22 Nov 2009

The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set

Though he is often associated with the classics Metropolis and M, Austrian born filmmaker Fritz Lang owed his career to a character created by Norbert Jacques named Doctor Mabuse, and to the trilogy of films Lang made inspired by said character. Mabuse was with Lang from the very early stages of his career right up to his final film, and for the first time all three movies have been released together in a special four-disc box set brimming with special features, giving world cinema fans much to rejoice about. The first instalment, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, will probably be the least popular with modern audiences. One of Lang’s last silent features, it is a near 5-hour epic detailing the rise and fall of Dr. Mabuse in Weimar-era Berlin. Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) surrounds himself with loyal servants and criminal henchmen who assassinate his rivals, manipulate the stock market and seduce wealthy citizens out of their riches. Before long though the killings start to add up, and the psychological damage to Mabuse is profound. Though much of the film is dated, and the running time will put off a lot of people, Lang’s skill is there for all to see, particularly as an editor. As a silent film it doesn’t compare with Nosferatu or Sunrise, but is definitely worth checking out, if just for the sheer scope of Lang’s vision, and for the surprisingly modern methods (disguise, blackmail, hypnosis) that the machiavellian Mabuse make use of.

The second installement, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, is the strongest effort here, and arguably Lang’s masterpiece, a tour-de-force thriller rife with supernatural elements converging around an attempt by the now-institutionalised Mabuse (or someone acting under his name) to organise an Empire of Crime. The film opens with Detective Hofmeister (Karl Meixner, reprising his role from M) spying on the activities of a criminal syndicate. Not realising he has been seen, Hofmeister is attacked by the thugs and later turns up out of his mind. He is placed in the institution of Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi), who becomes increasingly obsessed with another patient -- the master criminal and hypnotist Dr. Mabuse. The allegorical idea of a madman controlling a mass of hypnotised people and causing them to commit crimes that he premeditates (the film was released in 1933) is so powerful that Testament was Lang’s last film in Germany for 27 years, and was banned by the Nazi party (although Goebells did approach Lang to head up his newly-founded studio UFA, which led to Lang leaving the country). What is most striking about the film is not the politics but the technique, particularly the incredible sound design, which is all the more impressive when you consider how little time Lang had spent working in the medium. The Gambler hints that Lang may be a genius. Testament confirms it.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960 was Fritz Lang's final film, and sees hypnosis, clairvoyance, new modes of surveillance and machine-guns come together for a whiplash climax set in the Cold War era. Working in Germany for the first time since The Testament, Lang returned to the screen character that brought him enormous success in his pre-Hollywood years. The Thousand Eyes is not so much a sequel as an extension of Lang's early Mabuse films, and though it is the most easily categorised of the trilogy as a strict genre film, Lang uses the murder mystery elements to experiment with his technique and style, making it a glorious swansong to a fantastic career. These three films offer a fascinating insight into his variety as a filmmaker, and as such make them an essential purchase for any serious cinephile.

Matthew Kleebauer

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