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September 13, 2016

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

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Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Fritz Lang - 1922
Kino Classics BD Region A

Cocaine addiction. Gambling on credit. Stock market manipulation. The lust of men for showgirls, especially those who show off some skin. "A Story of our Time" shows that not too much has changed in the ninety-four years since Fritz Lang adapted Norbert Jacques' novel. The big difference is that cinema's original super-villain appears modest compared to those who would appear later, more often as comic characters like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series, or Gru of Despicable Me, or more dramatically, in the future incarnations of Mabuse by Lang and others. What seems consistent is that as brilliant and capable as these villains are when doing things for themselves, they frequently hire inept henchmen.

Even though Dr. Mabuse is called a gambler in the title, the German word spieler could be translated in several ways, with player possibly being the most accurate. Even though there are many scenes of gambling, and Mabuse is described as gambling with peoples' lives, Mabuse is actually in control through most of the film. Mabuse is first introduced as staging the theft of an international trade agreement that sends stocks tumbling down, low enough so that when the price is right, he stands up above the other stock traders, and like a vulture with his prey, swoops down to buy enough of the near worthless stock, and watch its value double its original worth. A little later, Mabuse visits his counterfeiting shop, operated by a crew of old, blind men, making dollars, rather than any European currency.

In one of the blu-ray supplements, Fritz Lang describes how the film was a reflection of life in Germany at the time. The biographer of Norbert Jacques also discusses how close the Berlin of Lang's film was to the real Berlin of 1922. This is the most complete version of Lang's film, with a running time of four and a half hours. There are none of the kind of overwhelming visual set pieces such as what can be found in Lang's next two films, Die Niebulungen and Metropolis, but a couple of moments stand out. In one scene, Lang cuts between the round, room sized roulette wheel of a gambling club, and the round table where several characters are holding a seance. Later, Mabuse, disguised as a famed psychoanalyst, conducts mass hypnosis on a theater audience, while a caravan of mid-East nomads emerge from an on-screen desert to the steps of the auditorium.

One of the other scenes that struck me took place at the home of one Mabuse's victims, Count Told. What we see of the house looks like a gallery, a combination of the most modernistic, abstract art, with mildly erotic, "primitive" pieces. As portrayed by Alfred Abel, Count Told is appears too sensitive for his own good, even before meeting Mabuse. Collecting art is described by his wife as Told's hobby. What is seen looks like an illustration of the kind of art work declared decadent by the Nazis. I'm not sure how much was coincidence here, but it may be worth noting that Norbert Jacques' novel was published in 1921, and took place in Munich, concurrent with the emergence of the Nazi party in that part of Germany.

In discussing the character of Mabuse as intended by Lang, it's pointed out in one of the supplements, that Rudolf Klein-Rogge is meant to be recognizable, even in disguise. In any event, seeing Klein-Rogge appear as different characters is part of the fun. There are bits of humor here as when the men in the gambling club enthusiastically applaud the appearance of a topless female performer, while a woman comments on the performer's lack of talent. Looking beyond the silk top hats worn by the men, and the floor length dresses of the women, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler remains a still relevant film exploring the concept of power at a time when society is teetering towards anarchy.

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Posted by peter at September 13, 2016 04:42 PM