Warning Call: Fritz Lang’s The Testament Of Dr Mabuse (1933) – Blu-ray review
This thriller grips tighter for being made in tumultuous times, as Lang uses newfound sound to add reverb to his acid allegory of Nazi menace.
The Testament Of Dr Mabuse
(Fritz Lang, 1933)
It’s almost as if Fritz Lang knew that The Testament Of Dr Mabuse was going to be his last film in Germany for a long time. So it’s the culmination of everything he’d worked towards: not only a sequel to his 1922 breakthrough Dr Mabuse, The Gambler, and a follow-up to his previous film, M (in the return of Otto Wernicke’s Inspector Lohmann), but also as a study of Germany’s drift into crime and madness and the forces of menace accumulating beyond ordinary comprehension.
Of course, Lang almost certainly did know that Germany wasn’t the place for him any more. In 1931’s M, he’d already depicted a society slipping its moorings, as police and criminals essentially pool resources to catch a mutual enemy… but M has nothing on The Testament Of Dr Mabuse. This is the story of a madman who, believing himself to be “superhuman,” plans an empire of crime from a cell, gains followers through psychological voodoo, organises thuggish terror cells to cause disruption to the state and execute witnesses, and who loves the sound of his own voice so much most of his orders are given over loudspeakers. Given that such a man was about to come to power when Lang made his film, you don’t need to have studied Nazi Germany at A-Level to get the subtext – or to realise that this is a far more trenchant expression of topical themes than its modern-day heir, The Dark Knight Rises.
Josef Goebbels, a man who knew good propaganda when he saw it, was outraged enough to ban the film from being played in Germany – but he was also flattered by Lang’s (admittedly backhanded) compliment about the cult of Hitler and asked the director to spearhead Nazi cinema. Famously, Lang legged it out of Germany in favour of Hollywood, essentially becoming another life disrupted by the film’s title character. Mabuse is a creepy, spectral figure but he’s totally outfoxed the authorities, and it takes a good two hours of patient, methodical police work and lucky breaks for Lohmann to get close to realising the danger in plain sight. By then, though, it’s too late; Lang’s bleakest point is that you don’t need the architect to finish the blueprint, and Mabuse’s baleful influence lives on even when the man himself isn’t around any more.
So much as this is a Lynchian freak-out of bug-eyed Döppelgangers and an Expressionist nightmare of heavily symbolic decor – the curtained room where Mabuse’s minions receive their orders is the dankest, darkest of psychological pressure chamber – it’s also a realistic study of law and order hanging grimly on for dear life. Lang’s typically clean, geometric direction is a grid of actions and reactions: he doesn’t waste time on style, so exposition scenes are unfussily shot… but give him a set-piece and he can wring as much tension from it than Hitchcock through forensic editing.
And, like M, this captures Lang exploring the possibilities of sound to counterpoint the visuals. The opening sequence, in which a snitch has to break free of a Mabuse nerve centre, plays silently save for the terrifying hiss of scientific equipment. A gunman’s hit is cleverly cloaked in the noise of blaring car horns. But mostly, it comes back to Mabuse, giving orders from afar, his reach extending beyond the physical. It’s a film that marvels at the menace of sound, but Lang also accentuates the positives of the new technology. You’d think there’d be no room for such irreverence in such a jittery, scaremongering film, but Lang is also busy inventing the cinema police procedural, with Lohmann’s droll intuition surely the model for Columbo. If criminals can spread their propaganda by sound, it’s also the means by which the good guys will speak their minds.