Monday, December 3, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #206 - The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933, dir. Fritz Lang)

Director Fritz Lang seemed to have an incredible knack for predicting the future, imagining modern cities ruled by technology in Metropolis, the era of media-driven serial murderers in M, and both the rise of fascism and the role terrorism would play in modern life in his masterful 1933 suspense film The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse. Lang began a series of Dr. Mabuse movies in 1922 with his silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Mabuse was a “Moriarity” type evil genius character whose criminal schemes go beyond the lust for riches and veer into concepts of world domination and mind control. Mabuse uses telepathy and projection to control people, and while it doesn’t succumb to pure fantasy, there is an edge of the unreal to this film that makes it succeed as both mystery and science fiction.
The character of Dr. Mabuse and his nefarious abilities to bend people to his will and make them commit unspeakable acts is the secret to what makes the movie so compelling. Locked in a mental institution after the crimes he committed in the first movie, we come to understand that Mabuse has created a network of evildoers to do his bidding through the use of trickery and intimidation. Mabuse’s plot involves creating societal havoc - blowing up chemical factories, poisoning water, destroying crops - so that he can bend the populace to his will and rule the world. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a German director in 1933 sharing his fears about a violent dictator might be referencing the looming shadows of Hitler’s Third Reich, and everything that happens in the movie lends credulity to this theory as Mabuse rejects profit in exchange for sowing anarchy. In the midst of the growth of the Nazi party, the movie’s theme rings frighteningly true. Mabuse convinces common thieves and those he can blackmail to his side, convincing them that society must be brought to its knees so he can impose his vision of totalitarian rule. To the outside world Mabuse is a madman sitting in a padded cell endlessly scribbling his plans for conquest on pieces of paper. To those inside his cadre of creeps, he is an evil genius leading them to some unholy victory over the rest of mankind.
How Lang achieves the heightened levels of fear and paranoia we experience in this film are the secrets to his craft as one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Lang belonged to a rare class of directors who successfully made the leap from silent to sound film. Many simply could not leave the purely visual medium and incorporate sound and dialogue into their bag of tricks. Lang in fact used exactly those challenges to make his films so successful. His use of sound is overwhelming. It feels like a new medium to explore and that’s exactly what it was. The pounding of machines, the wailing of sirens, the relatively new mechanized sounds of the industrial revolution were the raw materials Lang forged into the glowing outline of his story. The same for visual effects and lighting; Lang beautifully predicts much of the lexicon and tradition of film-noir before it exists. His shadows have a life of their own, and unknown worlds lurk just beyond the saturated light of the frame. Few directors can move the viewer so completely with just the suggestion of emotion.
Perhaps no aspect of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse rings truer than the chilling spectre of global terrorism that it raises. When we learn the entirety of Mabuse’s fiendish plot, it is not a stretch to imagine the same sentiments coming from Osama Bin Laden’s mouth. Mabuse’s nihilistic desire to tear the flesh of civilization away from the bones of society is remarkably on target and modern. Like Professor Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes series, Mabuse seems to come to an end in each film, yet his brand of evil is not dependent on corporeal existence, he represents the evil in all men’s souls, a malignance we must fight every day.
-         Paul Epstein

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