The thing that makes Dr. Mabuse dangerous is that he’s both brilliant and bored. Very, very bored.
As Dr. Mabuse: The Great Gambler (1922) starts, he’s got money, a fine house in Berlin and the power that comes with being the crimelord of Weimar Germany. Like other German raffkes (black marketeers and sleazy moneygrubbers) of the era, money isn’t enough for him. Over the course of Great Gambler and Part Two, Dr. Mabuse: Inferno (theaters screened them over two nights), Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) joins the rest of the idle, corrupt rich amusing themselves in Berlin’s gambling salons and nightclubs. That isn’t enough either.
Maybe his companions feel the same way. Take Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welecker), a listless anhedonic who sits in gambling dens to get a buzz from the players’ excitement. Mabuse sees her as a kindred spirit but he goes to greater lengths to find amusement. For him gambling with “men’s souls, their faiths, is the only game worth playing.”
The movie opens with Mabuse selecting from several possible identities for his next caper. The crime itself is a work of art. Mabuse’s agent steals a satchel containing a secret trade agreement. As soon as word of the theft hits the stock exchange, everyone realizes that if the details leak, the companies involved will be ruined. Their stocks fall, fall, fall … and when they hit rock bottom, Mabuse buys, buys, buys. No sooner has he finished than a fresh bulletin arrives: the satchel’s been recovered, unopened. The companies’ stocks return to normal.
Like Mabuse says, it’s not just about the money, it’s about destabilizing the system. Who can have faith in a stock market where values are shaped by Mabuse’s whim? Or in the currency when his operation churns out counterfeit bills? He’s gamed the system so events — wealth and poverty, life and death, order and riots — happen only because Mabuse says they do.
After the opening, Mabuse shows little interest in conventional crime. He’s focused more on destroying souls. In yet another identity, he bumps into Hull (Paul Richter), a young man-about-town. With his mesmeric will power, the doctor convinces Hull that they’re chums, which gets Mabuse into a high-stakes card game. The doctor cheats by mentally compelling Hull and the others to play badly. Later, when he decides to eliminate Dusy’s husband, he makes Count Told cheat; the count is caught which destroys him socially. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the count turns for help to a distinguished Berlin psychiatrist — guess who?
This is Mabuse’s “true” identity, a respected doctor of the mind. Needless to say, the count’s soul is thoroughly destroyed. Dusy winds up Mabuse’s prisoner at the end of Part One, replacing his still-devoted former mistress Cara (Aud Egede Nissen).
As Mabuse expert David Kalat says, the movie doesn’t give Mabuse a counterweight, a hero to match him. Hull, who falls for Cara, never sees that she’s manipulating him for her boss. When the prosecutor von Wenck (Bernhard Goetzke) starts using Hull against Mabuse, Hull winds up dead.
That leaves von Wenck as point man for the forces of good. Early on, the doctor turns his will on von Wenck in a card game and the prosecutor resists, the only person to do so. When von Wenck begins hunting Mabuse’s agents in Inferno, however, Mabuse is always one step ahead. Von Wenck captures Cara, but she refuses to betray her lover. Mabuse has her poisoned, not knowing she’s still loyal.
Later, when a police van carts one of Mabuse’s operatives to jail, Mabuse, disguised, riles up an angry mob: the police have imprisoned Johannes Gutter! Will they stand for this injustice? The mob blocks the street, tying up the van until Mabuse’s gunman eliminates the loose end. Was there a real Gutter, or did the crowd just react like sheeple? We don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.
Finally Mabuse does overwhelm von Wenck’s mind, driving him to suicide. Only von Wenk’s men save the prosecutor from driving himself off a cliff. Instead it’s Mabuse who destroys himself (something Cara predicted). His obsession with Dusy cracks his self-control. By his own admission, he starts screwing up. The police identify their enemy, close in on his house and engage in a heated gun battle with his men. The doctor slips out through a secret tunnel into his counterfeiting room. Oops. For security, the door can only be opened from outside, and Mabuse has nobody left to do that. By the time the police arrive, knowledge he’s caught in his own trap has driven Mabuse mad.
The movie runs for four hours, but it’s never dull or uninteresting. The story, the acting and the visuals all work beautifully. Today they’d probably have a sequel out within a year, but it would be a decade before Mabuse threatened society again.