Best Pictures of 1933 (#5) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Germany, Fritz Lang)

Fritz Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in a fit of ill-placed optimism.  Produced on the eve of the National Socialist takeover of the German government, Testament is a thinly veiled jab at the manipulation of fear as a tool of politics.  Lang issued the warning but the ending of the picture suggests he had sufficient faith in the people and institutions of Germany that they would prevent anything truly disastrous from happening.  (Whoops.)

The film opens with one seemingly unrelated crime after another, which disorients us; we have no idea what is going on.  We watch various criminals execute odd and sometimes contradictory orders from a disembodied voice – blackmail a bank official, but don’t take money, invest in drugs but hand them out for nothing, kill anyone who talks.  We don’t understand the point of these random crimes but then neither do the criminals.  Some, like a dandy gunman, relish their criminal roles while a for-hire counterfeiter, Kent (Gustav Diessl), struggles with the escalation of the crimes while falling in love with the absurdly moral and pristine Lilli (Wera Liessem, one of the weaknesses of the picture).  The heart of the movie though lies with Otto Wernicke who reprises his role as Detective Lohmann from Lang’s M.  Lohmann is tireless in his work, slowly piecing together the facts that connect seemingly disparate and unrelated crimes – including a jewelry store robbery, the disappearance of a former colleague, and the murder of a prominent doctor – back to the same insane asylum.

Lang has revived Dr. Mabuse (played again by Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the master criminal and hypnotist from his 1922 hit Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler.  He has been housed in an insane asylum since his capture where he has remained in a semi-catatonic state, silently scribbling notes day after day.  These notes are collected and consumed by Dr. Baum, Mabuse’s psychiatrist.  Obsessed with the notes, Baum (Oscar Beregi) uses them to initiate his own empire of crime by assembling a team of thieves and murderers to execute Mabuse’s vision.  Slowly the point, if we can call it that, becomes horribly clear.  Mabuse’s notes constitute a plan to usher in a “Reign of Crime” by subverting confidence in the government’s ability to protect, undermining the economy, and fostering a general epidemic of crime and anarchy.

Dr. Mabuse’s “testament” only works in an already corrupt and unstable society and was clearly a metaphor for the rise of Nazism, which matured under those conditions in the Weimar.  In one of his first acts Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels banned the film, claiming that it undermined confidence in Germany’s leaders.  Baum’s tirade about the state of their degenerate society sounds suspiciously like a speech Hitler might have delivered, in effect putting Hitler’s words in the mouth of a madman.  But what the movie’s bigger offense, which Goebbels no doubt recognized, was to expose the tactics of a regime that politically profited off of fear.  The arsonist who burned down the Reichstag would prove to be a prime example of how Nazis exploited fear for their own power.  Whether the arsonist was a Communist, a Nazi, or disgruntled sausage stuffer is irrelevant:  Nazis used the fire to stoke fear in German voters of a Communist revolution and push the government to strip civil rights away from citizens, creating the basis for a police state.  Lang would have been close to wrapping up production when the results of the Reichstag fire confirmed many fears that he addressed in Testament but it would be too late.  The upbeat ending, that told its audience that good will always overcome the forces of evil, that Baum could not succeed because decent people like Lohmann and Kent will always be there to stop them, looked less likely.  Nazis stormed into power sending Lang into exile with no Detective Lohmann to check them.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1933 (#5) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

  1. Another superlative choice here Jason!

    This expressionistic masterpiece is usually cited among the best of Lang’s films, and I would have it high up there behind M and DIE NIEBELUNGEN, but at least equal to SPIONE and METROPOLIS. But I have a sneaking suspicion Mr. lang will be making another appearance on this list!? Or will he? Ha!

    Exceedingly fine writing and insights on display here!

    • Thanks as always Sam… Hm.. Lang will almost certainly appear on another year’s choice, but I don’t think he had another movie in 1933 to consider (unless I’m totally missing something). And I am completely in agreement that M is Lang’s masterpiece. I would probably put Metropolis a little higher up, though I haven’t seen many other of his silents including the two you listed.

  2. Jason, I somehow hit a mental block. After all I am a senile old fart in my 50’s, and for some bizarre reason, I was thinking M was from 1933, when we know full well it is from a few years earlier. M is one of the greatest films of that decade though, and arguably the greatest German film ever made, period. My apologies.

    • Ha! I hardly think mistaking a movie’s release date by two years makes you senile and being in your 50s hardly makes you an old fart. That said, if you missed it, I did choose M as the best picture of 1931 and it would certainly be on my list of the best of the decade.

  3. This has possibly the best “assassination while stuck in traffic” scenes ever filmed – so perfectly executed from a technical standpoint and the tension created with the camera angles and changing POV’s – pure brilliance. Also, I might add, this has possibly the best (or at least most psychologically interesting) car chase scenes at the end where Mabuse is hunted down.

    I remember being quite taken aback by this film when I first saw it. I think I had just watched M (which is, of course, is Lang’s masterpiece, but also quite draining to sit through) – and I was shocked at how effortlessly entertaining and thrilling this one was – yet it is so more than just a “lark” with all that subtext and historical context.

    • You are absolutely right. This is a great example of how a filmmaker can exploit the demands of popular entertainment to explore deeper themes. The assassination in the car is brilliant. Lang builds the tension superbly. But I never got the feeling that it was all done for cheap thrill. Of course there is nothing wrong with cheap thrills. That is, unless they pose as something more substantial. There was no posing here. No, it isn’t as accomplished as M (how could it?), but it is still a very good picture.

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