Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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Watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) again recently, I was struck by many things. So many, in fact, that coming up with just one angle from which to approach the subject seemed like a cheat as there were numerous angles available. Sometimes you watch a movie and a rush of thoughts, memories and ideas keep crashing into you from the screen, never letting you focus in on just one element of the film at any given time. That’s not a bad thing either and I think it’s one of the primary reasons that the best movies reward multiple viewings. A great and complex movie makes you think of different things while it’s going on, so you can’t possibly take it all in with only a single viewing. You must watch it again, and again, and again. And even then, you might not know exactly how to put it all together. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one such movie and I have no single theme to tackle here. Rather, I’d like to take a kind of epistolary approach, a cataloging of mental diary entries and newspaper clippings that swirled around my head as I watched.

“You can’t underestimate a great opening.” That’s the first thing that popped into my head as I started to watch it again. As the title cards finish we are immediately placed inside a printing factory so loud that nothing but the pounding press can be heard or felt. Each frame shakes and we are at once immersed in a world we find unfamiliar and frightening, or at least ominous. Someone seems to be trapped inside. It’s a police detective (we later learn) named Hofmeister (Karl Meixner). Two men enter the room he’s hiding in and he ducks behind a large crate that the two men have come to inspect. As they open it, they see his leg behind it. Hofmeister holds a gun at the ready in case he is discovered. One of the men signals the desire to kill him right there but the other, through hand motions, says not to. We find out it is because they will attempt to kill him outside. As they leave and Hofmeister begins his escape, all I could think was how few movies start right off with a nail-biting bit of suspense. And how well Lang executes it.

“What a great grasp of early sound.” It is impressive how well Lang understood the sound medium so early into its life. So called “talkies” had only existed in Germany since 1930 with The Blue Angel and yet with M in 1931 and this one in 1933, Lang didn’t just use sound as so many directors did, to record the dialogue, but to surround the story and give it a pulsating rhythm. The opening I just described is one of the best uses of sound in this early era. But there’s another scene, later on, in which the detective sees Mabuse’s name and wonders if it’s the same doctor he’s thinking of. “Wasn’t he…” and before he can finish his sentence we’re in the police library where his assistant pulls out the case saying, “The doctor during the economic crisis.” This continuation of a sentence from one scene to the other is a movie cliche at this point but Lang has to be one of the first to use it. 

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“Lang was building his own universe of characters.” When we meet up with Detective Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), we realize it’s the same detective from M. The movies are completely unrelated in story and yet, here’s Lohmann working the case of strange robberies and heists. That means that Peter Lorre’s child killer existed side by side in the same universe as the almost paranormal Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Lohmann’s there for no other reason than Lang wanted his character there, especially after Wernicke had become so popular from his role in M. One wishes that Lang had found the time to make a whole series of interconnected films with Lohmann as the connecting figure.

“Lang was wrong, the ghostly stuff works.” Lang said that had he made the movie again, he would have left out the scenes of Mabuse appearing as hallucinations in front of Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) who slowly goes mad himself due to Mabuse’s influence. But the scenes work and they work well. The first time we see it happen, fairly early on, a sharp and strident chord of strings hits the ears as Mabuse materializes. It almost qualifies as a jump scare. Without these scenes, it would be more difficult to imagine why the doctor was losing it. Later, in an incredible scene as Baum studies Mabuse’s writings, Mabuse appears across the desk, his eyes like a massive fly’s eyes, his head showing the twisted crevices of his brain, and begins to instruct Baum personally. He instructs him that crimes should have no other purpose than to enable more crime and terror. 

“What an incredible payoff!” When a colleague of Baum’s, Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos), finds out a little too much information, gangsters are sent to kill him. Problem is, he’s driving down a busy city street with lots of traffic. Killing him will be very public but must be unobserved. We see the gangsters follow him and as he pulls up to an intersection, all the cars stop to allow pedestrians to cross. That’s when the driver for the assassin starts honking his horn incessantly, and eventually all the other cars honk back in annoyance and while the clamor is at its height, the assassin shoots. Did he get him? We don’t know just yet. That’s when we see the cars from above as the pedestrians finally clear. The cars start moving forward, all except one. The cars go around it and eventually a policeman comes over to tell him to move only to find Dr. Kramm dead at the wheel. The idea of alerting the audience to the assassin’s kill shot by showing the cars drive around Kramm’s is a brilliant visual stroke.

“The man behind the curtain.” We all associate it with The Wizard of Oz but I couldn’t help but think how it shows up here first and in a right angle to the phrase we’re all familiar with, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Here, everyone pays attention and expects there to actually be a man behind the curtain barking out the criminal plans. Instead, it’s the man behind the curtain himself that doesn’t exist.

“Sequel. This is a sequel. Damn it’s good.” The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was the second of a trilogy and ranks as the best by my eye. Sequels weren’t as big a thing in 1933, serials were. Serials were aplenty, in fact. But a sequel, a single feature length film intended as a follow-up to an earlier film rather than a chapter continuation of the previous story, was a different thing. Oh, they were around, but few made with the care and attention of this one. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is good enough to make the arguments for sequels working all by itself.

And so many more thoughts, so many revelations. The chases, the explosion at the factory, the wonderful shot of the students all sitting up in unison as they see Mabuse’s picture, there’s just so much to marvel at here that it makes the case that a movie, or any good work of art, improves upon future revisits. I’m sure I’ll watch it again, and when I do I won’t be surprised to discover something new and find myself becoming lost, once again, in a swirl of thoughts. This is what great movies are all about.

Greg Ferrara

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5 Responses Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Posted By Emgee : September 10, 2017 4:45 am

Probably my favourite Lang movie. if i may add another one: “Nothing is resolved. Mabuse can return anytime and cause more havoc and misery.” Now how many times has that been used in movies since then?

Posted By Jonathan R Barnett : September 11, 2017 9:17 am

One of my personal favorites. I love some of the insert editing, showing the sequences of the events that the characters are describing.

I also love the Testament, itself. A bunch of fragments seemingly meaningless until its all put together.

I love the shoot out in the apartment and Lohmann’s hat is shot off while approaching.

The remake for 1962 is actually quite good!
I love the car chase. They even have time to fix a flat tire and its still suspenseful.

There are also some curious story structure parallels to THE EXORCIST. Basically a murder is perpetrated by a person who could not have possibly committed it. Lt. Kinderman does remind us a bit of Lohmann. Characters are possessed. The detective is sent away from the initial scene of the crime only to return.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 11, 2017 10:11 am

Emgee, that’s so true. This movie contains so many devices that have become commonplace, it’s hard to believe. Lang’s early work, and I say this as someone who loves his American films to death, was above anything else he ever did.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 11, 2017 10:13 am

Jonathan, Lang does the insert editing in M as well which was being made as Germany was releasing its first sound movies. Which means that Lang was already figuring out, before even seeing it in other works, that he could use dialogue as voice-over.

Posted By swac44 : October 8, 2017 3:05 pm

It’s worth tracking down Lang’s final return to the world of Mabuse, 1962′s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which naturally has echoes of the film from 40 years earlier, as well as the push-pull editing that leads one scene directly into the next for some whiz-bang pacing. At least it serves to remind the makers of the busy German krimi genre that the master still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

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