Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) (1933)

Long train rides are pretty great for catching up on the many films that accumulate on my external harddrive. Exhibit A: Fritz Lang's horror-mystery The Testament of Dr Mabuse. The sloppy, forthright Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) finds himself faced with a perplexing jewelry heist, mysterious murder, and fear-induced madness afflicting his former coworker. All of his investigations keep leading back to a mental institution run by Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr) and a mute criminal mastermind committed there years ago called Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Would-be lovers Thomas (Gustav Diessl) and Lilli (Wera Liessem) are also involved, sort of.

This is a sequel to Lang's silent Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, with a script loosely based on Norbert Jacques's novel. It is also Lang's second talkie. These factors come into play in the final product, with the doctor's backstory somewhat clumsily thrown in and a few over-the-top performances reminiscent of a silent film. It took me a little bit to become really absorbed, but luckily Lang is so adept at creating a tense atmosphere and compelling narrative structure that I did eventually get hooked. The mystery isn't so much who the secret mastermind is (that's obvious early on), but who will find out first, who will win in the battle of criminal vs police, and of course: who will die. It's a fairly long film, but once the characters and layout are set-up, Lang is able to weave everything together intriguingly enough to justify most of the runtime.

Otto Wernicke is just excellent as Lohmann, encapsulating a character so grungy, dedicated, and blunt that you can't help but love him. He played the same role in M, the only other Lang talkie I've yet seen, and continues to just have fun with it. I am once again awed by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who manages to utterly captivate here even in his mute, limited appearance as Dr Mabuse. He's one of my favorite parts about Metropolis, and I'm definitely resolving to see more of his movies forthwith. Character-wise I was pretty bored by reticent (and whiny) criminal lackey Thomas and his wide-eyed, empty-headed girlfriend Lilli. Their relationship is irrelevant to the over-arching story and poorly-developed, only serving to take time away from the more interesting scenes with Lohmann, Baum, and the criminal network. Luckily they partially redeemed themselves with a totally awesome scenario in which they make many desperate attempts to break out of a room with a timed bomb.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse is filled with wonderful characters, clever camera work, an interesting story, and a number of tense, explosive moments. It takes a bit too long to set itself up, and the romantic subplot is useless, but otherwise I was wholly engaged in the narrative and visuals- the translucent Mabuse ghost who pops up in a few shots is honestly still creepy to me. If it could be trimmed down by about 20 minutes, I think it would be a truly brilliant film.


Pair This Movie With: I mentioned M earlier, and I think that's a good follow-up. It's got all the tension and intrigue, but minus the lovey-dovey stuff. Plus a young, pudgy Peter Lorre! Aww! Seriously though, it's a jaw-droppingly great movie. One I should re-watch soon.


  1. I've never seen this movie, but I'm a real fan of Lang's work (even his Hollywood films) and want to catch up with it, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    I like the double-feature recommendation you make...M is brilliant!

  2. Hey who's the guy in your banner i think he is rather cute and would like to see this film : --)

  3. Dave: I really have to see more of Lang's films- so far I've only seen this, M, and Metropolis. I hope you dig this one!

    5plitreel: My banner is from the Thai film CITIZEN DOG (aka MAH NAKORN) from director Wisit Sasanatieng. It's a sweet, gorgeous, and weird movie. The actor's name is Mahasamut Boonyaruk and he's a real cutie!

  4. After watching "M" and "Testament" back to back a few months ago I was struck by just how much I'd have liked to see more films featuring Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann. He's the real treasure in both of these films. also of note; if you watch Pabst's "Threpenny Opera", you'll see many of the same character actors that were in "M and "Testament".