Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Dr. Mabuse: “A picture for our times”

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.




  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Mabuse resonates in Weimar Germany, as Mabuse represents those who exploit the middle and lower classes for gain, while adding to the corruption. Rampant inflation destroyed the value of the German mark and much of the gambling and nightlife are due to the near worthlessness of the currency. The rich spend their profits quickly, before they drop in value. The nation was devastated by the loss in WW1 and the veterans are treated poorly, especially those who suffer PTSD and physical disfigurement.

    Mesmerists were popular in Weimar cinema, with Mabuse and Dr Caligari who may be madman or savior, depending on whether you believe the narrator.

    Mabuse is most compared to Moriarty; but, he probably has more Fantomas in him than anything else. What he lacks is an Inspector Juve and Fandor, the journalist, to pursue him. That will come when Inspektor Lohmann joins the picture, in Testament of Dr Mabuse. The character first appears in Fritz Lang’s M (played by Otto Wernicke), chasing the child killer, played by Peter Lorre. Soon, he will be chasing Mabuse’s gang.

    It’s interesting how much of the trappings of Mabuse were present in the tv series, Babylon Berlin. You have the Lohmann-esque inspector, a secret conspiracy out to rearm Germany, Russian gold, a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to treat PTSD veterans and seems to control an army and who seems at the heart of another conspiracy within a conspiracy. Murder and vice and corruption are rampant and fictional characters mix with real people, including Ernst Gennat, the detective who founded the first murder squad and who tracked down several serial killers in Weimar Germany. he is the basis for Inspektor Lohmann and his cases influenced the creation of M.

    Check it out on Netflix, if Mabuse interests you. Be warned, there is plenty of sex and nudity, as well as graphic violence.

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