"When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime.”
In 1933, Fritz Lang gave these words to his visionary figure of a modern terrorist, Dr. Mabuse. If they seem eerily prophetic today, we must remember that Lang had his own model close at hand: Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, which had just seized power in Germany. One of the first acts of the Third Reich was to ban Lang’s yet-to-be-released film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. To Lang the reason was clear: Mabuse and his gang were reflections of the Nazis’ themselves. At that point, Lang felt his films were so popular in Germany that people would demand the ban be lifted. He soon found that he had underestimated the control the Nazis had gained over the film world. Although he claims Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, approached him about becoming the head of German film, since Hitler loved Lang’s films, (a claim no one has ever verified), Lang realized he could no longer control his filmmaking in Germany and left the country, first for France, then for Hollywood.
While Dr. Mabuse may seem the image of Hitler, he predates the rise of the Nazis. Today he does not simply seem a figure from the past history, but a compellingly contemporary image of terrorism in an age of universal conspiracy and advanced technology. Lang had made his first film based on Mabuse in 1922 with his two-part masterpiece of silent filmmaking, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Based on a character created by novelist Norbert Jacques, Mabuse was a master criminal who used disguise, blackmail, stock market manipulation and occult powers of hypnosis to deliver people into his control. He proclaimed, “There is only one thing that is interesting anymore: playing with people and their destinies.” Based on such earlier master criminals as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and the French phantom bandit, Fantômas, Mabuse brought new, modern elements to the character of unstoppable evil through his role as a psychoanalyst and his occult powers of mind control.
Nearly a decade later Lang resurrected this figure, undoubtedly because of his uncanny prefiguring of the Nazi movement. But the Mabuse of Testament became a very different figure from the hypnotizing, metamorphosing criminal of the 1920s. At the end of the first film, Mabuse went mad as his empire of crime collapsed around him. Throughout Testament he remains a madman confined to an asylum, never speaking and seemingly unresponsive, but constantly writing sheaves of documents that plot the strategies of his empire of crime (an image of Hitler, confined after the failed Beer Hall Putsch, writing Mein Kampf?). Unable to do anything physical but write, Mabuse retains his power to control men’s minds, which he asserts over the asylum director, Dr. Baum (another sinister psychologist—Lang must have had anxieties about psychoanalysis!). Even after his death Mabuse controls Baum, who becomes seemingly possessed by the spirit of the master criminal and carries out his plans of terror.
The sequence of Baum’s possession by the spirit of Mabuse provides one of Lang’s most bizarre sequences, a final tribute to the hallucinatory and Expressionistic silent cinema of the Weimar Republic. Lang confronts Baum with a transparent, soft-focused image of the dead Mabuse, his previously strange physiognomy now exaggerated in a bizarre mask with huge eyes, like a Sumerian idol. The words of Mabuse’s manifesto of crime and terror echo on the soundtrack, whispered in a thin, raspy voice. Lang intercuts the scene with primitive masks and Expressionist paintings (undoubtedly part of the large art collection that Lang had to leave behind in Germany when he emigrated). Mabuse doubles himself and merges with the figure of Baum, a powerful image of the rational mind undermined by obsession, fantasies of mastery overwhelming any impression of reality.
In place of the flesh-and-blood Mabuse of the earlier film who gambles in illegal casinos, romances women, and commits robberies and murders through his henchmen, in Testament Mabuse remains a shadowy, abstract figure who asserts his power through his ideas and plans, his power continuing (perhaps even growing) after his death. Mabuse is little more than a cardboard figure, the “man behind the curtain” who addresses the gang over a loudspeaker. Lang has moved the master criminal from the turn-of-the-century world of caped and hooded criminals into a modern world in which the greatest power of the terrorist lies in his invisibility and intangibility, which raises the question of whether he is alive or dead—and what difference does it make, anyway. Crimes become less actions undertaken for individual profit or revenge than the consequences of a seemingly abstract system. Mabuse, like the terrorists of today, thrives on the modern world of media and international networks. He is kept alive through the technological recordings and transmissions of his voice, delivering his messages while keeping his physical presence hidden, untraceable, and therefore unseizable.
Every master criminal finds his complement in the brilliant detective who pursues him (Sherlock Holmes for Moriaty, Inspector Juve for Fantômas). In Testament, Lang decided not to bring back Mabuse’s aristocratic opponent from Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Inspector von Wenk. Instead he introduces the corpulent, working-class Inspector Lohmann from his previous film, M (1931). Lohmann’s everyday logic and down-to-earth suspicion stands in contrast to the fascination Mabuse exerts over Dr. Baum; Lohmann, a typical German detective, exhibits levelheaded professionalism and immersion in everyday pleasures that Lang might have seen as a counterbalance to the mystification and dark fascination of the Nazi ideology.
Chopping on cigars, catching naps in his office, trying to sneak off to the opera, Lohmann remains rooted in logic and scientific investigation. But in pursuing this new criminal conspiracy he has very little to go on: a staring madman, interrupted phone calls, fragmentary messages, and a labyrinth of connections that seem to circle around a single name: Mabuse. Lohmann encounters this name repeatedly and, aware that it comes from the past, searches the archives for old police records (or is it the studio archives for the script of Lang’s previous film?). Maintaining his sanity while those around him lose theirs, Lohmann tries to pry out the significance of this name. But when he finally identifies the perpetrator, Dr. Baum, the psychologist has become like the actual Dr. Mabuse at the beginning of the film: a madman who stares blankly in front of him. Baum ends up imprisoned in one of the cells of his own asylum, but is the cycle of madness and crime really over? As the door shuts on his cell, the film comes full circle, with madness confined but by no means terminated.
One cannot leave this complex film without discussing Lang’s own mastery of one of cinema’s newer devices in 1933: sound. Two years earlier, in his masterpiece, M, Lang created one of the first enduring masterworks of film sound. From its very first images and sounds, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse continues Lang’s experiments with the role sound could play in creating suspense and terror. As the camera prowls about an old attic, discovering police agent Hofmeister spying on Mabuse’s gang, we hear a deafening mechanical pounding on the soundtrack, that seems to shake the very foundations of the set. This overwhelming noise makes dialogue impossible. The source of the opening din is never shown (presumably a printing press manufacturing counterfeit currency), but remains an aural image of the system of terror Mabuse is putting in place. As Hofmeister sneaks out of the building, Lang builds another succession of threatening sounds: the engine of a passing truck, the crashing of a piece of masonry that barely misses him, then the rolling of an oil barrel down a ramp, where it explodes in flames. (Following a pattern of rhyming sounds or bits of dialogue from scene to scene, the next sound we hear after this burst of flames is Lohmann’s voice declaring, “Fire magic!” as he evokes the Wagner opera he is about to attend.) Lang understood that the sound film should actually be a film of sounds, not simply a talkie, a viewpoint evident also in the initially comical but ultimately deadly chorus of sputtering motors and atonal, syncopated car horns that covers the murder of Dr. Kramm.
A nightmare vision of a modern world gone mad, of the effect of terror on society, a final tribute to the Expressionistic German cinema, an early example of the unique effect of film sound, and a powerful detective thriller, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse remains one of Fritz Lang’s most complex films. Restored now to its original visual and aural power, it should be enjoyed and studied, both for what it teaches us about the expressive nature of cinema—and the terrors of modern life.
Tom Gunning is a professor at the University of Chicago in the department of art history and a member of the Committee on Cinema and Media there. He is the author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, published by the British Film Institute.