Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Empire of Crime: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

If writers turn terrorist we’ll all be in trouble. Writers such as Richard Condon and Robert Bloch routinely come up with scarier terrorist plots than the ones in real life. As witness Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s script for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse scared the hell out of the Nazi party.

According to Lang, his second Mabuse film displeased Josef Goebbels because it was an anti-Nazi allegory, identifying the Party with Mabuse’s “empire of crime.” Goebbels met Lang and told him that even so, Goebbels had the highest respect for Lang’s talent, intending to make him head of the government’s film program. Lang decided he wasn’t down with this and evacuated to America ASAP.

David Kalat’s book on Mabuse shows the meeting never took place. Goebbels’ real issue with Testament was that Mabuse’s terrorist tactics looked dangerously effective, and might be a blueprint for anti-Nazi resistance. Goebbels also found the ending flawed: the authorities, representing the German people, should have defeated Mabuse, instead of having him go mad.

Despite Goebbels’ reservations, Testament is awesome. It gives us a much stronger adversary for Mabuse than the first film, Inspector Lohmann, played by Otto Wernicke. Early in the film, Lohmann contemplates a rare evening off when he gets a call from Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a disgraced former cop, whom we’ve already seen spying on Mabuse’s operation in the opening. Hofmeister warns Lohmann of a major threat, but he’s attacked before giving details. Lohmann finds Hofmeister gibbering insane, re-enacting the phone call over and over. Hofmeister left a cryptic message behind, but it isn’t deciphered until much later.

Kalat points out that misunderstanding and miscommunication is a recurring motif in Testament. Ex-con Kent (Gustav Diessel), one of Mabuse’s mob, tries to convince his girlfriend Lily (Wera Liessen) to dump him, but nothing he says penetrates her devotion. Mabuse’s gang are baffled by their assignments: blackmailing powerful people into suicide instead of demanding money? Ruining businesses but getting nothing for it? Swapping counterfeit cash for the cash in one Berlin bank? What’s the game?

The game is Mabuse gambling even more aggressively with men’s faiths and souls than the first film. He’s out to smash society and destroy men’s faith in government and order. Out of the anarchy that results, Mabuse will build “the empire of crime.” And Goebbels is right, the scheme looks quite effective (in my short-lived DC role-playing game campaign, European terrorists regarded Mabuse as their spiritual father).

But wait! As brilliant Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi) establishes early in the film, Mabuse has been catatonic since his defeat in The Inferno. Although he recently revived, he does nothing but scribble his thoughts, plans and philosophy of crime in notebooks. He’s not talking or contacting anyone, so how can he be the mastermind?

Simple. Mabuse has become a legacy villain. His will has imposed his personality on Dr. Baum, creating a second identity that believes itself Mabuse — and with the written testament to guide him, Baum can be. Mabuse is no longer one man, he’s an agenda, a concept.

As soon as the flesh-and-blood Mabuse completes his testament, he dies. When Lohmann finally figures out Hofmeister’s message about Mabuse, he calls the asylum and learns Mabuse is dead — clearly Hofmeister’s warning was wrong.

Kent has no better luck communicating with Lily. Even when he tells her his time in prison was for murdering his wife and her lover, Lily just stares at him in doglike devotion. Then she convinces him to turn on his boss. Kalat sees Lily as another manipulator, like Mabuse, but to me she comes off like the kind of woman who crushes on serial killers.

Regardless, they provide Mabuse with more opposition. Eventually they sneak into the room where Mabuse, curtained off, gives orders to his mob. Now they have him! — oops, there’s no man behind the curtain, only a speaker system. Mabuse floods the room, but in a great sequence, they escape. Later, when Lohmann brings Baum to the police station, none of his gang can identify him. Then Baum sees Kent and cries out in surprise. Kent recognizes his voice. Baum flees and ends up, like Mabuse I, sinking into madness in his own asylum.

The Criterion edition of Testament includes the French version Lang directed at the same time, Last Will of Dr. Mabuse. It’s shorter and weaker (Jim Gérald is a much weaker Mabuse), but does have some advantages, such as trimming much of the Lily/Kent romance (a later American cut, which I haven’t seen yet, purges them entirely) It also simplifies the backstory, making Mabuse a Mesmero-type criminal hypnotist.

The two films would be the last we’d see of the devil doctor until the 1960s.



  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Fantastic film. Inspector Lohmann was first seen in Lang’s M, hunting the child killer. As such, he might be the earliest incident of a character crossing into a different film series. Lohmann adds a nice adversarial presence to the proceedings, given Mabuse his Sherlock Holmes, though Lohmann is more of the standard police detective, based heavily on ErnsT Gennat, director of Berlin’s criminal police and founder of their first murder squad. The real Gennat was involved in hunting down several serial killers in Weimar Berlin. he also was able to keep his distance from the Nazis, while doing his job, though he died in 1939, before they really got rolling with their programs.

    Testament was remade in the 60s, by Arthur Brauner, with Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) as Lohmann and Wolfgang Preiss as Baum. You can also see Leon Askin, more famous as Gen Burkhalter, on Hogan’s Heroes, as one of Mabuse’s thugs. Like Lang, Askin was a refugee who escaped the Nazis, as a Viennese Jew. He emigrated to the US and served in the USAAF, during WW2. The remake isn’t a bad film; but, can’t hold a candle to Lang’s. It has more emphasis on action and thrills, than on the symbolism and philosophy. It also lack Lang’s cinematic touches.

  2. Funny, I thought I’d posted a reply–simply that I know of the Testament remake, though I haven’t seen it. I’m now searching for it, though I’ll be reviewing other films in the series while I look.

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