Das Testament des Dr Mabuse

 (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1933) 122 minutes


Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr Mabuse)
Otto Wernicke (Inspector Lohmann)
Oscar Beregi (Br Baum)
Gustave Diessl (Kent)
Vera Liessem (Lily)

Reviews and notes

DAS TESTAMENT DES DR MABUSE is often considered a decidedly anti-fascist film prophesying the crimes shortly to be committed by the Nazis. The story and its production are certainly conducive to such an interpretation, as is the fact that the planned premiere was cancelled at short notice and the film subsequently banned. At a presentation in New York in 1943, Fritz Lang himself explained in a "foreword to the film" that "the intention of the film was to illustrate Hitler's terror methods by comparison. The slogans and credoes of the Third Reich are uttered by gangsters in the film. In this way, I hoped I might be able to strip the mask from these teachings behind which there is only the urge to destroy everything that a nation holds dear and holy." Fritz Lang emigrated from Germany not long after the film was banned, although the Propaganda Minister would gladly have kept him as director.

Film historians today doubt Lang's own interpretation of DAS TESTAMENT DES DR MABUSE and above all his claim that the film's objective from the outset was to expose fascist terror methods. "The strange thing is that the purported Nazi allegory was so well concealed that even the film's scriptwriter Thea von Harbou (Lang's wife at the time ... and a member of the National Socialist Party) had no knowledge of his intention." (Folke Isaksson and Leif Furhammar in "Politics and Film", Ravensburg, 1974).

It is impossible to know how far Fritz Lang's original intentions match his later explanations. As is clear from the earlier Mabuse films and the film M, which was produced immediately before DAS TESTAMENT DES DR MABUSE, Lang always responded most attentively and sensitively to contemporary currents which he then transformed artistically with such dedication that the political powers referred the invented stories to themselves and responded in turn. (M was also banned!)

On a different level, DAS TESTAMENT DES DR MABUSE is also an extremely clever and well thought-out genre product, "a detective story produced with great sophistication in which the motifs which fascinated Lang throughout his life are easily picked out: claustrophobic fear of enclosed spaces, magical communication through hypnosis and its deciphering" (Michael T?teberg). This is characterized by Fritz Lang's masterly use of sound at a time when the sound film was still in its infancy, his handling of dialogues and voices which appear limited and deceptive means of comunication, as well as his handling of sounds which sometimes correspond with the use of light effects.

In The Demonic Screen, Lotte Eisner draws attention to the way in which light and sound effects mingle in the night chase, as the headlights cut through the undergrowth and the whistles of the advancing policemen suddenly cut through the night air. "The bodiless voices and the voices without bodies are locked into cells which can only be opened from the inside or the outside. Cells represent the deranged brains of Dr. Mabuse and the former police detective Hofmeister. The film's action and reaction are set in motion by the signals received from their disturbed communications centres." (Enno Patalas, annotated filmography in "Fritz Lang", Film Series 7 published by Hanser Verlag)

In this film, Fritz Lang skillfully refined the means taken from the silent film. His handling of the associative montage is masterly and the settings constructed for the film are truly impressive.
Hans G?nther Pflaum, Goethe Institut.

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