Thursday, 7 January 2016
FRITZ LANG: 'THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE' (1933)
THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE (1933). In only his second film to use sound after M, Fritz Lang made his own testament before leaving Nazi Germany for ever. This sequel to his famous DR MABUSE two-part epic centres around the discovery that in an insane asylum, the supposedly catatonic former master criminal Dr Mabuse, an under-used though welcome Rudolf Klein-Rogge again, has been furiously scribbling more ingenious heist plans that mysteriously are being carried out in the outside world. His supervising professor Baum develops an unhealthy obsession about his patient - “Mabuse the genius!” he declaims with an unsettling lack of objectivity.
On the trail of a vast new crime network that has sent an ex-detective colleague of his, Hofmeister mad with fear, Inspector Lohmann pursues the case. This allows a nice continuity as Otto Wernicke reprises the same role he had in M, a pleasingly hard-boiled characterisation that alternates between breezily rolling with the punches and occasionally exploding with rage when stonewalled by suspects. (Sadly, Wernicke would later struggle to stay working as an actor under the Nazi regime, allegedly only by making a sizeable donation to the ruling party was he allowed to continue his career).
Within the crime conspiracy, there is a love story as one of the gang, Kent (Gustav Diesel), is begged by his girlfriend Lilli (Wera Liessem) to open up about his inner conflict. There is some unintentional humour here when he comes clean. Admirably she is unfazed about his prison record, but when he presses on with the worst of it, that he killed two people - “One was my girlfriend” - Liessem still shows zero reaction. Love is not just blind, it also appears to be deaf - she makes Joe E. Brown at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT look judgemental. Anyhow, their resolve to go to the police gets them abducted and locked in the odd meeting room cloaked by a curtain that their mystery boss uses to communicate with his underlings. In a Republic serial-style cliff-hanger, they escape from the room by flooding it with water.
Ultimately, it’s revealed that it is the cracked Professor Baum who has taken up the mantle of continuing the super-villain Mabuse’s work, masquerading as him with the aid of gramophone voice recordings and hiding behind that curtained-off area. (Intriguingly, this device is not only reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, but is it coincidental that the Professor shares the same surname as the writer of the children’s books, all of which were published long before the film?). Baum is haunted by the excellently grotesque spectre of Mabuse himself, silent and reptile-eyed who compels him to bomb a chemical plant before being cornered back at the asylum. A neat resolution sees Hofmeister here introduced to the spirit of Mabuse, thus ending his temporary insanity, while Baum is not so fortunate; his mental state now as shredded as the scribblings littered around him. He tears at them, spaced-out, just like his mentor when Mabuse too was captured ten years before…
Behind the scenes at the Ufa studio, there were sinister alliances being made. In 1927, Alfred Hugenberg, the media magnate had bought the studio and after becoming an influential Minister in Hitler’s government he placed it under allegiance to the Nazi Party in 1933. Hugenberg banned M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE but offered Lang continued work at the studio.
The director declined yet found an altogether more unwelcome fan instead. Lang’s film earned him a summons from Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s war-time Minister for Propaganda in 1933. Goebbels had spotted that the main character was a mouthpiece for a criminal version of an identical manifesto to that of the Nazi party. Nazism espoused that by erasing the structures of the present, only then could the thousand years of the Reich begin. Mabuse said exactly the same thing, that only when the old order had been destroyed, a thousand years of his crime empire would begin. Whilst on the one hand banning THE TESTAMENT for inciting disrespect in the Nazi leadership, Goebbels told Lang that the Fuhrer had seen his film and that: “..he has said that this is the man who will give us THE National Socialistic film”. At that moment, Lang broke out into a cold sweat, wondering how on earth he could get out, take his savings and flee the country. Goebbels then offered Lang the job of official filmmaker for German (Nazi) film. The director politely informed Goebbels that his mothers’ parents were Jewish. The Minister replied with a blood-curdling attempt at charm: “Mr Lang, we decide who is an Aryan”.
As soon as he could, Lang took his savings, arranged for a train ticket, met his girlfriend who agreed to let him take some of her jewellery safely with him out of Germany, and he left the country to begin again in Hollywood - never to return. There, he had a happy career making 21 films for a list of major studios, never making more than two for any single company. He closed his professional life in a somewhat circular fashion by concluding with his most famous anti-hero in THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE in 1960.
In the superb film interview he gave to William Friedkin in 1974 (available on social media), Fritz Lang summed up his legacy in a simple belief about the duty of the film-maker. Usually a reluctant subject, he said: “(if) the film doesn’t express what he wants to say and he needs to give an interview to explain why, he is a lousy director….His films should speak for him.”