classic film

Five-star cinema: The all-seeing supervillain from Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy

The criminal mastermind’s influence has been far and wide, including on the Joker from ‘The Dark Knight’.

The latest comic book adaptation Suicide Squad has raked in enough greenbacks since its August 1 release to warrant a possible sequel. This despite the limited screen time accorded to one of the most talked-about characters in the movie, the Joker. Batman’s nemesis was played by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s version of the Batman comic and indelibly by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Jared Leto’s interpretation in Suicide Squad was being eagerly anticipated. Would he channel the playful anarchist’s love for chaos, or would he play him like a campy harlequin character who tickles more than he terrorises?

Leto didn’t have enough screen time in Suicide Squad to give a proper measure of his vision. Reports of a fan threatening to sue producer Warner Bros for misleading audiences into believing that the Joker would do more than deliver punchlines indicate the antagonist’s twisted charisma as well as cinema’s requirement of a solid, genuinely frightening and effective villain who shakes up the social order.

Nolan based his Joker on one of the most chilling public enemies of all time. He made his appearance as far back as 1922, went by the delightful name Mabuse, and was brought to the screen by reputed German director Fritz Lang. Based on the novels by Norbert Jacques, Lang’s silent film Dr Mabuse Der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler) is an unforgettable portrait of an archetypal arch-villain. Mabuse’s network reaches far and wide, from the stock markets to the gambling dens. His skill at disguising himself signals his omnipotence, while his hypnotic powers allow him to crawl inside the minds of his victims.

‘Dr Mabuse The Gambler’.
‘Dr Mabuse The Gambler’.

Dr Mabuse The Gambler clocks 270 minutes and is in two parts. In the first, Mabuse, played by the great German silent actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, engineers a stock market collapse (echoed decades later in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in 2012) and hypnotises a wealthy nobleman into parting with his wealth. The action-packed episode includes the efforts of the public prosecutor to nab Mabuse, the ruination of a count, and the abduction of the count’s wife.

In part two, the noose tightens around Mabuse, and he is finally caught in one of his own counterfeiting dens. There, confronted by the ghosts of his slain henchman, the evil genius finally tips over and is led to an asylum.

Lang wasn’t merely shooting an action thriller. Dr Mabuse The Gambler is set in a Germany so stepped in hedonism and borderline anarchy that it becomes a willing victim of the mastermind’s designs. The precarious economic condition of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s was one of the factors that would eventually lead the country to embrace Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, and several scholars have commented on the ease with which Mabuse leads his victims, in Pied Piper fashion, to their doom.

‘Dr Mabuse The Gambler’.
‘Dr Mabuse The Gambler’.

The leitmotif of a twisted vision, literally depicted in close-ups of Mabuse’s face, is expanded in the terrific sequel The Testament of Dr Mabuse, which Lang made in 1933 after the triumphs of Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). The arch acting , jerky movements and exaggerated body language of the silent film had disappeared by the time of the sequel. A sound film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse contains the thoughts and pronouncements of the deranged prophet whom Nolan quotes in The Dark Knight. The supervillain has been languishing in a catatonic state for years, but he has suddenly come to life – or rather, his hands have. Sitting on his hospital bed in a fixed position, Mabuse begins writing gibberish and later whole sentences and paragraphs. Baum, the psychologist treating him, becomes obsessed with Mabuse, whom he insists on calling a genius. Meanwhile, various gangs receive orders for perfect crimes from a voice behind a curtain, which is said to belong to Mabuse.

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‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’.

Mabuse’s hypnotic skills now reach deep into the soul. Baum is perversely fascinated with the proto-terrorist’s declarations: “Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes, crimes whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror.” Mabuse’s philosophy of creating a permanent state of mayhem in order to establish an “empire of crime” swallows up the doctor. The parallels between the cine world and the real one did not escape Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis had come to power in the same year The Testament of Dr Mabuse was made, and Goebbels banned the movie. It was released in Germany only in 1951, by which time Lang was comfortably ensconced in Hollywood, where he was making acclaimed film noirs.

Richer in tones and textures and far more despairing than the previous film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse is a hallucinatory snapshot of a pernicious ideology’s ability to survive its creator. Although Mabuse is merely a spectral presence in the movie, he has several eager followers, especially Baum. In a vividly shot sequence, Baum drives maniacally through a forest to meet the informant who had tried to warn the police of Mabuse’s plans. Mabuse appears by Baum’s side, showing him the way.

‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’.
‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’.

Other directors adapted Jacques Norbert’s novels for the screen, and Lang returned for a third shot in 1960. The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, which was also Lang’s last movie before his death in 1976, continues the ocular theme of the previous titles. It features a hotel rigged with cameras in every room and a sinister blind oracle who predicts deaths. The convoluted plot involves several characters who weave in and out of the hotel, including an industrialist, a suicidal woman, and a pushy insurance salesman, and in terms of narrative rhythm, the production is the weakest in the set. Yet, its suggestion that surveillance is one of the evils of the modern age and Mabuse is an irresistible idea rather than a flesh-and-blood person proves Lang’s ability to yoke his thrillers to contemporary fears and anxieties.

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‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.