Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: DVD Review

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) was the last film made by Metropolis and M director Fritz Lang before he fled Nazi Germany.

Dr Mabuse was a character that Lang returned to throughout his career: first in 1922 with the silent serial Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, then with the black and white talkie Testament in 1933 just before he left Germany for Hollywood, and finally in 1960 with the color horror film The 1000 eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Lang's last film as director.

Mabuse is a character who shows to the world the face of a respectable doctor, but beneath the surface is a sociopathic crime lord. One part Hannibal Lecter, one part Don Corleone, and one part Count Dracula with his supernatural powers of hypnosis and mind control, Mabuse is emblematic for Lang of the corruption and the greed, the potential for violence and fear to tyrranize the individual, the "Will to Power," that lay beneath the surface of post World War I Germany. (For Lang fans, the film contains another familiar character: Lohmann the detective, also seen in M.) Once Lang had washed his hands of the series, the character of Mabuse spawned a number of lesser sequels by other directors in the 1960s (such as Harald Reinl's Invisible Dr. Mabuse).

At the beginning of Testament, Mabuse has been institutionalized following the events of Gambler. He sits in his padded cell, madly scribbling manifestos, predictions and orders
(the Testament of the title) which are mysteriously carried out by members of the crime underworld in Berlin--and more strangely--continue to be carried out even after Mabuse's sudden death. (His rule-by-fear manifestos show a more-than-passing resemblance to Nazi doctrine which may be why the film was banned in Germany.)

All the elements of Lang's cinematic genius that make M such a canonical part of film history are also on display here. While most film-makers were still just plopping the camera down and filming talkies as if they were filming scenes in a play, Lang uses brilliant intercutting, layers of sound, cool interweaving of scenes and themes, and fantastic framing and tracking shots to tell his story.

The film, in its narative style, doesn't feel old. Surprisingly, it straddles several genres: crime film, gangster film, horror and detective stories. Lang uses the very modern technique of piecing together the story as if it's a jigsaw puzzle that only slowly comes together for the viewer. We often enter a scene without knowing exactly who the characters are or how they relate to the narrative as a whole. And unlike a lot of old horror movies which often lose their creepiness as film technology changes and cultural fears and anxieties move on to other things, Dr. Mabuse has some genuinely creepy moments. The Criterion edition/ restoration of the film looks fantastic.

FilmStocker Rating: B+

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