Sunday, 26 May 2019

Organised crimes… Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), BFI Weimar Cinema Season

“Expressionism! – it’s a game of make believe! But why not? Everything today is make-believe…”

270 minutes of Fritz Lang on a warm Saturday afternoon is probably the hardcore choice but, it must be done. My first time seeing this film and my hot take is that it’s starts like thunder, sags a little and storms back for the second part and an extended finale which wouldn’t be out of place in the gangster movies of the next decade. OK, maybe I sagged a little and not the film but it’s a lot to take in and the pacing wasn’t meant for single sittings.

After the first super-hero (of sorts) with Der Golem, now it was the turn of the first super-villain and Rudolf Klein-Rogge is mesmeric as Dr. Mabuse who can hypnotise at distance, project a hallucination into the minds of a theatre-full of people and disguise himself with all the alacrity of Eille Norwood’s Sherlock Holmes.  Given the bad Doctor’s ability with mass deception, it’s easy to see why this character was so tempting for those like Siegfried Kracauer, to see him as a foretaste of what was to come; but whilst this may or may not have been a particular feature of Germanic political culture, it is not a unique one.

Who shall I be today?
Mabuse is a one-man army, not just in terms of his protean qualities but also his ability to shape people and events. Klein-Rogge makes you believe in this indomitability with a fierce performance that burns through his exaggerated make up: he is genuinely scary and quite clearly capable of anything…

He had been married to Thea von Harbou but by now she was Lang’s partner and wrote the screenplay for the director’s first major success, based on Norbert Jacques’ popular novel and with the intention of creating a “portrait of the time”. Accordingly, we see Mabuse as master of a whole range of mischief from forgery, stock market manipulation – a disaster capitalist no less – murder, extortion, kidnapping, drug-dealing … you name it. All of this would have been very familiar to audiences suffering from post-war economic misery and a society bitterly divided by the “stab in the back” of 1918 and the failure of the old order.

Panic in the stock market
The opening act is audacious, as Mabuse’s gang rob an envoy taking key industrial documents to Switzerland and the threat of these being revealed causes a Bear Market in which the Doctor buys up stock. They deliver the document as intended though and the market starts to rise, allowing Mabuse to make a killing by selling. After this you wonder why he needs the money from all the other criminal activities but maybe he’s after more than just the money?

Like every supervillain, Mabuse has a colourful group of henchmen; sweaty Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga) who needs cocaine to function so nervous does his master make him, counterfeiter Hawasch (Charles Puffy), generic loose-cannon muscle Pesch (Georg John) and Fine (Grete Berger) who acts as a lookout and house cleaner. There’s also a dancer at the Folies Bergère – isn’t there always? - Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen) whose loyalty extends to love even though the object of her desire is clearly disinterested.

For his next trick, Mabuse he hypnotises a young industrialist Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) and makes him lose at cards for his own profit. This attracts the attention of state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke – who has a look of Michael Shannon for me at least...) who has already spotted a pattern of similar incidents.

He's been to Hull and back...
To von Wenk and the authorities in general, there is just enough evidence to suggest a "Great Unknown", and Mabuse’s disguises mean that he is only seen as a psychoanalyst; cutting edge medicine at the time and a magical mix with the practice of gambling – luck and secret knowledge of the subconscious all gathered in one unsettling package with wild eyes and way too much mascara. It’s bordering on the science fiction Lang would follow up with and says a lot for the state of Weimar society in terms of people, how they appear and how they really are. The man of many faces hides his truth and there would, of course, be a lot more of this to come.

Von Wenk persuades Hull to show him the city’s underground to track down his unknown adversary and there are glimpses of nightclubs one of which features and uncredited performance from Anita Berber dancing in a tuxedo. Mabuse has already arranged for Cara to instigate a relationship with Hull and so the cat and the mouse are confused. There is an epic showdown at one card-club in which von Wenk, in heavy disguise, manages to resist Mabuse’s mind control… but, naturally the Doctor escapes.

Gertrude Welcker giving it plenty of "weary blood".
Von Wenk meets a bored countess, Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker) married to a boring Count, Graf Told (played with foppish glee by Alfred Abel who looks like the Kemp brother’s Uncle – too old for Spandau, but he liked the style…). There are lots of juicy quotes from the Countess about ennui, she can’t even be bothered to join in the gambling and is looking for adventure: von Wenk can offer her that and, rather unprofessionally, falls in love with her…

“We have weary blood, Mr von Wenk! We need sensations of an altogether peculiar kind, to be able to endure life!”

Now all of the pieces are in pace for the grandest of chases and, with less than half the narrative covered, there’s no way I’m tellin’ you anything copper, it’s more than me life’s worth and the Doctor… he has ways of making sure secrets are kept!

It’s well-crafted but long – which is fine! – and there’s a compelling narrative with so many knowing contemporary touches… in 1922 audiences were in need of entertainment, "weary blood" infected so many. As with every true criminal genius, this wasn’t to be the last of Dr Mabuse, who returned with Lang in 1934 and 1960 (the director's last film).

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