Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.
The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.
In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.
The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)
It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.
Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.
In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?
In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.
In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.