DVD Review: THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE

It's pretty convenient when a director explicitly spells out what message you're supposed to be taking away from their work. Maybe it's a tad lazy to examine a film in such an obvious way but when the director is the great Fritz Lang (M, Faust, Metropolis et al) you probably want to pay attention. Lang was still in Germany at the start of the 1930s, with the Nazis tightening their grip on the reins of power, and he was none too keen on what was going on. So when he was coerced into making a sequel to one of his most successful movies thus far he decided he'd pitch The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) as a withering rebuke against the dangers posed by National Socialism.

Predictably the Nazis were none too happy with this, and almost immediately banned the film, but Lang claimed that, in a surprising display of good taste, they gave Lang the chance to make nice. Lang become the party's official director, making the kind of Cinema the Nazis thought would better disseminate their message to the world. Lang said he'd think about it, and then promptly fled the country. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was smuggled out not long after him, but its infamy didn't translate into immediate critical acclaim; hacked to bits by various over-zealous editors (a German print in 1951 took out 45 minutes) it wasn't until decades later that a more complete cut was shown to the world.

Lang's skill as a director and his commitment to showing up the Nazis is pretty much impossible to question, but let's try a more contentious approach; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse really isn't that great a film. Lang's use of visual techniques and special effects shows exemplary craft and conveys something of how revolutionary the film must have seemed at the time. That said, the storytelling simply doesn't live up to the director's other work, let alone other great works of Cinema from the day, or even the silent era. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a hell of an achievement, but its impact is little more than that of smartly-made pulp, with a social conscience awkwardly jammed on top.

Consider that story; the heroic police commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is alerted to the mysterious presence of a gang of criminals who plan to carry out an elaborate plan that threatens the safety of Berlin. When the informant, who's trying to expose the crooks, is left a raving lunatic, it suggests the gang has very highly placed connections, even sinister powers that science can't fully explain. At the same time, the villainous Doctor Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a catatonic asylum inmate in the care of Professor Baum (Oskar Beregi) has started to produce reams and reams of free-writing on how to establish an Empire of Crime... which seem to have found their way to the anarchist crooks. Is there some connection? (Take a wild guess.)

This was Lang's second film with Dr. Mabuse, again based on the character created by the novelist Norbert Jacques and using several of the same cast and crew (who'd worked on several of Lang's movies before this). The Testament of Dr. Mabuse even ties the director's other work into a kind of extended universe, to a minor extent, given Otto Wernicke's stoic police commissioner had originally appeared in M two years earlier. Lang freely admitted he had been ready to wash his hands of the good Doctor after the end of Mabuse, the Gambler ("for me the sonofabitch was dead, out of my life"), but the studio bent his ear, so he turned himself to finding some kind of excuse for a new film about Mabuse, but which would not directly feature him ("This guy is insane and in an asylum - I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible").

So we get the Doctor remaining silent, but dispensing reams of twisted genius from his hospital bed while others scuttle to do his bidding. Wernicke, Beregi and even Klein-Rogge are solid here, craftsmen doing their very best with what appears fairly unremarkable material. Hardcore film school devotees are perfectly justified too in singling out The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as proof of Lang's mastery behind the camera. The director turns out set pieces that stand up to this day, and must have looked extraordinary back then. The climactic fire at the chemical works has a scale and sense of chaos that's enough to rock even jaded viewers back in their seats.

What neither Lang nor his cast and crew can do is impress this deeper meaning the director intended onto the actual experience of watching the film. Ignore the great director's first-hand accounts of the Nazi high command putting him on the carpet and what does The Testament of Dr. Mabuse really convey? Most of the big moments are indoors, which is fair enough - this is a film about shadows and secrets and the hiding thereof - but it leaves Berlin oddly flavourless. F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), despite its syrupy melodramatics, gives a far better impression of a bustling metropolis towards the start of the 20th century.

There's also no weight to the Doctor's plans, no real sense of how they might affect the wider world beyond awkward pronouncements of impending doom. That explosive finale is all very well, but it's no more than one last crescendo while the conspirators' plans get wrapped up. Mabuse isn't a demigod, despite what some of the story threads like to suggest, merely a creepy old man with daft bulging eyes. His followers don't convey any sense of the terrifying power of a skilled orator with nefarious aims. They're largely just bloodless goons driven mad by something which might be hypnosis, mania or supernatural power (Lang apparently regretted implying that last), but which never suggests a warning for all mankind.

