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Review: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

05/01/2010

Plot

With Dr. Mabuse in an insane asylum following the events of the previous film (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), the citizens of 1930s Berlin slip into complacency. Then, one evening Inspector Lohmann gets a call from his former subordinate Hoffmeister.  Hoffmeister has craked the counterfeiting ring and the mastermind behind it all is…. With Hoffmeister’s words cut short on the other end of the line, Lohmann must follow a trail of clues to first find his friend and then bring down a criminal genius bent on watching the world burn.

Who Will Enjoy This Movie

Despite being made in 1933 this movie offers just about as much as any similar police mystery today. With three main plot lines converging towards a fiery climax, there is more than enough story to fill the two hour run time. If you liked the director Fritz Lang’s other movies, M for example, Testament is definitely for you. But for those who aren’t familiar with the German Expressionist, I would imagine that anyone who enjoyes the Kiss the Girls and Bone Collector brand of suspense movies would also appreciate Lang’s movie. The thing is here, you don’t need to like old movies to get into this one, though maybe it would help.

Who Will Not Enjoy This Movie

With 77 years of cinema between now and Testament‘s original premier, predictability is definitely an issue. At a certain point near the midway point of the film the modern viewer will have figured out the who why and where. Even though this movie shows remarkable technical achievement, the car chases for example are still mired in 1930s aesthetics. While Testament is far from ever being made fun of by MST3K, the fact that it is old will definitely turn off some viewers. The emotional complexity of the characters is also disappointing and fans of Seven or Heat will probably find certain aspects of Testament overly simple. To put it another way, were it released today for the first time, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse would probably be considered mediocre.

A Closer Look

The first scene of this movie is amazing. The camera slowly finds its way around a windowless workshop, perhaps underground. Some nearby machine churns ominously blocking out all other sound. Its vibrations jolt every paint can, every washcloth ever element in the cluttered workshop into a rhythmic danse, and yet all we can hear is the deafening unseen machine, pounding as if indifferent to human suffering. There we find Hoffmeister hiding behind a large wooden chest. Then a few minutes later, Hoffmeister narrowly dodges a steel rum as it rolls down the street, suddenly twirling 10 feet up in the air leaving behind a coiled tail of fire. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse offers so much to look at, so many unique images that one could forget to take into account the equally impressive plot. The elements that would come to define the crime drama genre are all there (the conflicted criminal, the freudian explanation of criminal psychosis, the unseen mastermind). In many ways I can see that the Joker from The Dark Knight might have been partially based on Dr. Mabuse’s character. Both have similar motivations and even facial expressions.

Though The Testament of Dr. Mabuse suffers in several respects. Firstly, the kind of acting we see today on the screen has less to do with the acting in Testament than that from a dramatic stage. The actors and actresses show their feelings in a very physical way. When someone is scared, they look and act like a person acting scared, not a person truly scared. But what is the point of criticizing the film in this respect? Film in the 1930s was still at its infancy, actors were for the most part paving completely new ground, having nothing to look back to or grow out of. Speaking to a 2010 audience about the relative merits of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is certainly not the same as speaking about the relative merits of say The Departed. Fritz Lang is dead and his work now stands less as entertainment then a historical example of cinema’s development.

There is probably very little in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse that will stay with a viewer except for perhaps a few images and the general plot. There is no point at which they might think, “I’ve seen something new!” So why watch such a movie? What merits does it offer? Thinking about this I found that perhaps the enjoyment in watching such a film is in someways similar to the enjoyment of looking at old photographs. Like looking at photos of some great event taken when photos were still a rare commodity. Take for example photos taken during World War I. This great war that happened nearly 100 years ago seems so distant to us now. Though by looking at photographs of it one might feel that somehow these soldiers and the civilians depicted are not actually so distant. They lose their faceless identity and revert back to the individuals they once were. In this way, each photograph becomes not a photograph of the great war, but a kind of story about this one individual soldier seen depicted.  One can read in a text book that the war was fought in trenches, but to see soldiers, not only in dramatic poses, but gathered around a makeshift table playing cards, to see them leaning against a wooden fence while a milkmaid milks her cow for him makes everything so much more tangible. These moments that will never be recorded in any history book, these moments that were mundane at the time, seem today, all the more real to us because they separate the event from the individual. These weren’t Austrians and French fighting, these were young men each with their own past and future.

And in a way watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, or any ‘old’ movie for that matter offers a similar pleasure. One might, as I have, see the technical aspect of the film and be amazed that even with limited resources such images were transfered to celluloid. Though one might just as easily see the elements that aren’t part of the story. The way that streets were not striped with lanes, that manservants respected unconditionally the will of their employer. If The Testament of Dr. Mabuse were made today it would be a period piece, like Once Upon A Time In America or the recent Public Enemies. Great attention would be paid to recreate a time and a feeling. What these classic films offer us is a window into the aesthetics and values of a time past. But this is not an artificial window.  As modern day viewers looking back, we are presented with two movies, one: the movie that the director intended us to see, and two: a kind of accidental documentary. That is: the then that we see preserved on film. In a way, with films like The Testament of Dr. Mabuse the modern viewer can never really experience the film as the filmmakers intended because so much time separates us. But we can, by knowing what came before it, by knowing was came after, place ourselves mentally in that time period and imagine what it must have been like for the contemporary viewer. Even more so, we can imagine ourselves as that ancient viewer.

Alternate Titles

Positive Review: Dr. Mabuse, Testify!

Nevative Review: The testes of Dr. Mabuse

About The Movie

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke, Oscar Beregi Sr., Gustav Diessl

Written by: Thea Von Harbou, Fritz Lang

Released: Hungary: April 21, 1933, France: April 1933, United States: 1943, Germany: August 24, 1961

Note

Though this film is available on DVD, as far as I know it is also in the public domain, which means that you can watch legally online for free. The website Veoh has it, without subtitles unfortunately.


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