The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)


The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is not a horror movie; however, since it was directed by Fritz Lang (Destiny, Metropolis, M) and contains a couple of really strange, ghostly scenes, I'm going to include it in the Countdown to Halloween. Besides, it's a really good movie, so I want to write about it! Overall, I was surprised by one particular scene that could belong in any modern action movie. Could this be where the classic car chase blueprint was drawn?

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What starts as a foot chase by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) and ex-con Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl) turns into a climactic car chase when the villain they're pursuing, Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi), speeds by them. They hop in a car to follow him. While the film is sped up to provide the illusion that they're driving faster than they really are, the vehicles face familiar obstacles like flat tires and a railroad crossing with a train approaching.

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The scene also incorporates shots where (I assume) the cars are filmed on a soundstage in front of a rear screen projector. This provides for some nice close-ups of the characters so they can emote, and a nice segment where the spirit of deceased Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) floats above the car and points Professor Baum toward the gate of the mental asylum from where he's been operating a criminal empire.

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Lang treats the Mabuse spirit as a physical being, not just a figment of imagination. It gets out of the car and opens the gate. Inside, it collects a stack of papers, hands them to Baum, and opens the cell door of former cop gone insane, Hofmeister (Karl Meixner). Of course, this may just be a way to demonstrate the influence Mabuse has on Baum. Or, an argument could be made that Mabuse is possessing Baum. Earlier in the story, his spirit seems to enter his body.

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In that scene, Baum sees Mabuse with huge eyes, as if he's sprung from a Keane painting (20 years before her time). Here you get a sense of the movie's inclination to include elements of horror. Also, a POV shot from Hofmeister turns his cell into an angular set right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. During this one scene, with a style that is not repeated anywhere else, Hofmeister also sees spirits emerge from other physical people.

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel to an earlier, silent Lang film, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Perhaps more is revealed about the character there. Here, though, he's shrouded in mystery. There's talk early about his powers of hypnosis; you wonder if he's controlling Baum from beyond the grave by either hypnotizing him, or if he's in some kind of trance instead of actually being dead.

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Mabuse reminds me of Fu Manchu, another criminal mastermind with grandiose plans to take over the world. Here, these plans include counterfeiting, robbing banks, attacking chemical plants, poisoning water and destroying harvests. There's talk of Mabuse's "empire of crime" with a purpose only to frighten people and create a state of insecurity and anarchy. The associated political themes in the movie caused it to be banned in Germany when Hitler rose to power.

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Point of clarification… I write about both Mabuse and Baum being criminal masterminds. Mabuse was apparently apprehended in the previous movie (or in between movies) and resides in this one (until he dies) at the asylum where he sits quietly and scribbles notes all day long. These notes contain instructions for executing these crimes. Baum uses these notes and, as suggested earlier, is either influenced or possessed by Mabuse to enact them.

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At 122 minutes, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is an epic crime story. Besides the car chase, there is another great set piece where Kent and his girl, Lilli (Wera Liessem), are trapped in a room with a ticking time bomb. Lang uses short, back-and-forth shots between what's happening here and at a shootout involving Lohmann and a "cell" of the criminal organization. This technique, with the frantic happenings of each scene, creates real suspense.

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There's enough murder (assassinations) and mayhem (explosions) to entertain even today's audiences. This point brings me back to my surprise experience of watching the movie. I really didn't expect so much to be going on. I had delayed watching it for many years because there were always other priorities. Talk about wasted time! Take this as a reminder that you always have to keep an open mind.

Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou Based on characters created by Norbert Jacques Directed by Fritz Lang Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gustav Diessl, Otto Wernicke, Oscar Beregi Sr., Wera Liessem Released April 12, 1933 (Paris, as Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse) RT 122 min. Home Video The Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-ray)

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