Music: Osmán Pérez Freire Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann
Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetzke, Aud Egede-Nissen and Alfred Abel
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler has Rudolf Klein-Rogge looking through a series of photographs arrayed like cards in his hands. He shuffles, cuts the deck, and selects one. What this has to do with gambling is a bit curious until he gives it to his butler who begins transforming him with makeup into the image on the picture. Ah, a disguise, and the first of many in this Fritz Lang epic. Based on the German novel by Norbert Jacques titled Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler about a master criminal who is able to manipulate almost anything to his advantage, the film is over four hours long and is divided into two parts. The first segment, subtitled The Great Gambler, begins with Klein-Rogge manipulating the stock market by having one of his army of henchmen steal a secret agreement between two corporations, driving the stock on one of them down so that he can buy it knowing the price will rise again when the document is returned. It’s a terrific scene, prescient of the crash in the U.S. seven years later.
But this is just a prolog to the main story, wherein Klein-Rogge as Mabuse buys into a high-stakes poker game and takes a rich young man, Paul Richter, for a hundred and fifty thousand marks. But rather than cashing in his IOU immediately, he has a much more elaborate plan. First he sets up a young woman to get Richter to fall for her, and at the same time continues to play cards in the city’s underground gambling dens. Meanwhile a state prosecutor, Bernhard Goetzke, is on the trail of Klein-Rogge and has enlisted the help of a wealthy countess, Gertrude Welcker, to gain entrance into the gambling salons in order to apprehend the villain. And while the good doctor is always one step ahead of the prosecutor, the aggravation is too much and he finally orders his men to kill him. Part two, subtitled The Inferno, begins where the first left off, with the abduction of Welcker and the elimination of his henchman that have been captured so far. Goetzke is not to be deterred, however, and puts all of his resources into catching the mastermind which leads to the inevitable conclusion.
As far as the story itself, there is no doubt that it is overlong. At over four hours, there is much that could have been edited down to make an impressive two-hour film. The idea itself seems to be very similar to the French serial Les Vampires. But in this case there’s no way for the film to be serialized as it’s just not constructed that way, even though it is divided into six acts in each of the two parts of the film. What’s fascinating is how incredible the opening prologue is, the stock market manipulation, and the expectations it sets up for the viewer that are not delivered later on. Mabuse has a well-oiled machine, and goes to great pains to distance himself from the crimes. It’s beautifully done, but because of that a lot of what happens later on doesn’t make sense. The main character begins making mistakes, exposes himself to discovery, takes unnecessary risks, and even his final escape plan fails miserably. This is not the mastermind of the prologue and it diminishes the impact of the very long story because of it. Had all of the film been like the prologue it would have been breathtaking.
There’s an artificiality to Lang’s work that is inescapable, most evident in films like Siegfried, but still there in the studio-bound M and even his later pictures like Scarlet Street. Like Hitchcock, however, it doesn’t have to detract from the quality of the film, and Lang uses that element of control to produce exactly the outcome he’s looking for. They are marvelous sets, and the group of production designers do an amazing job whether on interiors or exteriors. The special effects, standard for the time, include disappearing visions and double-exposure hallucinations that are still quite effective, especially in the conclusion when Klein-Rogge is haunted by all of the people he has killed. Two of the principals would go on to feature in Lang’s Metropolis five years later. Klein-Rogge would play the crazed inventor Rotwang, while Alfred Abel is the industrialist Joh Fredersen. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is pretty good for 1922, and a great example of Fritz Lang’s artistry, but as a lengthy story it hasn’t held up over the years. Never the less, it remains a masterly example of the silent cinema.