Based on the serialized German novel by Norbert Jacques, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler won international acclaim for Weimar director Fritz Lang and has proven to be one of cinema’s most enduring gangster films. Originally released as two movies, it is an epic tale of the intricate machinations of organized crime and the social mores of post-World War I Germany. The film brings to light the criminal underworld of Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a chameleonic sociopath who alters his appearance in a variety of ways and hypnotizes and manipulates his victims for financial, emotional and political gain. Local authorities, particularly chief inspector Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), are baffled by the number of wealthy gamblers who claim to have been swindled by very different strangers who share a mysterious talent for mesmerizing their victims. Mabuse holds the city’s economy in his hands as he prints stacks of counterfeit currency in his secret lab, continues his card-cutting shakedowns and, most outrageously, brings the stock market to a halt with his telepathic powers. When Mabuse victimizes the elegant and wealthy Countess Told, Wenk finally crosses paths with the nefarious doctor and his ubiquitous henchmen.
Slickly photographed by Carl Hoffman (Faust), who had previously collaborated with Lang on the 1919 pictures The Plague in Florence, The Spiders and Harakiri, Dr. Mabuse makes excellent use of parallel editing to generate suspense. With a liberal nod to D.W. Griffith’s storytelling method, the film presents several incidents that are occurring simultaneously. In addition, the then-experimental practice of exterior night shooting appears with evocative clarity throughout the picture.
Kino Video’s recently released DVD of Dr. Mabuse presents the film in a 270-minute “restored authorized edition.” The film’s troubled history includes incidents of Nazi censorship and lost reels, and cinephiles have had to make due with severely truncated prints for decades. Mastered from the 2000 restoration using existing camera negatives from two German archives, the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin and the Filmmuseum im Stadtmuseum in Munich, this new version boasts long-missing sequences and additional close-ups that help to flesh out the action. Disc one presents Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler — Part One: The Great Gambler, A Picture of Our Time, which runs 155 minutes; and disc two presents Part Two: Inferno, A Play of People of Our Time, which runs 115 minutes. Obviously, the 213-minute DVD edition of the film previously released by Image pales in comparison to this new disc, which offers a truer representation of Lang’s original narrative intentions. The transfer of Hoffman’s work is often startling in definition and luminosity. While there are obvious limitations in the very old source materials, the subtle shadings of light in many sequences have never been so evident on previously issued home-video formats. The 2.0 digital audio track presents a new score by Aljoscha Zimmermann that does little to enhance the presentation.
Informative supplemental features are presented on disc two. “The Story Behind Dr. Mabuse” is a 52-minute collection of newly produced interviews and profiles split into three segments. The first, “The Music of Mabuse,” is dedicated to Zimmermann, who explains his inspiration and execution of the score. The second, “Norbert Jacques, the Literary Inventor of Mabuse,” presents literary editor Michael Farin, who gives an excellent account of the political and social state of Germany at the time Jacques wrote the novel and Lang made the film. At just under 10 minutes, this excellent segment could have easily been twice as long. The final segment, “Mabuse’s Motives,” contains vintage interviews with Lang and is another well produced segment that should have been much longer. Produced in Germany, each segment is in German with English subtitles. Also included as supplements are a gallery of film stills and a brief film-notes section with a historic timeline, biographical information on Lang, and credits for the film’s restoration.
As several film scholars have suggested, it is not difficult to see parallels to and projections of the coming forces of fascism in Dr. Mabuse and other Weimar films of the era. Whether you view Dr. Mabuse as a historical document of classical filmmaking, a bracing social polemic, or simply as an entertaining potboiler, the film is a landmark of cinematic achievement, and this new DVD is an excellent way to revisit the doctor’s criminal reign.