BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE COMPLETE FRITZ LANG DR. MABUSE

By • Apr 24th, 2011 •

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You’ve entered a frightening city where guns and bombs hit you at random, where alongside vast poverty, overnight millionaires party in decadent, eerie nightclubs. You find this freaked-out city is secretly controlled by a mad genius leading a double life – Dr. Mabuse! England’s answer to Criterion, Eureka, which brings worldwide classic cinema to home video, has released a beautiful must-have DVD box set – THE COMPLETE FRITZ LANG DR. MABUSE, which includes all four Mabuse films directed by Lang. The first two films in the set – DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER, and DR. MABUSE KING OF CRIME, two of the most exciting silent films you’ll ever find, were both produced in Germany and released in 1922. They are clearly a close examination of the chaotic city of Berlin a decade before Hitler came to power. The third film, and the first Mabuse talkie, 1933’s THE TESTEMENT OF DR. MABUSE is Fritz Lang at the height of his popularity and creativity. Aside from being a fast paced and macabre treat, it is also a thinly disguised dark satire and warning about Hitler. The fourth Mabuse film, 1960’s THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE, is Lang’s last film. It shows a post-war city and nation desperate to modernize and ally itself with a world it recently tried to dominate. (Other film-makers in the 1960’s would continue making Mabuse films, and Mabuse shows up as a guest villain in a GREEN HORNET episode).

DR MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922) introduces us to Mabuse, a master of disguises and the ultimate midnight gambler! During the day, Mabuse utilizes several faces to help organize the heist of valuable international documents. Donning the look of an emotionless day-trader, Mabuse uses the panic caused by the document theft to make a stock market killing. At night, Mabuse frequents the many Berlin nightclubs to hypnotize fellow gamblers to make more of a killing. (These expressionistic night-club sets could be called “The Hard Rock Cafes of Dr. Caligari”) Mabuse uses his power of hypnotism to bring down fortunes and create city-wide chaos. Rudolf Klien-Rogge, an excellent Teutonic looking actor Lang would later use as a villain in METROPOLIS and SPIES, plays Mabuse with un-nerving gusto. In the second silent film, DR. MABUSE – KING OF CRIME (1922), Inspector Wenk is assigned to capture this mysterious master criminal. Wenk falls under Mabuse’s spell, and in a delirious scene that pre-dates Kubrick’s star-gate sequence by almost half a century, has a very close call during a car chase. (Lang would again incorporate an even more dream-like car chase in THE TESTEMENT OF DR. MABUSE). Part expressionistic horror, part early James Bond styled thriller and part PERILS OF PAULINE-like cliffhanger, these two silent Mabuse films proved Lang was a director worth watching. Many of his famed directorial touches start here. In METROPOLIS, our hero imagines a malfunctioning machine turning into the monstrous Moloch. A similar mind-bending hallucination has Mabuse’s furniture becoming hideous living creatures. As with the banker/evil megalomaniac/vaudeville clown in Lang’s SPIES and the mafia don/party animal in THE BIG HEAT, Mabuse has plenty of time to bask, in disguise, in his choice of nightlife. Motifs of a double – or a shadow, (The German word is “Dopple-Ganger”) has always dominated German culture. Look at the German expressionistic silents, like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, WARNING SHADOWS and MABUSE, which feature villains throwing evil shadows. Linear notes and accompanying documentaries in this box set explain how these silent films captured Germany’s state of mind at the time. The two silent MABUSE films are beautifully restored here. We see their original German inter-titles, with occasional gasp-inducing filthy-language. These films together run under four hours, and it’s well worth making a spooky, exciting evening of it!

THE TESTEMENT OF DR. MABUSE, a German production, premiered in Budapest in early 1933, but was banned in Germany until 1951. Mabuse, at the beginning of this film is a catatonic patient of Professor Baum. All Mabuse has been doing since his capture ten years hence is to sit in his asylum cell and draw senseless scribbles about world domination on scrap paper. A group of powerful thieves answer to an unseen man who follows the ancient writings of Mabuse. The protagonist here is the bulldog-ish Inspector Karl Lohmann, who was the side-of-the-law in Lang’s previous film, M (1931). As with M, Lang uses sound in revolutionary ways. Even before the opening titles appear, extremely chaotic music fills a jet-black screen. The titles and the title music dissolve into the first scene, set in a factory. On the soundtrack is the constant churning of a very evil-sounding, off-camera powerful machine. Later, these Mabuse influenced hoods pull off a daring broad daylight public assassination utilizing a barrage of noisy car horns. One could only imagine Hitler and his boys seeing this Mabuse film, where Baum, Mabuse’s doctor and soon to be victim, describes Mabuse as a criminal genius mastermind capable of “dominating and correcting our decadent world devoid of compassion and honor!”

After THE TESTEMENT OF DR. MABUSE, during the 1930’s, another European director of movie thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock, became known as the “British Fritz Lang”. While Hitchcock basically played ball with the Hollywood studios and producers who hired him, Lang, in Hollywood, remained stubborn in his film-making ways. Lang made some great Hollywood films at the same time, such as FURY (1936), MAN-HUNT (1941) and SCARLET STREET (1945), but he seldom turned a profit. By the 1950’s, Lang would become infuriated when he would be called “The German Alfred Hitchcock”. At the end of the 1950’s, Lang returned to Germany to make his last films. The final film in this set, and Lang’s last film as director is THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (1960). Again, a criminal gang follows the orders of an unseen man calling himself Mabuse. The real Mabuse, long dead, is only seen via a modest grave-marker in a commoner’s cemetery. This film’s protagonist is Henry Travers, a sharp-thinking, likeable American businessman seeking to conduct business with Germany (Travers is played by Swiss actor Peter Van Eyck who, like Lang, tried Hollywood out in the 1940’s.) His leading lady, Marion (Dawn Addams) is a suicidal waif mourning the loss of a friend who was killed by the Mabuse-mob. THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE is Lang going out with a whimper, a sometimes-interesting James Bond styled thriller. (Gert Frobe, who would play GOLDFINGER a few years later, is the Lohmann-like police figure here.) With all four films together, the owner of this box set gets a first hand look at Germany before Hitler, Germany just as Hitler took power, and Germany emerging from the fall of Hitler. It’s a fascinating history lesson with spooky images and cliff-hanger thrills.

The box set comes with a fact-crammed documentary on the Mabuse films, which includes on-camera interviews with Lang in the late 1960’s, and a background on Norbert Jacques, the bohemian-life-styled author of the original Mabuse dime novels. It’s all part of Eureka’s MASTERS OF CINEMA series, a collection of DVDs that include classics such as JUDEX, KWAIDAN, and the works of Lang, Eisenstein, Murnau, and contemporary leading film-makers. They are soon to release a beautifully restored DVD of Lang’s second to last film, the colorful, manic and hypnotic DER TIGER VON ESCHNAPUR.

Check them out at http://eurekavideo.co.uk/informative/

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