Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The (1933)
In 1922, Norbert Jacque’s diabolical Dr. Mabuse was first unleashed upon German audiences, with the publication of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler). Jacques’ villain was an amalgam of traits characterizing Germany during its economic crisis following the first World War. German culture was no longer united by any single value system. This, along with an absence of rigid class structure, opened a window of opportunity for resourceful, unscrupulous individuals to gain levels of power and wealth that were inaccessible just a few years earlier. Dr. Mabuse was just such an individual. He gambled not just with money, but with people’s lives. By manipulating the stock market, and using his profound knowledge of psychiatry and hypnosis, he exploited the social decay for his personal gain.
That same year, Fritz Lang unveiled the cinematic version of the story. It was a commercial success, and was seen as a critique on the current state of the country. As German citizens became more and more disenchanted toward their “democratic” institutions that failed to actuate any of the reforms they promised, it became increasingly clear that such a politically unstable state would prove ripe for tyrannical forces.
In 1933, as Adolf Hitler was granted dictatorial power in Germany, Lang released his second Mabuse film, this one involving the themes of propaganda, hypnosis, and terrorism: Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). The film opens with a man crouching behind a storage box in a factory. He’s clearly shaken, paranoid, and if the handgun to which he clings is any indication, afraid for his life. He escapes the factory by the skin of his teeth, dodging falling objects and explosive barrels rolling after him. The man is Hofmeister, a detective, and has been investigating organized crime. He has just learned who is behind an enormous criminal conspiracy. But before he can report his findings to his head inspector, the gangsters catch up with him and scare the sense out of him. Driven mad by fear, he cannot speak coherently, and is admitted into the local asylum.
The asylum is run by Dr. Baum, a psychiatrist with a keen, almost obsessive interest in a certain master criminal whose nefarious career ended several years earlier: Dr. Mabuse. The mad doctor is confined in his asylum cell, and sits up in his bed, his jaw hanging open as he stares into the abyss. Ever since he went mad several years earlier, the master criminal has been recording his testament. His testament is a terrorist manifesto, containing his meticulous, scrawled out orders for unfathomable crimes, as well as the principles for the Empire of Crime. Mabuse has no direct contact with the world residing beyond his cell. Nevertheless, a series of crimes are occurring that, coincidentally, perfectly match those described in his testament.
The terrorist ideology in the film is without political bias. It is a promotion of terrorism purely as a tool to create and maintain an atmosphere of insecurity. This lack of political partisanship should be appealing to Satanists, since we prefer to use tools pragmatically instead of getting distracted by any single ideal. On top of that, the film will appeal to Satanists for its portrayal of terrorism. It exposes the inconvenient fact that terror can be wrought for the simple purpose of creating an effect, that it does not have to be the outcome of any redeeming philosophy. In other words, terror can be generated for the sake of terror. Fear is such an easily tapped resource for motivation, that it can become irresistible for those capable of using it as a means to an end. Just as humanity can be categorized into consumers and producers, into reactors and perceivers, so can people be divided by the sword of fear. The sweat of the frightened is the profit of the feared.
There is no conveniently demonized “other” in this film. There is only humanity’s reflection in the mirror. Evil does not appear in any foreign or alien form (unless you see Germans that way). As the story unfolds, we find that the crimes of “Dr. Mabuse” are not limited to his direct actions. All of Mabuse’s crimes in this film are carried out by others acting upon his will. “Mabuse,” is, then, not a man. He is the will to power, within all humans, that is often indifferent toward the lives of others. He is the name for self-interest, rationalized madness, and corruption. After a thousand utopian ideals are conceived, this immortal “evil” shall remain as integral as ever in the nature of man.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was the first of many films banned by Joseph Goebbels. He feared it would sow seeds of distrust toward the state among citizens of the Third Reich. Despite the Minister of Propaganda’s opposition to the film’s dreadfully thought-provoking impact, he must have felt a personal resonance with its ideas, for he kept an uncensored copy of it in his personal collection, and gave private screenings to his friends.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was released on DVD by Criterion Collection in year 39 A.S. Released in past decades as The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse, Criterion’s version comes closest to Lang’s original vision than any hitherto release in America. It falls only three minutes shorter than the first print (the remaining footage has been lost). It is a high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound. And it is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.19:1, for the first time in America. Also, fans of this film who wish to learn more about the history of the character of Dr. Mabuse are encouraged to find a copy of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse by David Kalat.
[- Miles Jacobsen]