Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Alfred Abel, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, Georg John, Karl Huszar, Grete Berger, Julius Falkenstein, Lydia Potechina, Julius E. Herrmann
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, based on a novel by Norbert Jacques
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 270
Date: 04/27/1922

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Gamblin' On

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most filmgoers can connect the name Fritz Lang to the film Metropolis, but probably little else. That might lead to the erroneous conclusion that Lang made mostly spectacular science fiction films. But to fans, Lang is more known for his crime films in which the innocent are often punished and hope is a rare commodity.

In Germany, during the silent era and during the heyday of Expressionism, Lang was a king. He could command huge budgets and turn in epics of enormous scale. He came to America with several masterworks under his belt, the best that Germany had to offer, including The Spiders (1919), Die Nibelungen (1924), Spies (1928), Woman in the Moon (1929), M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).

Key among these works is Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), which Lang released to theaters in two parts (not unlike Tarantino's Kill Bill). In 2001, Image Entertainment released a two-disc DVD set running 229 minutes that claimed to be the most complete Dr. Mabuse in existence. But in fact, a year earlier, German studios had set to work compiling an even more complete version, which has now been released by Kino Video.

I reviewed the 2001 version and found the first part nearly incomprehensible. I had to turn on the commentary track (by David Kalat) just to follow the story. The second half played much more clearly. But it was still a frustrating experience. The new version, which runs 270 minutes, is clear enough without the aid of commentary tracks, and it establishes itself the equal of any other film Lang made during this period.

Dr. Mabuse starts with an "unrelated incident," a la James Bond, in which the title character (played by the awesome Rudolf Klein-Rogge), using his talents for disguise and hypnotism, carries out a plan to manipulate the stock market. From there, he targets Hull (Paul Richter), a playboy and a gambler. Mabuse uses Hull for entrance into an exclusive club, where the gambler employs hypnosis to cheat and win at cards. Police inspector von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) becomes interested in Hull's case, and a lengthy cat-and-mouse game is on.

Von Wenk gets hold of Mabuse's former assistant, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen), who was in love with her boss, and is now in a position to betray him. But Mabuse has moved on to new fish: the lovely Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker) and her hapless husband (Alfred Abel). He begins to seduce the countess -- which unfortunately includes kidnapping her and holding her hostage -- while at the same time "treating" the Count with hypnosis.

Lang was clearly inspired by the great French serials of Louis Feuillade (1873-1925), which included Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916) -- all three of which are also available on DVD. Feuillade could spin a story over the course of six hours without ever dropping the ball, all the while crafting story, developing character and building toward an exciting climax. Like Feuillade, Lang emphasized specific locations, and only lightly ventured into the German Expressionism already used by his countrymen F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). This style, emphasizing exaggerated diagonals and altered perspectives, would come into much more striking use in Lang's later films like Metropolis and Spies.

Germans of 1922 saw in the film parallels to their day-to-day lives, a reaction to the country's former splendor, lost after World War I. Among the film's fans, oddly, was Adolf Hitler himself. Another of the film's fans was famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), who reportedly obtained a print and practiced editing and re-editing it to understand just how it came together (he determined that Lang had already chosen the correct path).

Mabuse never left Lang's mind. He would return to the famous hypnotist/gambler twice more, in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the last film Lang made in Germany before fleeing the Nazis, and then again with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), his final film.

Overall, Dr. Mabuse is straightforward enough -- but also unique enough -- to provide an excellent primer to Lang's early work. Kino's new two-disc DVD set retails for $39.95 and comes with a 52-minute "behind-the-scenes" documentary, a Lang biography/filmography, stills gallery and film notes. The only drawback is that they didn't ask Mr. Kalat, author of Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse: A Study of the Twelve Films and Five Novels, to provide a new commentary track. Fans who already own the 2001 Image Entertainment DVD may want to consider keeping both. But the Kino edition is now the definitive version.

In 2016, Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray edition of their 2006 DVD. It still looks amazing, and is still very highly recommended. It includes the 52-minute documentary from the DVD, though still presented in standard definition.

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