Gambling With Men’s Souls: Dr. Mabuse

Before comics were even a thing, Germany’s Dr. Mabuse became a legacy supervillain.

 

Norbert Jacques created Dr. Mabuse (pronounced like “a boozer,” not “abuse”) Weimar Germany’s master criminal, in the novel Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Mabuse went on to eclipse his creator; in Germany he’s known as a fictional criminal mastermind even among people who’ve never read the book or seen the many movies. I’ve seen almost all of them — and I got the two most recent as a Christmas present — so I’m going to watch them all this year. And that seems like a good source for a series of Atomic Junkshop posts.

Fritz Lang directed both Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (1922) and the 1933 sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (which introduces the first of several legacy Mabuses) and made them classics. The later films are pot-boilers in various styles: Edgar Wallace thriller, horror film, Bond ripoff. That’s part of what makes the series interesting. Jacques created Mabuse to capture a specific time and place but he’s proven adaptable to completely different settings.

In the original Weimar setting, Mabuse’s gambling was a big deal. German war profiteers and aristocrats gambled away fortunes in card games without a thought. That infuriated working-class families who could barely survive paycheck to paycheck. Mabuse embodied the raffke, the moneygrubber with no goal or principles beyond lining his own pocket. Mabuse also gave a face to the faceless forces ruining the country — he manipulates stocks, pumps counterfeit money into the economy, stirs up violence, and boasts that gambling with men’s lives is the only game worth playing.

What makes Mabuse adaptable to other settings is that he’s a forerunner of the Kingpin and Blofeld (and also an heir of Fantomas and Moriarty), a criminal mastermind without a Daredevil or a Bond to stop him. In the first film, nobody can stop him — as you’ll see, it takes Dr. Mabuse to destroy Dr. Mabuse.

I’ll blog soon (I hope) about Lang’s four hour, two-part silent film, Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler. I will be much indebted to Donald Kalat’s The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse in whatever I have to say.

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8 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Love the Mabuse films, especially Lang’s. They are tremendous pieces of cinema, technically brilliant, with the moody espressionist lighting; but also filled with a mix of the natural and the theatrical. Even the cheaper, later, more derivative works have a brilliance to them, though more in an exploitive fashion. They also capture their time wonderfully.

    Mabuse is Moriarty, but a far more malevolent version. Moriarty is pure logic and intellect applied to crime; Mabuse is cunning and strategy, a chess master with hidden emotion, preying upon the weaknesses of others. Moriarty is at the center of a web of crime; Mabuse is manipulating the spider to create the web. Moriarty is the Napoleon of Crime, Mabuse the Machiavelli of Crime.

    Mabuse isn’t without an antagonist, though, thanks to Lang; Inspektor Lohmann, played by Otto Wernicke in both Lang;s M and Testament of Dr Mabuse, and Goldfinger’s Gert Frobe in a few of the 60s films. It was a groundbreaking development by Lang, as Lohmann was simply the detective trying to find the serial killer in M, who is introduced into Testament as the same character, despite having no connection to Jacques’ novel.

    It’s funny the timing of your piece; I just started watching the German television series, Babylon Berlin, on Netflix, which is set in Weimar Germany, with a young police inspector investigating a pornography ring, in Berlin. It goes deeply into the period, with the traumatized war veterans, the fragile working classes, the decadent nightclubs, the criminal underworld, the political battles that spill onto the streets. All of this was at the center of Lang’s Mabuse. It even starts with a character undergoing hypnosis, which was a central element to both Mabuse, Der Spieler and the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, from FW Murnau. The opening titles look like a Lang film (deliberately, no doubt).

    I second Kalat’s book on the Lang film’s; very comprehensive. He also provides commentary for the Criterion edition of Testament of Dr Mabuse.

  2. Le Messor

    in Germany he’s known as a fictional criminal mastermind even among people who’ve never read the book or seen the many movies

    I’ve never done those things, and I’m aware of him, and I’ve spent less than a day in Germany!
    (And thanks for the pronunciation guide… I’ve always thought ‘abuse’.)

