Home > Uncategorized > Speechless Blogathon – Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Speechless Blogathon – Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)


Film:  Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Director:  Fritz Lang

Cast:  Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Bernhard Goetzke

To place this film into simple terms would be a disservice to the brilliance of the overall picture, and most of all to the brilliance of its director.  The film’s running time (4 hrs, 31 mins) may sound daunting and off-putting to a casual film viewer as well as a burgeoning cinephile, but rest assured there isn’t a wasted moment throughout the entire 271 minutes of film.  If anyone has seen one or a few of Fritz Lang’s myriad of classics (M, Metropolis, Scarlet Street, Destiny, The Woman in the Window) then you’re aware of how revered and amazing a director he truly is.

Without getting into too much plot summary, the film concerns itself with two main characters: the criminal mastermind, Dr. Mabuse, and the state prosecutor sent to investigate strange gambling activity, Staatsanwalt von Welk.  The film begins as Dr. Mabuse, who assumes various identities and disguises through make-up, wigs, and fake facial hair, carries out a heist of financial documents from a moving train and manipulates the stock exchange for personal financial gain in a thrilling opening sequence that is the earliest sign of a template for future action films to open in similar grandiose style that I’ve ever seen.  From there we find out where Mabuse’s true power lies: mind manipulation.  In several sequences the criminal’s “will power”, as he calls it, is displayed in the form of card game coercion with some of society’s highest rollers.  It’s through this display of power that Lang exhibits a commentary on society and class structure, specifically by showing the power Mabuse  has particularly over the wealthy, who are portrayed as weak-minded and susceptible to manipulation, both by Mabuse and von Welk.  Likewise his henchman who carry out the dirty little jobs involved with his diabolical schemes are presented as equally weak-minded, thus showing the similar nature of these stupid henchman and the high society gamblers.

I use the term “diabolical”, as silly as it sounds, because the film really delves into fantasy and pulp, being that the source material was a pulp novel written by Norbert Jacques, and the term seems apropos for the material.  The German expressionistic style is also on full display with chiaroscuro lighting, gothic architecture and sets, and the overall gothic essence and look of Dr. Mabuse.  The film makes tremendous use of available effects, given the time when this film was made, and really amps up the horrific nature of the villain.  Lang makes wonderful use of editing techniques, such as zeroing in on a particular face or item by blacking out the rest of the image in the lens and through super-imposing, in a similar fashion to the way this technique was used in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (released the same year, 1922) and much later in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946).  In a way this film could draw comparisons to Murnau’s titular vampire, as both feature villains who control their prey in similar ways and are essentially unlovable creatures who yearn for a particular woman that may or may not lead to their undoing.  In fact, I saw no less than 8 to 10 elements of this film that I have seen in later films (The Third Man, The Illusionist, Mission: Impossible to name a few) and never knew their origins lie in this Fritz Lang classic.

At this point in time I’d like to gush for a few sentences.  The film, as a whole, is truly outstanding.  I’ve watched several films that are 3+ hours and most of them slow down at points or come to a grinding halt altogether, but there is no hyperbole in saying that this film feels almost brisk in its pacing.  The richness of the characters and the tightness of the story is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film from this era.  Of course we have one of cinema’s true masters, Fritz Lang, to thank for these distinctions, seeing as he crafted a perfectly entertaining film that feels like a product of its time and yet includes moments and elements that still feel fresh or have yet to be outdone.  If I had to assign a genre I’d call it a hybrid of cat-and-mouse, pulp-gothic-horror, and thriller, and it’s one that should be discussed far more often when arguing the all-time greatest films.

The threatening gaze of Dr. Mabuse

The last point I’d like to talk about is the silent performances by the  actors in this film.  I’m currently in the middle of reading a book by film theorist Bela Balazs in which he discusses the propensity of actors in silent films to use their bodies and facial expressions to convey hints of humanity and expression from within.  Watching this film turned on a light bulb to what Balazs’ point is.  The startling way with which Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse) uses one raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head to convey danger and fear is something no current actor could ever do, and not because our current actors are less talented as a whole but because the skill of using such facial expressions to convey emotion has completely eroded since the invention of sound.  Balazs purports the theory that intertitles, and dialogue currently, should be ancillary tools used to push the story along;  it’s the bodily and facial expression where the film exhibits its meaning and truly connects with the audience.  Words can be deceiving, but actions tell no lies.  If for no other reason, and believe me there are plenty, I hope many of you check out this film and other silent films and can come to appreciate what film used to be and see the way it has influenced what we watch in cinemas and in our homes right up to this very day.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 24, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Interesting review, Mr Samurai, and shame on me (a silent film buff) for never having seen this one all the way through. But with Fritz Lang’s name on the credits, I’m sure I wouldn’t get bored, even after 4 1/2 hours.

    By the way, you’re spot on about the acting styles in films of this kind. In Lotte Eisner’s book ‘The Haunted Screen’, she writes about how Expressionist acting is a kind of distillation of only the most essential gestures and facial expressions. When I read that, it all fell into place for me; what I might have once mistaken for overacting is really a way of using abstraction to squeeze the significant emotions out of a scene. And Rudolf Klein-Rogge is excellent at this, in my opinion. I would’ve given his eyebrows an Oscar each.

  2. August 24, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Well stated, my man. That’s one thing that bothers me, when people chuckle at old films for what they consider to be overacting or silly gestures, when in actuality the actors were making total use of their bodies and facial gestures.

    You should definitely finish the film whenever you get a chance. I really couldn’t believe how engaging it was, considering it’s running time and, of course, lack of dialogue. Truly a masterwork by a master of the art-form.

    Much thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Le
    August 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I only watched the last part of the trilogy, a talkie, and it was very good. Maybe now it’s time to check the beginning! fritz Lang was a great director and many praises are said about this movie. Nice review!
    I’m also in the blogathon, with a review of The Wind.
    Greetings,
    Le

  4. August 26, 2012 at 1:16 am

    I definitely need to check out the rest of the films in the Dr. Mabuse series, especially since this film was so good. Make sure you see this one if you like silent films, a truly wonderful film.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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