its tendency to short, programmatic execution of its imperatives. Like the needle bullet one of Mabuse’s cronies uses to assassinate his victims, technology seeks its target and goes after it, no derivations or ruses needed. So the positing of Mabuse’s latest incarnation in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse as a blind seer capable of predicting events before they happen – even though his true “sight” comes from the panopticon that is the Luxor Hotel – is one of Lang’s last film’s more unwieldy premises. That the cornerstone of the Luxor was laid by the Nazis is one of the only vestiges of Lang’s previous punch existing in this translation of the Mabuse legend – simply put, the Superman has been replaced with the voyeur, and the voyeur is a much more nebulous enemy, one who likes to watch the destruction and devastation he visits upon the world, not just for the power it brings, but also for the pleasure.


Which explains why both The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and the remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse focus more on the pointless love stories involving women who are merely used as bait in the grander designs of criminals, existing only to facilitate their negligible stories – Everyman wanting to go straight and make it in a world arrayed against them – or arouse the spectator. Or why the films become more self-conscious exercises in what the James Bond/Austin Powers dyad has to offer: evil doctors, “electric rays,” panopticons not as prisons but pleasure factories, ludicrous setups and laughable beatdowns. Whereas Dr. Baum went on about democracy and Supermen, his doppleganger in Brauner’s remake crows about the power of Mabuse’s intellect contained in “this brain here,” lifting a sheet off of a floating brain in a jar. That is, right before he straps Inspector Lohmann to a table and administers a shock, taunting, “Go on! Why aren’t you screaming? All the others scream!” Where the original Mabuse’s sanitarium scribblings prophetically suggested “Gas” and “Domination by Terror” as methods of world domination, the remake’s second-in-command to Mabuse lets a phalanx of cops relieved of their gold off the hook, asserting, “After all, we’re not monsters.”

No, Brauner’s remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is pure drive-in theater, the kind Danny (John Travolta) watched in Grease so he could cop a feel off of Olivia Newton-John. And Lang’s last foray into Mabuse territory, although a good yarn replete with some interesting characters – such as the hilarious undercover cop/insurance salesman Misztelweig – is a Cold War red herring retroactively posited by writers as a sharp critique of the postwar surveillance state. While its relentless critique of the labcoats is heartening– especially to those Michel Foucault fans out there – it falters when propped up against Lang’s most notorious social critiques, such as his earlier Mabuse films or Metropolis. And even though films are there to make us laugh and smile, too, it’s hard not to expect Mike Myers and his dentistry-disabled goof on the films of the period to jump out from behind the curtain where the cardboard cutouts – yeah, I’d fall for that one! – sit, pinky to his lips, Mr. Bigglesworth on his shoulder.

Notwithstanding his desire to remake Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before his blindness– as well as his original Testament of Dr. Mabuse‘s ad campaign promising, “More frightening than Frankenstein, deadlier than Dracula, more hideous than Hyde” –Fritz Lang was not a conventional horror man, and Dr. Mabuse was not your father’s monster. He was a social phenomenon, nurtured in the soil of growing fear, dread, and hatred, ready to destroy “democracy” by any means necessary. “The animal known as man can always be frightened into submission,” the notes of Dr. Mabuse read in Lang’s Testament of Dr. Mabuse, “He fears whatever is beyond his simple mind.” Couple that concretely deranged social theory with the remake’s best shot –“Do you know who I am?” Mabuse asks Johnny (of course), the down-on-his-luck prizefighter. “You will never know who I am,” Mabuse answers, after Johnny answers in the negative. “I am the master, that should be enough.”

Well, it isn’t. Especially when the peppy jazz score on both The 1,000 Eyes or Dr. Mabuse and the remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse are blaring in your ear, ridding you of whatever fear you might have had.

Lang was obsessed with the suspicion that he would be forgotten, the robotic assessment “Failure, failure, failure,” probably running through his consciousness as it does Baum’s right before he enters the prison of his own making. But it is safe to say that Metropolis set the table for him until the day of his death, and in fact its interrogations on class, technology, and humanity remain potent today, to say nothing of how the film just looks on the screen. Experiments in smaller scale, like those of Dr. Mabuse, may not fare as well, but that would be a shame. Because they are artistic bookends chronicling not only the rise and fall of the Third Reich, but of certain characteristics of European culture as well. They’re snapshots of a world enveloped in political intrigue and popular culture’s cinematic schlock, and I’m thankful that All Day Entertainment took upon themselves the thankless task of preserving them for future generations.

That way, when the world eats its weight in popcorn watching George Lucas’ Phantom Menace scheme onscreen, whatever its guise, those schooled in their Fritz Lang and history will recognize that evil – whether its name is Hitler, bin Laden, Darth Vader or, well, Dr. Evil – didn’t begin with the Death Star.

This article originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Journal.