    When did that first novel appear?

    Mabuse also gave a face to the faceless forces ruining the country — he manipulates stocks, pumps counterfeit money into the economy, stirs up violence, and boasts that gambling with men’s lives is the only game worth playing.

    So, really, it’s a 100-year-old book with no relevance to modern society.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      The novel appeared in 1921, Lang’s silent epic Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was 1922, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse was 1933, Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse is 1960. The post Lang series (5 films, in all) began in 1961 and lasted through 1964. Jess Franco die La Venganza del Dr Mabuse in 1971. Docteur M (a French film) appeared in 1990, and Ansel Faraj directed two Mabuse films in 2013 and 2014.

      Testament was filmed both in German and French, with the French version shot on the same sets; but with a mostly different cat.

        1. Jeff Nettleton

          The film was in production while the novel was being serialized. The original release of the novel was done with unprecedented publicity, something way ahead of its time (but commonplace these days). Lang and Thea Von Harbour went to work right away. At the same time, film production in that era was pretty quick, given that most films were stagebound and special effects were in their infancy.

          Dr Mabuse, the Gambler was groundbreaking, technically, in that element and featured a night car chase scene, that was highly innovative and popular with audiences.

          Jacques wrote the sequel, Testament of Dr Mabuse, concurrently with film production of it, based on Lang and Harbour’s script. The novel was released simultaneously with the film. Jacques had started a different sequel , Mabuse’s Colony, when Lang asked for help with the script for M (Lang, Von Harbou and Jacques were close friends, dating back to the original film). That novel was to feature a female villain who would build a society around Mabuse’s manifesto. Lang latched onto part of the idea; but convinced Jacques that it should go in a different direction. Jacques abandoned Mabuse’s Colony and started on the novel of Testament, while Lang and Harbou developed the script, with his input.

          Jacques ad other novels that were adapted for German film and wroe a few screenplays.

          Really, though, Lang and Von Harbou are the ones who really developed Mabuse, though Jacques worked closely with them on the original two films.

          Kalat’s book is great reading on the entire series, including Jacques’ novel. The 60s films came at an interesting time in German cinema. Post-war German cinema was fairly impoverished and theaters were dominated by American films. Artur Brauner and his CCC Films. He did much to revitalize the German film industry and enticed people like Lang and Robert Siomdak to return to Germany. He used a formula of producing popular films, with lower artistic aims to finance more prestige pictures. many of the films are what are known as “krimi” or crime films, especially ones based on the pulp novels of Edgar Wallace.

          The irony of Brauner as the savior of the German film industry is that he was a Polish Jew, who fled to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded Poland, and who lost several members of his family at Babi Yar, in the Ukraine. Still, his love of Lang’s films spawned his efforts for German cinema. Many of the prestige films he produced were centered around the war and the Holocaust.

          The big difference between Lang’s Mabuse and the 60s films are that the originals were filled with social commentary and psychological exploration of characters, while the later ones were mostly crime and horror thrillers, with elements of spy-fi thrown in. Kind of like how early Godzilla films were commentary on the atomic bomb and Japan’s relationship with the US (post-war); but, evolved into monster pro wrestling.

    2. “So, really, it’s a 100-year-old book with no relevance to modern society.”
      Wait until I get to Testament of Dr. Mabuse. It involves a horrifyingly believable terrorist campaign to take the government down. Years ago it inspired me to work Mabuse into my DC Superheroes RPG campaign as the spiritual godfather of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and similar radicals (so when one of the villains in the opening arc declares “Die in the name of Mabuse!” it’s a convenient clue to his backstory). Alas, the campaign never got enough players to get going.
      Re the pronounciation I was quite surprised to hear it said properly when I listened to the German films. But I get that a lot with foreign stuff–anime has taught me the Japanese don’t pronounce their language the way it looks to me.

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