March 30, 2007

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, 1922: Dir. Fritz Lang

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler



Dr Mabues the Gambler

Eureka DVD Dr. Mabuse the Gambler






Introduction 

The film and DVD are divided into two parts. The first DVD is 155 minutes long with the second being 115 miutes long. The DVD material is licensed from Transit films who painstakingly reconstructed the film as well as possible. Transit are the firm behind many of the German Weimar films which Eureka are distributing in the UK. The quality is very good. The newly commissioned soundtrack is very effective and goes well with the film unlike say the Michael Nyman soundtracked version of Man With a Movie Camera for example. The subtitling isn't up to the standards of many of the Eureka films with a clearly literal translation from the German which is certainly apparent to native English speakers.

On the matter of translation, the film is marketed in the UK under the title of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. This is not the best translation of the title for although Mabuse makes plenty of money targeting wealthy gamblers he is anything but a gambler, rather he is a 'control freak'. The meaning of term 
spieler
as player is far more appropriate, for Mabuse likes to play with people as much for the power and the pleasure in it as for the money. I shall thus refer to the film as player / gambler to emphasise this tension in meaning. 

The film was originally from the Dekcla Bioskop group  Uco-Film GMBH of Berlin. It was produced by Erich Pommer.

Director: Fritz Lang

Screenplay: Thea von Harbou German version) & Fritz Lang (not accredited)

Director of Photography : Carl Hoffman

Cast:



Dr. Mabuse: Rudolf Klein-Rogge 

Rudolf Klein-rogge



State Prosecutor von Wenke: Bernhard Goetze.

Below ihn confrontation with Klein-Rogge's Mabuse 

Klein-Rogge confronted by Goetze



Dancer Cara Carozza:  Aud Egede Nissen (Norwegian)

Below surrounded by flowers after her nightclub performance 

Cara in Dr Mabuse



Overview 

The first part is called "A portrait of out time: The Player/Gambler". Certainly it refers to the post-war mayhem which occurred in Germany and also many other parts of Europe in the aftermath of World War One. It must be remembered that there were attempts at social revolution or at the very least serioius industrial strife in many countries outside of Germany in the early 1920.  As Lutticken below comments, the plot is 'meandering'. This is largely because it is more of a filmed series of separate stories which are held together after the first act through the character of the state prosecutor. For those who don't have the time to take all the film in one sitting (who has nowadays?) then it can very successfully be watched as a series of 'acts' which are more akin to watching 'Life on Mars' or some other TV series which is linked by an underlying thread.

Some episodes seem disassociated from others. The first act centered upon creating and exploiting a Stock Market rumour had little to do with the illegal gambling episodes which dominate much of the rest of the first part of the film. Similarly the forging of dollars using blind people to package them seems dissociated from the key plot. Rather it is a passing reference to certain types of illegality and allowed a wry comment on the state of European currencies of the time against the successful Amercian economy but it isn't developed further. Another theme which isn't developed is the pyschoanalytic aspect of the work. Clearly a reference to Freudian ideas by then becoming more widely known. Freud of course had access to many of the Viennese upper middle classes particualrly dealing with hysteria which Freud comes to understand and a societal and gender issue. For Lang it provides some sort of excuse for Mabuse to gain access to the Countess' mansion although the audience would have largely forgotten the presentation Mabuse made presumably to gain a reputation amongst the well off who were his primary target. 

It is this aspect of the representation of the upper-middle classes which is of interest and might have influenced Kracauer's analysis of the film in his From Caligari to Hitler. There are many displaced and slightly confused upper class people who seem to have plenty of money but no real sense of purpose. There is a class idenity which seems to have ben fragmented by the war and subsequent relovuitions and uprisings.  It is this vacuum which Mabuse is exploiting mercilessl. It is as though the elites are behaving like Ostriches. We don't see them represented as industrialists or leaders politically or socially. The State prosecutor seems to be acting as an isolated representative of the new social order struggling to gain legitimacy. The analysis provided by Kracauer which is quoted below is focusing on Mabuse as a tyrant, and when Mabuse talks of excercising will to play with people you could start to agree with Kracauer. But Mabuse seems to like playing for the sake of playing, it is his raison d'etre. One could almost see it as a self-parody of cinema itself with the incessant round of different costumes to 'entrtain' people.