As a lesson in how Lang influenced contemporary Cinema, then as now The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is an interesting diversion. But on anything bar an academic level it's just not that much fun. Murnau gives a better snapshot of the age, and Swedish silents like Ser Arne's Treasure (1919) or The Phantom Carriage (1921) do a far more elegant job of fusing populist entertainment with passing judgement as pitiless as any fable or morality play. It's understandable if Lang wanted to take the Nazi threat as serious business, but for all he swore off the climax to his own Metropolis ("You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale") it still exerts a far more lasting power than this.

THE DISC:

testament of dr mabuse_packshot.jpgOn the other hand! For the skeptical (or any Lang devotees currently dreaming of strangling me), Eureka Video's UK DVD of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (available to buy now) is up to the company's usual high standards. The film is #43 in their renowned Masters of Cinema series, and the retail edition comes as a double-pack with the BluRay, though apparently both discs are the same, bar the HD format coming with a 1080p picture. Past the logo, the disc launches into a simple menu, clear and easy to navigate, backed with stills from the film. There are twenty chapter stops, as well as a commentary track, a booklet of essays and archival notes, same as most releases in the series.

VIDEO:

The transfer still shows the film's chequered history, with individual scenes varying slightly in clarity along with visible dirt and flickering light levels every so often. That said, while some very dark shades do fade into solid black, there's still a startling amount of detail here. While Lang may not have painted much of a bigger picture of Berlin under siege, the cinematography from Karl Vash and the great Fritz Arno Wagner (M, Nosferatu) still looks remarkably textured after seventy years. It's not Eureka's best work but is still a solid, well-presented image that serves the director's work pretty well given the circumstances.

AUDIO:

The audio, again, is as good as could be expected given the film's age. The original German dub has an occasional touch of static or crackling when characters get emotional, or speak from some remove. The explosions in the climactic set piece also seem weirdly distorted in places. Some scenes also have very slight-to-moderate hiss in the background, but for the most part the audio is clear and distinct where it counts; anyone fluent in German can watch the film without subtitles to try it out. These are large, clear, easy-to-read and free from any noticeable grammatical or spelling mistakes.

EXTRAS:

Eureka kindly included a PDF of the booklet that accompanies the retail set, and it does seem like a decent bonus for the collector. This thing is attractively laid out, with some reasonably substantial essays, quotes, eyewitness accounts and similar extracts in there, including a set visit, an interview with Fritz Arno Wagner, scholarly commentary on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and its place in film canon. It is disputed whether Lang actually got to chat with Goebbels - the Nazi official's diary apparently contains no record of any such meeting to try and tempt Lang to put on the Swastika - but the director's version of the encounter is worth a read regardless.

The disc includes a commentary from film historian David Kalat, an academic whose book The Strange Case of Dr Mabuse attempts to make the case for the Doctor as an overlooked proto-supervillain with an intricate mythology worth documenting. Kalat's commentary was originally recorded for Eureka's previous The Complete Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse Boxed Set, and also appears on the previous Criterion edition (only the BluRay transfer appears to be wholly new) but will presumably be an education for some. The main problem with it is while the man is clearly smart and articulate, he makes no bones about ascribing classic status to Lang's film. So if exhaustively spelling out every one of the director's innovations and the Nazi connection seems like stating the obvious, this may not appeal to you. It also runs off on some fairly extreme tangents, refers explicitly to the commentaries Kalat recorded for the other films and it does feel somewhat obvious he's working to a script of sorts. On the other hand, if you want a primer on Lang's life and work circa 1933 playing in the background Kalat is clearly your man.

While The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and the message Fritz Lang hoped to get across with it, may not appeal to modern sensibilities in quite the way it wowed audiences back in the day, the film is still a valuable piece of Lang's career. It's a demonstration of the skill and grasp of cinematic technique that made him an influence on so many directors, from his contemporaries up to those working today. Even if you're not won over by the film, Eureka Video's new UK DVD gives it a quality presentation. Serious collectors who've kept up with the company's output may have to consider whether a 1080p transfer is really worth it, but anyone dipping into German cinema from the 1930s should definitely consider picking up this set. 
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