The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Without doing any actual research to confirm my suspicions, I have to assume that this film was blacklisted by the Germans because it too closely resembled the political and social insanity that was brewing in 1933.  The film’s titled prologue tells the viewer that it wasn’t until 1951 (if I recall correctly) that this film was shown in Germany. I can see why. I don’t think the concepts of allegory and metaphor were lost on the Nazis, especially the ones capable of the propaganda they have become so famous for.

What I liked about this film was first its amazing special effects, and second, the ballsyness of its allegory.

First, the special effects seem quite advanced. But then again, the film is directed by Fritz Lang so the viewer is not entirely surprised. If we recall Metropolis (1927) with its industrial setting and its explosions and mechanization, we can see Lang’s practice made perfect in Dr. Mabuse.  One of the most notable effects moments is in the opening sequence when Mabuse’s thugs explode a barrel of some sort of fuel, which causes a massive explosion and a clean slate afterward. I was surprised by the cleanness of the explosion and its aftermath. Boom! Gone but not forgotten.

Much later on in the film, when Dr. Mabuse’s ghost comes a hauntin’, the viewer is treated to a very creepy, totally transformed alien-like face for Dr. Mabuse. His eyes are big and buggy, he’s crouched over, and more importantly, he’s spectral on screen. Why does this stand out so much as a feat of cinematography? Well, I suppose because it was 1933 and Lang was already perfecting his techniques of overlay. The viewer can’t help but be impressed is what I’m trying to say.

In terms of the ballsyness of this film’s allegory, I’d have to say that the final scene is indicative of a real sense of “stick it to ya.”  When the tides have turned for Professor Baum, who has now assumed Dr. Mabuse’s place in the psych ward, Commissioner Lohmann says something to the effect of: ‘I’m just the police. I don’t understand things like this,’ in reference to the clearly disturbing nature of the Mabuse-Baum crime ring, and the way in which Dr. Mabuse’s criminally insane spirit has now taken over the body and mind of Prof. Baum, an otherwise professional, educated (presumably a “should-be-smarter-than-that” kind of person), and well-respected man. What Commissioner Lohmann is saying, to me, is that a devotion to such levels of insane behavior and thought is beyond his comprehension, even though it is his business to deal with the criminal mind. So I suppose he is saying that there are degrees of criminality that the common man, and police man, can fathom; and then there are levels of criminal insanity that are beyond even a seasoned professional’s comprehension. Certainly, in retrospect, the rest of the world knows this is truth because we know the extent to which the Nazis and Hitler were willing to go for their insane plan of purity and purification. Ouch! Stick it to ya!

This film was very well made on quite a few different levels. The narrative/writing was impressive: especially the scenes in which the investigators were piecing together the puzzle Hoffmeister had left for them (having etched Mabuse’s name into glass upside down). And today, we think the concept of ” CSI” is something new to behold!  The acting was impressive: from Dr. Mabuse to Professor Baum to Hoffmeister, and even to Commissioner Lohmann: all embodied their characters perfectly, naturally. The cinematography and effects were impressive, as mentioned before. And, last but not least, the allegory Lang presents lends well to true meaning-making for the viewer.

I think the viewer can relate to this film because it is allegorical: we can see the obviousness of the message in retrospect. But at the time, I suppose it was too fantastical, kind of like the lengths to which the Nazis went to spread their terror in that BIG LIE sort of way.

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