Subtle Expressionism may be an oxymoron, but it is the best way to describe the style of Fritz Langâ€™s 1922 masterpiece Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. The talented German director creates a world where seemingly normal characters exist in a slightly abstract environment. The actors in the film play their parts with a realistic subtlety that was not seen in many silent films and especially not in films of the German Expressionist period. However, everything that surrounds the characters from the set pieces to the costumes tells the audience that this world is not as it seems.
Germany in the 1920s was in the midst of political turmoil and economic distress. The conclusion of World War I brought a new form of government to Germany that was then known as the Weimar Republic. The deeply torn state was facing political pressure from both right and left wing radicals leading to a decreased sense of security and order. Just as in any time in history when economic pressures loomed, criminals were able to make their illegal activities into a career. The corruptible power of wealth is the theme that Fritz Lang attempts to explore in his four and a half hour, two part film about a psychological criminal mastermind.
Dr. Mabuse is a master of disguise and a talented and vicious hypnotist. He and his criminal team of cocaine-addicted buffoons make their rounds to bars and gambling houses, swindling rich men out of their fortunes. At the open of the film Dr. Mabuse is in the process of using insider trading to cause a stir at the stock market for his own personal gain. Later he raises the stakes by using hypnosis to trick young businessman Edgar Hull into gambling his money away in a game of Black Jack. In a series of suspenseful and slightly homoerotic hypnosis scenes Dr. Mabuse gradually takes stronger control of Hull before eventually leading him to his death.
As we enter the second half of the film, Dr. Mabuse has become power hungry and decides to use his mind control powers to kidnap a wealthy countess and erase her existence from her husbandâ€™s memory while driving him to suicide. The many different personas that Dr. Mabuse inhabits become more powerful, driving him to become detached with reality. When faced with the seemingly incorruptible state prosecutor who is apparently unsusceptible to mind tricks, Dr. Mabuse begins to let his various psychoses take over and plunges into his own level of insanity, ending up in a mental institution.
Langâ€™s political message is crystal clear and was directed at the German officials who were letting corruption and rule by fear become the societal norm. Mabuseâ€™s eventual downfall was Langâ€™s dark prediction for the German government â€“ taken down by its own obsession with power. In some ways it can be speculated that Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler predicts the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. That metaphor is just as relevant today as it was in 1920s Germany and it will always be effective as long as those in power continue to take advantage of the unsuspecting masses.
Another powerful theme in the film is the insincerity of identity. The film opens with Dr. Mabuse shuffling through a catalogue of disguises and throughout the film he uses each different costumed persona to gain access to various establishments and different social circles. Lang purposely puts Dr. Mabuse in a setting where he looks almost identical to every character in the room; as if to say that evil can manifest itself in any form, even a familiar one. Mabuse hides among the other characters and if it werenâ€™t for the circular focus editing, it would be almost impossible to tell which character in the room was him. It appears that not only does Dr. Mabuse use the various personas to gain trust in different circles, but also because he is uncertain of his own identity, which leads to his eventual downfall. Lang shows how that personal uncertainty can be dire.
As one of the first feature-length films produced in German cinema, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler was remarkably innovative for its time. Lang uses visual effects that would be considered impressive even by todayâ€™s standards by showing transparent ghosts against solid scenery and duplicate images of one character in the same shot. Langâ€™s work in this film is a precursor to the stunning visual effects that he mastered in subsequent films like Metropolis and helped establish film as a truly visceral medium.
While the performances in Dr. Mabuse are rather subtle compared to Langâ€™s truly expressionist work in later films like M, the mise-en-scene is where he truly demonstrates his surrealist vision. German Expressionists have always employed the use of angles to portray that harshness of the world and Dr. Mabuse contains many sets that at first glimpse appear rather realistic, but with a closer look are very sharp. One of the gambling houses for instance has a room where everything is made up of triangles. In this setting the pointed eyebrows and triangle beard of Dr. Mabuse seem to fit in while his curvy victims seem alien and out of place, just as the audience is supposed to feel.
Towards the end of the film Dr. Mabuse loses some of his character credibility in a visually impressive scene where he is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. It seems unlikely that such an evil character would be capable of feeling guilt. However, the point that seems to be emphasized by Lang is that corruption by power can destroy a personâ€™s humanity, but when the day of reckoning comes, there will be justice. A point that Germany of the 1920s, and many subsequent cultures, definitely needed to hear.
NOTE: The version of this film that was used for this review is the 2000 Kino International Pictures restoration that includes all 270 minutes of original footage.