Unlike tyrants who need to be seen as a part of their superior charisma Mabuse goes to extreme lengths not to be seen. Only a few close associates know exactly what he looks like. Mabuses' secret of creating mayhem is based upon invisibility. There are similarites there with 'M'. No the problem is legitimacy and an apparent problem of social anchoring. The presence of Mabuse requires an absensce of legitimacy. It is again a theme which Lang returns to in 'M' and is perhaps a preoccupation of von Harbou as a scriptwriter.  Interesting of course that she stays in Nazi Germany where Hitler for a short time at least seemed to have solved the legitimation crisis. Like Mabuse 'M' too can strike fear into citizens through invisibility. Ironically it is the blind who make 'M' visible. 

What the Web Critics Say:

There is some interesting material available on the web on the whole of the Mabuse cycle, not least from Thomas Elsaesser one of the leading critics on German cinema. I have extracted the relevant section of the article however it is well worth going on to read the whole thing as Elsaesser is reviewing the case often cited against Lang of being rather reactionary. It will make viewing the film in the light of these comments interesting. 

Here Thomas Elsaesser (Sight and Sound 2000) puts the case for the Dr Mabuse trilogy as a radical critique of surveillance culture. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/43/

Plot Synopsis

Dr Mabuse was Lang's breakthrough film in Germany, as well as an early example of a marketing ploy in which the serialised novel and the film became each other's mutual selling points. Announcing itself in its title as a "portrait of its time" (part one: The Gambler) and "of its men and women" (part two: The Inferno) it was loosely based on motifs from Norbert Jacques' tabloid opus, peppered up with topical material by Lang and his then wife, the successful novelist and Germany's top screenwriter Thea von Harbou. The four-hour film starts at a furious pace, with a meticulously timed train robbery leading to a stock-exchange fraud. It then concentrates on Mabuse hypnotising a young American industrialist into running up large debts at gambling, after which the master criminal wins the favours of an aristocratic lady, drives her husband to suicide and eventually kidnaps her. Time and again outwitting the public prosecutor by a mixture of brutality, practical jokes and agent provocateur demagoguery, Mabuse is finally cornered in his secret hideout and either goes mad or feigns insanity when he is finally captured.

Social References to the destabilised Weimar Republic

The film is said originally to have had a pre-credits sequence depicting street battles from the 1919 Spartacist socialist uprising in Berlin, the assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau and other scenes of disorder masterminded by Mabuse ("Who is responsible for all this? - Me" was apparently the first intertitle). Although this opening is now lost or was never made, the various scams Mabuse is involved in (industrial espionage, stock-exchange fraud, forged banknotes) as well as the felonies he perpetrates (he runs a lab manufacturing cocaine, his gang controls gambling and prostitution and plots assassinations) all vividly point to the immediate post-World War I era, especially to Germany's raging hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924 and its black-market economy that pauperised the middle classes while creating a new urban subculture of war profiteers, Mafia-like racketeer organisations and vigilante units recruited from the growing army of the unemployed. The political references were not lost on contemporary reviewers or the censors, and even today Mabuse's several disguises seem taken out of a catalogue of Weimar types familiar from the drawings of Otto Dix and George Grosz: stockbroker in a top hat, derelict drunk in a housing tenement, Jewish peddler at the street corner, bearded rentier in a flashy limousine, industrialist with monocle and moustache, pimp, psychiatrist, the hypnotist and opium-smoking Tsi-Nan-Fu in a gambling den.

Elsaesser's comments are interesting but need to be considered a little bit cautiously for at times he seems to be waxing poetic and eliding a lot of years together when there were dramatic differences between them.  Firstly the film premiered on April 27th 1922 in Germany. Inflation whilst high was by no means near the extraordinary levels it was to reach in the latter part of 1923. By July 1922 notes Richard Evans $1 US cost 493 marks. In November 1921 $1 cost 263 marks:

In the period up until the middle of 1922, economic growth rates in Germany were high, and unemployment low. ... The German economy managed the transition to a peacetime basis more effectively than some European economies where inflation was less marked." (Evans Richard, 2003, p 104)

