A train speeds across the European countryside towards Berlin. Aboard, a courier en route to the Swiss embassy is attacked by a thug, who tosses the courier’s satchel from the train, as it crosses a bridge, into the back seat of a waiting motorcar. In Berlin, news of the lost satchel, which bears important contracts, causes a panic. Stock prices for companies involved in the contract negotiations plunge precipitously. Amid the chaos, a man buys as much stock as he can for mere pennies on the dollar. At almost the exact same moment, the satchel arrives at the Swiss Embassy. News of the contracts’ safe recovery causes stock prices to skyrocket. At the height of this feverish activity, when the price cannot go higher, the man sells his shares. In the space of a few hours, he has become immeasurably wealthy.
The man is Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). He sits at the center of a vast web of criminal enterprise, manipulating international fortunes, overseeing the most efficient counterfeiting operation in Europe and an unknown number of murderers and thieves. The year is 1922 and the place is Weimar Germany. Wracked by crippling war debt, the nation is home to a new breed of ruthless profiteers.
Created by Norbert Jacques in his 1921 novel, Dr. Mabuse is transported in Fritz Lang’s movie to Berlin from the relatively sedate Munich. Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler follows the career of this genius as he steps into the moral vacuum left by the first World War, becoming nearly invincible. His rise and reign anticipate events that would not occur in Germany for another decade. Though, as Kino’s DVD featurette, “Mabuse’s Motives,” illustrates, the director would use his Mabuse films to comment on the rise of Nazism in the ‘30s, at the time of this film’s release, Hitler was only a discontented housepainter and budding radical. Appearing in archival interview footage, Lang observes, “[The] period after World War I was a time of deepest despair, of hysteria and cynicism, of unbridled excess in Germany.” The same fertile soil that produced the fictional Dr. Mabuse would soon produce the very real Hitler.
At several points in the film, Mabuse describes a “will to power” that enables the strong to exert their will over the weak. He is himself a master mesmerist, possessed of telepathic abilities that let him control the minds of vulnerable individuals. Perhaps the film’s most frightening scene features Mabuse, in disguise as a common laborer, as he whips a crowd of beer hall patrons into a frenzy in order to intercept a police wagon carrying one of his minions. Once the wagon stops and the prisoner is shown to the crowd, a sniper appears in a nearby window to kill him, ensuring he will never reveal Mabuse’s existence to the authorities. The fact that he is able to stir otherwise unconcerned people to violence indicates the power of his charisma.
Mabuse is eventually brought low by his own hubris. He is, the film shows, an inveterate gambler—or at least, he pretends to gamble. Donning another of his many disguises, he sneaks out to various underworld gaming clubs and bends the minds of his opponents in order to defeat them utterly. Considering the scale of his criminal enterprises, the gambling seems almost pointless, a penny ante diversion. But Mabuse doesn’t only lust after power and riches; he also wants to dominate his fellow men at individual levels. Ironically, he is eventually caught cheating at cards. Though Prosecutor von Wenck (Bernhard Goetzke) is an investigator of no great ability, through persistence, he unravels Mabuse’s empire by beginning with a minor offense.
This empire’s scale and darkness are reflected in Lang’s Berlin, a city built atop centuries-old masonry and still possessed of a strange, earthy mystery. The subtly fantastic art deco architecture and decoration cast a surprisingly Gothic pall over the proceedings. Here, luxury tilts into utter decadence, pitting the serene rich against less fortunate individuals, most often huddled here in shadows.
The particular look of this decadence and abuse is visible in Kino’s DVD release of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, digitally restored from surviving negatives in 2002 by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung. Although no score from the original theatrical release survives, the film has been rescored by Aljoscha Zimmermann, who discusses the scoring process at detail in the bonus featurette, “The Music of Mabuse.” This composition provides no jarring anachronisms, as with some recent rescorings of silent films, using a small orchestra and the techniques available in 1922. The result is true to the “feel” of the times, replicating a breathless, staccato rhythm.
This rhythm guides Mabuse to his end. The punctuated “Bolero”-esque march that accompanies his journey across Berlin eventually falters when he loses his own momentum. Harried by the police and the military, his organization in ruins, he stumbles into his underground sanctuary, where he is haunted by his horrendous crimes. He is defeated, less by the efforts of brave and noble authorities, than by his overreaching.