Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922)
Cinema in its essence is a visual medium; the silent film can be viewed as nothing but cinema in its purest form. That’s the theory anyhow. Contemporary audiences have written pre-sound cinema as archaic and therefore unworthy of any prolonged attention beyond that which one would pay to a historical object. Looking at silent cinema with such a blinkered outlook is to neglect some of the greatest film makers and stylists of all time, especially when it comes to Germany with film makers like Dreyer, Murnau and Lang as well as German Expressionism. Masters of Cinema’s latest release falls well within that remit of style and history, with their commitment to the classics they are giving another part of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler), joining The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (1933) that was released back in 2012, leaving only 1960s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse before the set is complete.
Lang’s 1922 film is nearly 5 hours long and divided into two parts: Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit and Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit, so doing an effective synopsis wouldn’t be the most prudent of chores. However, the spine of the film sees Dr Mabuse’s crime syndicate attack the underground Berlin gambling scene with strange psychological tactics and manipulation and the investigation to solve it by State Prosecutor Wenk with the assistance of Edgar Hull, son of a millionaire industrialist. The Second Part is all about the consequences of the first 2 and half hours, as Mabuse and his would be captures are subjected to more psychological torment. This is a psychological conspiracy of the supernatural.
Calling a film too long is one of the most hackneyed statements in modern film criticisms, so to recite that very same complaint towards a classic silent film feels less than comfortable. That doesn’t make it any less true. Just 2 years later, Fritz Lang made the equally mammoth Die Nibelungen and that is a film that forged the very bones of the epic, helping out Horror and Fantasy in no small part too. It’s a sagely film of the most poetic distinction, so there is plenty to warrant that running length. That’s where the problem in Dr Mabuse der Spieler arises; it simply doesn’t have a significant enough arc to justify that intimidating runtime. At its best this is a surprisingly modern beast, at its worst its tedious stretching out minimal drama and conflict to unreasonable lengths. Add in the fact that this is a silent film and those stereotypes that define the general population’s opinion of silent cinema don’t seem all that farfetched.
Given how good the film can be the looming threat of a dreary passage is immaterial. This is a film decades ahead of its time. Taking the opening scene as an example; one of Dr Mabuse’s subordinates is openly referred to as a cocaine addict and the more tense revelations and action feel like someone muted the colour palette and the audio. It’s in work like this where Lang shows himself to be one of the godfathers of cinema. His work with cinematographer Carl Hoffmann with the close-up and the moody atmospherics is enough to quell the cynicism of the more ardently modernist filmgoer. It’s not only the technical prowess which impresses, that which stands out most is the surrealist imagery. The climax where Mabuse has to deal with the demons of consequence are bizarre, memorable and audacious enough to make up for all those moments where the film trailed off a little. As a master of German Expressionism, these images from Lang and Hoffman will endure as long as cinema itself. Even if the length is untenable, this is a lost classic from one of the most accomplished and revered filmmakers of all time.
On to that Masters of Cinema package, the supplementary features such as interviews and commentaries carry that same level of class than Eureka’s label has become renowned worldwide for. The digital mastering equally excellent, cleaning the print up to look and sound better than it ever has. Almost inevitable then that there is one issue to let the side down and that comes from the subtitles. By very definition there is no dialogue in this film so in lieu of audio there are title cards. On many occasions there are screens full of white text on a black screen, then down at the bottom of the page the subtitles have been presented in a way where you have to read white text placed over more white text. To say it’s hard to read the subtitles on these occasions would be something of an embellishment. That’s it though, for all of you cinema fans interested in the greats of the golden age – this is a must buy.
SPECIAL BLU-RAY, AND LIMITED BLU-RAY STEELBOOK, EDITIONS
• New, officially licensed 1080p presentation of the film
• New and improved optional English subtitles with original German-language intertitles
• Exclusive feature-length audio commentary by film-scholar and Lang expert David Kalat
• Three video pieces: an interview with the composer of the restoration score; a discussion of Norbert Jacques, creator of Dr. Mabuse; and an examination of the film’s motifs in the context of German silent cinema
• 32-PAGE BOOKLET featuring vintage reprints of writing by Lang and rare archival imagery.