As well as being the man behind universally acclaimed masterpieces Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), famed Austrian-born director Fritz Lang is also renowned for a career-long infatuation with a criminal mastermind. His first foray into the underworld of this twisted manipulator was a four-and-a-half hour epic from the silent era, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), which has now been brought lovingly to Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. He went on to revisit this devious maniac twice more in talkies – with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) arguably the more successful rendering.
Based on a novel of the same name by writer Norbert Jacques, Der Spieler opens with a convoluted, but perfectly orchestrated, robbery of some commercial contracts that allows the nefarious Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to take advantage of the resulting stock market panic. He’s in one of the disguises that will become his trademark and appears in the next sequence in a card game with well-to-do young gent, Hull (Paul Richter). Mabuse hypnotises Hull and cleans him out, but the young man’s ensuing confusion alerts impetuous prosecutor, von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The determined official develops a theory regarding a spate of such incidents and sets about trying to track down the mysterious perpetrator.
Meanwhile, perennial felon Mabuse utilises a crew of underlings to manage his various rackets particularly exploiting smitten actress Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). His wickedness then escalates as he himself becomes enamoured with rich a Countess (Gertrude Welker) and begins to bring about his own downfall amidst kidnap and depraved psychoanalytic control. It’s a lot to fit into a single film, but fortunately it has around 280 minutes to tell its story (although it is cleft in two in order to ease digestion). That is perhaps the greatest flaw in Lang’s early epic; it is too long even though it remains compelling throughout. Lapses into boredom are continually staved off by its devilish antagonist, whirlwind plot and a fantastic restoration score from Aljoscha Zimmerman.
Rather than an uneven narrative pace, Der Spieler suffers more from a general sense that things could have been tightened; scenes could have been tightened to reduce the overall runtime. There are some flashes of brilliance from Lang, however, with the first sequence in which Mabuse attempts to hypnotise von Wenk – with his bizarre invocation, “Tsi-Nan-Fu”, being particular fun. It also has a fantastic denouement (‘The Man Who Was Mabuse’) which is not entirely earned but still works very nicely. Ultimately, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler may be mostly of interest to those with a keen linking of the director or the period, but it remains great introduction to the character and a thoroughly enjoyable watch.