"What do you think of Expressionism, Dr. Mabuse?"
It's an odd question, posed at an odd point in an odd film. For an immediate clue as to why Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
is not an Expressionist film in the strictest sense, but rather, a fascinating, prototypical crime thriller incorporating Expressionist elements wherever director Fritz Lang
saw fit, simply look to the subtitles of the two parts. Part One
: Der grosse Spieler. Ein Bild der Zeit
(The Great Gambler: A Picture of Our Time
); and Part Two
: Inferno. Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit
(Inferno: A Play About People of Our Time
). In a clip from an interview that pops up in The Story Behind Dr. Mabuse
, a 52-minute extra included in Kino
's new "Restored Authorized Edition," Lang suggests that a film ought to have a documentary element to it - a perhaps surprising statement from a director who conjured worlds as fantastical as those of Die Nibelungen
, but this is very much what his first Mabuse
film is about - it is, above all else, a document of its time.
And what a time. In his biography, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan describes the world Lang and Thea von Harbou, his soon-to-be wife and screenwriter, set out to capture, the Berlin of 1922: "The poor scrounged for bread crusts, while private sex clubs proliferated for the privileged class, indulging every whim and predilection. Drugs flooded the streets and were marketed openly in cabarets and nightclubs. Vice bosses and speculators reigned as the new as the new royalty of a city frantically seeking new and ever more gaudy thrills." And Lang knew well "the floor shows of the posh hangouts, the deviant sex clubs, the Spielclubs (card-playing dens) for jaded women and rich gambling addicts, the hangouts for prostitutes, séances or cocaine. These addresses were part of his nightly routine. Lang himself was addicted to sex and not a little fond of drugs."
The very first words "spoken" in this silent classic come from Dr. Mabuse, one of cinema's most famous criminals, a master of disguise, deception and mind control, as he admonishes Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga), the weakling of his tight little gang, for going overboard with the coke. The poor man looks it, too, all wired and drained at the same time. How unusual, though, for Mabuse to insist on moderation in anything. As we first see him here, growling at Spoerri, he's at his famous make-up table, preparing take on two roles in an elaborate scheme in which a courier will be murdered, a document stolen, currency manipulated and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of marks added to Mabuse's already vast holdings. And that's just in the first act; there are around a dozen in all.