This year marks the centenary of a film franchise that is sadly unsung in the English-speaking world. Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse, der Spieler was released in two parts in April and May of 1922. The roughly four and a half hour silent epic (different cuts of the film have slightly different timings) introduced the arch-villain Doctor Mabuse (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, whom you may recognize as the mad scientist from Metropolis), a criminal mastermind who wreaks havoc on society for no reason but his own nihilism, or perhaps his will-to-power. The film’s title is usually translated as Doctor Mabuse, the Gambler, but “Player” would be a more accurate rendering of “Spieler”; Mabuse plays games of chance, he plays roles (he is a master of disguise), and he plays with people’s lives. Although Doctor Mabuse is a larger-than-life figure with supernatural mind powers, the film is deeply rooted in the social problems of Weimar-era Germany, and almost eery in showing how a clever thug could exploit those problems to rise to power.
Twelve years later, Lang followed Spieler with a sequel (a talkie this time), Das Testament des Doctor Mabuse, a masterpiece that some consider his greatest film. Testament finds Mabuse insane and confined to an asylum after his defeat in the first movie, speaking to no one but obsessively writing detailed plans for further crimes. When these exact crimes begin to actually occur, it’s up to Inspector Lohmann (reappearing from Lang’s previous film, M) to put the pieces together.
The Nazis, who had just come to power, did not like Testament, and when it was banned, Lang left Germany for France and, eventually, Hollywood, where he helped invent film noir. But at the end of his career, in the late 1950s, he returned to Germany, and his final directorial effort was a third Mabuse film, 1960’s Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse). Rudolf Klein-Rogge did not return for this one, on account of being a Nazi and also dead, but Wolfgang Preiss takes on the role of the new Mabuse. While many cinephiles revere Spieler and Testament, Augen is, in my opinion, quite unfairly forgotten. It’s very different from the first two – Mabuse’s technological tricks have certainly evolved considerably since 1922 – but it’s a surprisingly solid film, and its central conceit of a criminal with a panopticon-like surveillance system is both utterly Langian and, in a way, rather prescient.
Augen was also profitable enough that the Mabuse franchise continued without Lang. Wolfgang Preiss returned for a series of increasingly silly sequels directed by Harald Reinl in the early 1960s: Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse (released in the U.S. as The Return of Dr. Mabuse), Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse (The Invisible Dr. Mabuse), Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (a remake of the second Lang film, but also a direct sequel within the series), Scotland Yard jagt Dr. Mabuse (Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard), and Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse (The Death-Rays of Dr. Mabuse). Stahlnetz is actually not bad, but the others are . . . well, as I said, increasingly silly, if still sometimes fun.
Since then, there have been a few films that have either invoked Mabuse tangentially or tried to restart the franchise, but sadly I have not (yet) seen any of them: The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse (1972, directed by Jesús Franco (yes, that Jesús Franco)), The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press (1984), Dr. M (1990), Doctor Mabuse (2013), and Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014).
The Mabuse franchise always struck me as one that would be right at home in today’s world of long-running series of comic book adaptations, centered on larger-than-life heroes and villains. With Inspector Lohmann’s crossover from M to Das Testament, it could even be said to have foreshadowed today’s concept of a “cinematic universe”. But quite apart from all that, the Lang films at least are just really good cinema, and are worth watching. If nothing else, at least give Testament a try.