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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