A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)

It's a four-and-a-half-hour movie, and I've seen two-hour movies that felt longer. It zips along because Fritz Lang never fails to give us something to look at and anticipate. There is, first and foremost, the hypnotic (almost literally) performance of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Mabuse, a role that could have degenerated into mere villainous mannerisms. There is his dogged and thwarted but always charismatic opponent, von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who seems on occasion to resist Mabuse's power by mere force of cheekbones. There is the extraordinary art decoration provided by Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut, which often gives the film its nightmare power: Consider, for example, the exceedingly odd stage decor provided for the Folies-Bergère performance by Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), in which she contends with gigantic heads with phallic noses (or perhaps beaks), or the collection of primitive and Expressionist art belonging to the effete Count Told (Alfred Abel). The story itself, adapted from the novel by Norbert Jacques by Lang's wife-to-be Thea von Harbou, is typically melodramatic stuff about a megalomaniac psychiatrist, who uses his powers to become a master criminal. But l think it succeeds not only because it has so much to say about the period in which it was made -- i.e., "from Caligari to Hitler," as TCM's programmers would have it, following up on a documentary about Weimar Republic-era filmmakers based in part on the 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer -- but also because of our continuing fascination with mind control. Maybe it's just because this is a presidential election year, but I'm reminded that there's a little Mabuse in everyone who seeks power. Somehow we continually lose our skepticism, born of hard experience, about the manipulators and find ourselves once again yielding to them. And somehow we usually, like von Wenk, find a way to pull ourselves back from the brink. But, as Lang himself experienced, we don't always manage to do so.