The film itself was being made when conditions were still ostensibly OK although, as Evans points out, they were built on sand. Below Elsaesser notes that Mabuse was at least in part a reference to Hugo Stinnes who was an industrial magnate who was very successful after World War 1. Unsurprisingly Stinnes held right-wing views and in 1919 he joined with Alfred Hugenberg to establish the German Nationalist Party (DNVP). Where Elsaesser rails against the profiteers it is worth reminding readers that the remarkable success of the German post World War 1 film industry was founded on this high level of inflation. UFA like other successful entrepreneurial businesses was able to borrow cheaply in marks and pay the money back later with the same number of marks but which had become devalued through inflation. Furthermore the successful 'art' type films which we watch today were aimed at international audiences. As a result the hard currency could buy a lot of marks to reinvest in the next production. This was why Hollywood films had a hard time entering the German market prior to the Dawes plan of 1924 and the currency stabilisation. 

Mabuse was taken to be modelled on Hugo Stinnes, a steel magnate who from humble beginnings amassed a fortune and occupied a key position in the post-World War I rearmament industries (illegal, according to the Treaty of Versailles). But Mabuse also doubles as a Houdini-like vaudeville artist, passes himself off as a soul doctor from Vienna and even has a dash of the Bolshevik agitator in the Karl Radek mould. The final showdown was modelled on the famous shoot-out between the police and the 'Fort Chavrol' bankrobbers from a barricaded house in the Parisian banlieue in 1921. In short, Lang's "portrait of its time" gathers up a fair number of contemporary references.

Elsaesser usefully comments on the post Second World War discourse about Germany in which Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler played an important role when it came to discussing the role of culture in Weimar Germany.

It was after World War II that Dr Mabuse in the eyes of the critics took on a less topical and more overtly metaphoric mien. As indicated, Kracauer ties virtually every significant trend in his diagnostic psychogram of Weimar veering towards totalitarian madness to one of Lang's films:

"[Dr Mabuse] succeeds in making of Mabuse an omnipresent threat that cannot be localised, and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime - that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody may be the tyrant's ear or arm."

Lang later argued back, pointing out that if he had predicted the rise of Hitler in his films, then Kracauer was pinning the blame for the bad news on the messenger.

                              Mabuse at the Pontoon Club

Elsaesser's comments below seem very pertinent. He ties Mabuse into the trend for 'expressionism' and recognises it in a self reflexive cinematic moment as a mechanism for creating audience. In some senses Mabuese's comment " Everything today is make-believe", resonates with a society which was struggling to reinvent itself. The defeat in the war saw the collpse of the political system which had been forged by Bismarck and had provided the cornerstone for Germany's successful rise to being the World's second largest economy. The Versailles Treaty saw the loss of 10% of Germany's population and 13% of its territory. The Saarland was 'lopped off' (Evans), and the Rhineland was under occupation for most of the 1920s. Germany was literally a shadow of its former self. A metaphor which could easily be read into the expressionist films of the time. Evans is less keen to emphasise a black market economy in the post war years than to emphasise the growth of semi-autonomous mainly right-wing nationalist paramilitary organisations who also ran assassination squads seeking out those they deemed as traitors. These included Ratthenau of the Social Democrats but also, the socialist Hugo Haase and the Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger. The key element was one of gaining political legitimacy. With 20 different cabinets between 1919 and January 1933, the coalition governments represented the deep political fissures present within the German body politic itself. Mabuse predates Germany's descent into total economic chaos. It was at the height of hyperinflation that starvation and rioting took palce (Evans pp 106- 107). However Evans notes the diaries of victor Klemperer who commented upon how many had taken to gambling on the stock market whilst making some modest gains compared to Professor Forster an well know anti-semite has said to be "making half a million marks a day playing the markets". Evans (p 107).  It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Lang was being speculative about a growing trend which was discernible even when the film was being made.

