“Corpses are part of our business”: The Terror of Dr. Mabuse

As a kid, German filmmaker Artur Brauner slipped out of the house to catch Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and fell in love. He wasn’t able to convince Lang to do a remake, but in 1962 his CCC studio released a remake without Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabusethough I’ll be calling it by the American-release title, Terror of Dr. Mabuse, to simplify things. Like the previous film, Invisible Dr. Mabuse, Terror is a decent low budget film; as a remake, though, it’s just mediocre.

The early 1960s were a sucky time to be a German filmmaker. Several studios had closed without settling their debts, so the credit spigot tightened up for survivors. It didn’t help that after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, East Germans couldn’t get anywhere near a West German theater, cutting the domestic market in half. Remaking a classic probably looked like a good risk-reduction strategy, as it often does today. Though Brauner would undoubtedly have gone ahead with Terror even if the industry was booming.

The credits roll over Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) scribbling frantically in his cell. We cut to his gang, carrying out a couple of elaborate thefts under the direction of Mabuse’s smooth, cigar-smoking right-hand man, Mortimer (Charles Regnier). Mortimer is a villain with a sense of humor: after the gang traps and robs an armored car traveling through the countryside, Mortimer tosses the guards bus fare so they won’t have to walk back to town (“We’re not monsters.”).

Lohmann (Gert Frobe in his last appearance in the series) immediately suspects Mabuse is the Big Bad, even though he’s been in an asylum since the previous film. This would be a matter of months ago, but it’s implied that like the original Testament, Mabuse has been there for years. The asylum’s head, Prof. Pohland (Walter Rilla), assures Lohmann that Mabuse has no access to the outside world. Lohmann, of course, knows how little such assurance are worth; the impossible is Mabuse’s stock in trade.

The inspector’s right, though he doesn’t guess the whole story. Pohland has been treating Mabuse with hypnotherapy for months, but Mabuse has used the sessions to hypnotize the professor instead. Pohland now has a split personality modeled on Mabuse. This is the actual mastermind, the one carrying out the plans Mabuse has drawn up. Pohlman tries to break free, but it’s too late. Mabuse soon dies, but that only makes Pohlman’s dark side dominant.

This is a big departure from the original Testament, in which Mabuse warped his keeper by force of will without even trying (I prefer that, though Mabuse expert David Kalat doesn’t). Another is that in the original film, the crimes the gang pulls made little sense as profitable ventures, only as steps in Mabuse’s scheme to smash society. Here, although Preiss’s Mabuse talks of creating a new world, the crimes look like conventional crimes (gold robbery, bank robbery, etc.).

Another change to the original is its handling of Briggs, the counterpart to Testament‘s Kent. In Testament, Kent was a desperate ex-con who works for Mabuse because he has no other options. In Terror, he’s a boxer Mortimer arbitrarily decides would be a good henchman. Mortimer’s so sure of this that he dopes Briggs in his next fight so he loses, ending his career. That makes him open to a job offer — but seriously, they couldn’t find a better way to recruit hired muscle?

It soon turns out Briggs has no stomach for dirty work, and he turns on his boss. In the original, Mabuse almost drowned Kent and his girlfriend; here he tries driving them insane by … putting them in front of a wall of mirrors. This allows the film some flashes of visual style but plot-wise it’s as dumb as a box of rocks. Rather than kill Briggs like he has previous betrayers, Mabuse commits him to Pohlman’s asylum. The plot requires it: Pohland/Mabuse has captured Lohmann to destroy his mind with electroshock, but Briggs breaks free of his cell and saves the inspector.

The film does spare us the peculiar Kent/Lily relationship from Testament. Instead, though, we get a girlfriend (a wasted Senta Berger) who kvetches endlessly, whether Briggs is risking injury as a boxer or as a crook.

After Briggs rescues Lohmann, we get the same car-chase climax as Testament, only this time Pohlman’s car goes into a lake and doesn’t resurface. Mabuse is gone, at least until 1963’s Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse. Terror, however, would be the last Mabuse film of the 1960s cycle released in the US. As Kalat says, Mabuse fell between pretty much all the stools, neither horror nor crime thriller exactly. It was its own genre and not one Americans really cottoned to.

#SFWApro.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I agree that Testament is a very weak remake, though what would you expect? You can’t redo a master’s work. I also agree, that, as its own version, its not bad, though not a patch on The Return of dr Mabuse or remotely close to Lang’s return to the character, with The 1000 Eyes. It is a dividing line, though, as the films really start decreasing in quality, from here on (not that Invisible Dr Mabuse didn’t have its issues).

    All that aside, the early-mid 60s were a great time for European genre movies, especially in the adventure/comedy and horror fields. I’ve just been on a kick of watching the German Kommissar X spy series, with Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella) and Brad Harris, based on a series of crime novels, though cinematically inspired by the success of the Bond films. The whole Eurospy sub-genre is packed with great, if cheaper films, which at least make up for budget with style, humor and enthusiasm. There are the Agent 077 spoofs, the original OSS 117 films, and the MST3K favorites, Secret Agent Super Dragon, Danger Death Ray and Operation Double 007 (aka Operation Kid Brother). If you going into them knowing they won’t match bond, they are pretty entertaining B-movies. Also, there are the Batman tv-inspired films, like the 3 Fantastic Supermen series, the lesser Super Argo superhero/Italian luchador films, the fumetti adaptations (the 2 Kriminal films and Danger Diabolik), and the Seven Golden men caper films (2 of those). These were the kinds of films that were often staples of weekend or late night movies, in the days before the prevalence of cable tv.

    I still think Mabuse could do with a high budget, modern revival, as there is a lot of meat in there. The closest I have seen is the Babylon Berlin tv series, which shares many elements with Lang’s Mabuse films (and his others) and the works of Murnau and Wiene (Cabinet of Dr Caligari).

  2. Operation 007 (also retitled “The New Spy Against Divided Evil”) is entertaining in its own nutso, Bond-knockoff way (I had great fun including it in a Bond book I wrote a few years ago).
    I’d love to see a new Mabuse movie done well. There was another low budget version a couple of years ago which I’ll get to eventually.

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