Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... DR. MABUSE––THE GAMBLER (1922)

Only now does it occur to me... a few thoughts about DR. MABUSE––THE GAMBLER, a criminally underrated work in the Fritz Lang oeuvre. 

While, like some epics of the era, it doesn't quite have enough plot to justify it's four-and-a-half hour runtime, it's still a dizzying, edgy roller-coaster of pure Weimar id, German Expressionistic fantasy, and creeping zeitgeist horror. Probably better translated as "DR. MABUSE––THE PLAYER" (in German, "spieler" refers to game-player, gambler, actor, and puppeteer, and Dr. Mabuse is certainly all four). 
Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge, the mad doctor of METROPOLIS) is a hypnotist/gangster/psychologist/master-of-disguise/general trickster/proto-Batman villain whose schemes have enveloped most of Berlin. The great film theorist Siegfried Kracauer saw Mabuse as among a "procession of tyrants" in post-WWI German film who foreshadowed the rise of Hitler.

Fritz Lang is really at the height of his powers here: in his staging and imagery, in his use of texture and dimension, in his contrast between stillness and motion––whether he's depicting a the mass hallucination of a Bedouin procession in a Berlin theater:

Otherworldly séances:

Powerful tableaus that resemble Renaissance paintings:

The expressionistic/Bauhaus interior design of Weimar's 1%:
For all its stylish exaggerations, it's an important time capsule of the era.

Decadent Weimar nightlife realness:

Which includes one unforgettably over-the-top display of insanity, whereupon a pas de trois commences between a dancer and two giant, terrifying (papier-mâché?) heads with exceptionally phallic noses and suspiciously testicular cheekbones.
These dudes seem to like the production design just fine

Then, in a visual worthy of Ken Russell, she ascends the noses and dances atop them until they climax with a "sneeze" that, incidentally, blows away most of her outfit and leaves her with
a creepy baby...
Hot damn, Fritz! Legitimately one of the more unexpected sequences in a silent––or any––film.

Finally, I must note the majesty of  Mabuse's descent into madness, which definitely prefigures the Moloch sequence from METROPOLIS. Here, pieces of industrial equipment are reimagined as quasi-mythical monstrosities which come to life and torment the much-deserving Dr. Mabuse.
It's also worth noting that this is the state in which we find Mabuse at the beginning of THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933), Fritz Lang's brilliant sequel, which I also cannot recommend enough.

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