Evidently the film's immense popularity at the time and subsequent status as a classic testify to a surplus of meaning, best readable perhaps across the designation of Mabuse as "der Spieler", meaning the gambler but also the dissembler or pretender. Highlighting both playfulness and risk, a refusal of identity and a slippage of reference, the epithet announces the question of what kind of agency Mabuse embodies as he 'stands behind' events as well as 'fronting' a conspiratorial gang bent on mayhem and mischief. One could call Mabuse a disguise artist, dissimulating both identity and agency, and suggest that he belongs to a rather large family of such creatures in Weimar cinema, whose kinship, but also generic diversity (Caligari and Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen's Hagen and Spies' Haghi, Tartuffe and Mephisto), allow some conclusions about the self-analysis of cinema during the Weimar period. Mimicry as metaphor, metaphor as mimicry. If Lang's German films are inventories of styles and if he provided much of the wallpaper for Weimar Germany's national or avant-garde ambitions, he also showed how flimsy it was. Take expressionism, the style intended to create an internationally valid brand name for German cinema in the early 20s - as Mabuse himself says: "Expressionism! - it's a game of make-believe! But why not? Everything today is make-believe." Mabuse both implicates and distances himself, in a gesture that joins mimicry and parody, a mottled person for a mottled ground.

Of course sentiment in stock markets in 'normal times' is moved on both rational analysis but also on rumour and speculation, "greed and fear" are the prime motivators. In an increasingly unstable society the class of people represented by Dr. Mabuse would have had increasing sway:

There are many such moments in Dr Mabuse. One would be the scene of Mabuse at the stock exchange in which he destabilises both stock prices and currencies by selectively planting information gleaned from the treaty captured during the train robbery. The scene ends with the superimposition of Mabuse's face on the emptied stock exchange, gradually surging from the background like a watermark on a banknote held against the light, as if Lang had tilted the world we have just witnessed and something else had become visible: not the truth, but the recto of a verso. What is left is a kind of hieroglyphic world, barely readable, strange, but consisting of all but the most familiar elements.



Mabuse kidnaps the Countess



Sven Lutticken in New Left Review largely agrees with Elsaesser's take on Dr. Mabuse. It certainly seems to be representing and possibly contributing to the drift towards a 'casino economy'. Both Elsaesser and Lutticken focus on the key metaphor of hypnosis, and in many ways this could be read as a critique of the politicians and the politcal parties who for all their talk were allowing the country to slip into what many must have been feeling was an impending chaos.  

Lang used lavish sets, leading actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge and a meandering storyline to paint a panorama of a decadent society—Weimar Germany—so weak that it can easily fall prey to the evil master-mind Mabuse, a hypnotist who can submit people to his will. One of the most memorable scenes shows Mabuse’s head, facing the camera against a black background, growing ever closer and appearing to hypnotize the audience as well as his unfortunate opponent in the film. With its overt ambition to give a portrait of the times, and Lang’s highly stylized and sumptuous scenes, the first Mabuse film claimed both artistic value (as opposed to ‘unsophisticated’ Hollywood entertainment) and kulturkritische ambition …For all its production values and aspirations to social critique, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler has a hopelessly hackneyed and melodramatic plot.” (Sven  Lutticken Planet of the Remakes: New Left Review 25, January-February 2004

Webliography


This webliography has at the time of writing identified what are considered to be the most useful and best researched links on the Web. Currently the search is going down to page 10 of Google.  



Link to Deutsche Film Portal coverage:

Part 1: Der Spieler

Part 2: Inferno  

Link to 1992 lecture given at the Sidney Museum of Contemporary Art by Ingo Petzke:

http://www.fh-wuerzburg.de/petzke/mabuse.html

Deutsche Film Portal link to biography of Frit Lang

http://www.filmportal.de/df/77/Uebersicht,,,,,,,,EFC121B064DE6C3FE03053D50B3736F2,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.html

Link to British film Insitute pages on Fritz Lang

http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/lang/magic.html

The Chiarascuro site has some excellent large size screen shots as well as some basic information about the Lang's next film in the Mabuse cycle; The Last Testament of Dr. Mabuse

http://www.celtoslavica.de/chiaroscuro/films/testamentm/testmab.html

Link to a useful brief profile of Lang as well as a filmography on the Senses of Cinema site:

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/lang.html

Link to Senses of Cinema site article by Michael Koller on the second of the Mabues Films The Tesatament of Doctor Mabuse:

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/04/testament_dr_mabuse.html

German Films Archive Entry on Fritz Lang:

http://www.german-films.de/app/filmarchive/film_person_view.php?film_person_id=1773

Dr. Mabuse a Modern German Myth:

http://mabuse.de/mab-drmabuse.mhtml

Link to New Left Review article by  Sven Lutticken on remakes which includes analysis of Spione and Dr Mabuse:http://newleftreview.org/A2491


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