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FRITZ LANG'S most brilliant act was the creation of Dr. Mabuse. Esteemed psychologist, master-mind counterfeiter, Mabuse prowled fast society "to play with men's lives and men's souls." Disguised as a smooth-faced young compulsive or a solid English gentleman, he gained admission to private gambling clubs and forced men with his eyes to play millions of marks into his hands. Made up as Dr. Weltmann in long seraggly hair and beard, he conducted public demonstrations of hypnosis that almost succeeded in doing away with his arch-enemy, detective de Witt. Undisguised he discarded the women who loved him and abducted those who did not. At the end, in a house surrounded by cops with the Army arriving, he imagined he could outgun them all and escape to impose his will again on other men.
In inventing this super-hero Lang created an adventure film whose marvels illustrated a deep and true vision of life. He refused to people Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) with the cardboard Bonds and Flints of today's adventure fantasies. Every character is a complex personality. In one gambling house de Witt, hunting "the Great Unknown," is distracted by the sight of an extraordinary woman, the Countess Tolst. He leaves the card table to walk to the couch on which she reposes. In two minutes Lang gives us her soul. We see no shallow temptress, no abstract sentimental heroine. The countess is sophisticated and very intelligent; she has come to watch the colorful characters of the casino because polite society no longer interests her. Yet her sophistication and present boredom do not preclude intense love. We feel the truth of this character in the complex intelligence that pervades her deep attachment to life.
The only director really dealing with human intelligence, Lang consructed for Mabuse deep sets whose fantastic decor reveals the imaginations of the characters. The Countess's extremely broad and deep rooms are filled with African masks and huge primitive statues which she wonderfully explains in the words, "My brother is a cubist." We immediately sense a world, not exactly that of the early twenties on the Continent, but informed with the essence of that time. The mood current among the rich, joining malaise to brilliant cultivation, typifies a dying upper class that feels no threat in extinction. Their easy lives far from the masses, and their resulting freedom and complexity of personality, allow humor and leisurely pacing parts in Lang's subtle character delincations that they never regain.
DURING THE ten years between this and the second Mabuse Lang's dramatic construction and visual style underwent radical changes, changes basically of social perspective. Leaving films full of personalities, he began to make long-shot Expressionist dramas without real characters: the two Nibelungen movies and Metropolis. Abandoning these fatalistic myth-abstractions, he returned in M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) to films that treated social reality directly in the actions of a few closely connected characters.
Yet the change of mood from the first to the second Mabuse is complete. Each character of the second is typed, limited, almost judged in a hard, bitter manner. In the place of the ambivalent de Witt we have a pig, Inspector Lohmann, whose chief distinction is the dread in which petty criminals hold him. A practical detective, Lohmann works not by mental penetration and battles of the will, but by reconstructing acts men have already committed. He uses physical clues to track down the master criminal where de Witt tried to discover his identity and scize Mabuse himself.
The secondary characters who in 1922 had so much dignity have become functionaries who receive their orders by telephone. As Lang suggests by crosscutting Mabuse's and Lohmann's organizations at work, it hardly matters whom the call comes from. These men simply work for someone else. They are small; they try through obedience to keep their jobs, their security. "He [man] places a high value on his individual life," says Mabuse. "He even regards himself as an individual, with free will!"
Lang's world supports this cynical statement. His framing is so tight that it chops off the tops of people's heads. Instead of revealing the depth in which the characters move, the frame has become a trap, as we see in an early tracking shot that closes in on a fleeing man. The studio in which Lang shot the film must have been a prison. The cells, psychiatric or criminal, in which characters are repeatedly locked completely differ from the one cell that appeared in The Gambler. That room realized the romantic plight of its inhabitant, Mabuse's mistress: trapped by her love for him in a space which, though closed, had great depth. By betraying him she could have escaped. Her refusal left her at least the room for the full violent expression of her emotions, throwing herself upon the barred door, running from it toward the camera. One camera angle, very long takes, sufficed to show this depth. Now, though, Lang keeps cutting rapidly to different angles within each cell, every angle sticking the characters flat against a blank wall. These cells' only depth leads into corners where Mabuse's raving victims cower.
Everything in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has become directly physical. Mabuse controls men by telephone, not by hypnosis. He kills them by shutting them in rooms to starve instead, as with the first Mabuse's Richard Fleury, of working on their sensibilities to drive them to suicide. The acts of mental terror through which Mabuse controls his henchmen are cheap mechanical gimmicks. Even the scene transitions emphasize the physical. In Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler each cut to a new scene added new fantastic settings, new wonders for the intellect, new dimensions in depth for the soul. Here they limit freedom of action, tie the physical to the physical in an ever-closing net.
For the new Mabuse comes nearer to controlling all men's lives than the original. Formerly his romantic passions were the same as the others of his class, merely stronger and more destructive. Now he is completely anti-human. Considering other men intellectually inferior, he tries to subject them to a sort of class rule. He prefigures today's information managers. No personal contact links him to other men; isolated in the institution he runs, he has no personality, no psychological depth. He is only a social figure who nearly dominates all society through the threat of chaos. And that threat is strong. The opening of the film, after a pan over a bombed-out city, runs past grubby objects in a crowded cellar; tables full of bottles shake violently, the entire setting is in danger of exploding or disintegrating. Behind a crate the camera discovers one rat-like man trying to hide from the agents of Mabuse.
IN THIS WORLD, as indeed in all Lang's subsequent films, one has little liking for anyone, where-as in the first Mabuse all were sympathetic. The little men are good Germans; the big ones pigs or psychopaths. The only breaches in the net of control over their lives are made by the absolutely desperate, who risk their lives on the chance of surviving. Yet these characters are no more deep or attractive than any others. One must endorse them only because fighting for control over one's life, fighting fascism, is the only human course of action. Lang suggests no hope that the society resulting from that fight will be better than the chaos of the present. One's actions are compelled by the real, not led by the ideal.
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