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.