I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Nazi Allegory: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse


by Kerry Flint
Feb. 29, 2012

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, directed by Fritz Lang in Germany in 1933, is a sequel to his silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). In that film, the title character was driven insane by the collapse of his criminal empire. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is set eleven years later and features many cast and crew members from Lang's previous films and is Lang’s second sound film after M (1931). 

The film portrays criminal insanity and terror, and is a far-from-subtle cipher for Hitler and the Nazis' rise to power in Lang's native Germany -- Lang confirmed this himself at the film's premier in New York (1943): 'This film’s meant to show Hitler’s terror methods as in a parable. The slogans and beliefs of the Third Reich were placed in the mouths of criminals' (1). According to Lang, after the banning of the film in Germany in 1933, he was summoned by Goebbels to the Ministry of Propaganda and told that Hitler was a fan of his earlier films Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Lang was offered a position as the head of UFA, the new agency supervising motion-picture production in the Third Reich. He responded by fleeing Germany at midnight, travelling from Berlin to Paris by train.

In this film, Lang conjures up a hostile cold world where danger lurks in the shadows, and a cold inhumanity is obvious from the beginning. The opening music distorts into loud factory sounds. Cold, industrial modernity is symbolic of the mechanical inhumanity of the Third Reich. Unlike in Lang's Metropolis, we cannot see this machinery; we just hear its presence creating an ominous suspense from off the screen. The industrial sounds work to distort and impose on the visual action in the film and, at points, engulf the action, thereby demonstrating the new mechanical presence that was gaining power and momentum. Coupled with the actor’s uneasy expression, this conjures a sense of entrapment, impending danger, and overriding fear that culminates in the image of the exploding barrel that bursts into flames.

Throughout the film Lang continues to develop a sense of suspense by portraying a world of contrasting shadows over stark bare walls and dark unknown spaces. Unnerving editing, contrasted with slick cinematography, offer a stark depiction of a criminal underworld. Lang encourages the audience to gain a sense of madness by presenting a dream-like reality of unfamiliarity alongside strong fantastical elements. In the film, the ticking of a bomb becomes the tapping of an eggshell; the everyday feels creepy and dangerous. The characters are shown to be as unstable as their surroundings, and there is a consistent sense of lack of control, symbolized by the central character, Dr. Mabuse.

Dr. Mabuse is an insane criminal at the centre of the mystery. This mystery and unease stems from this single character whose been locked in an asylum for over a decade. It is from these confines that the mute Mabuse concocts plans of terror. Dr. Mabuse represents the Nazis and their ethos. As Lang himself confirmed, 'I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans’ (2)In one particularly dark scene, Mabuse's spirit infiltrates his psychologist, Dr Baum, who offers one of the film’s most poignant pieces of dialogue: '[w]hen human kind becomes ruled by terror...then is the Hour for the Mastery of Crime.' After this declaration, Baum goes insane and checks into his own asylum. The madness is spreading. This scene is a stunning example of German Expressionism, as we are transported into dark spaces, where masks and shadows engulf and distort, giving the audience an insight into Baum’s experience as his mind is corrupted and he slips into psychosis.

To make the film more realistic for audiences and add credibility, Lang took many of the incidents in the film, such as theft of explosives and jewel robbery, from news he read in the German newspapers at the time. Although Lang endeavoured to make a realistic film, his expressionistic style is still at the forefront and adds to the film’s dark and eerie tone. However, the film has also been read in comparison to the melodramas that Lang went on to make in America following his leaving Germany. The use of strong lighting, plots that are recognisable in relation to the spy genre, and scenes containing shootings are also reminiscent of those seen in the later work of Hitchcock and Truffaut and have allowed the film to also be viewed as a film noir. Film writer Michael Grost asserts Lang’s influence on later directors: 'When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if any films had impressed Hitchcock during his years as a young aspiring filmmaker, Hitchcock immediately mentioned Destiny,' one of Lang’s most famous films. (3) Lang’s influence on film is testimony to the idea that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, like many of Lang’s films, is too significant to be categorised in regards to genre. The unrealistic elements of its style and its political and geographical context render the film more complex and expressive than those expected of specific genres. Lang evokes the atmosphere of Nazi Germany inevitably rendering the film darker and more arguably more disturbing than later crime films.

In making The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Lang's created a crime film, a film-noir and a thriller that is political in that it evokes a cruel place as distorted by corruption as Germany was in 1933. What must be noted is that this film that resonates through time as the themes of instability, social control and terror are as recognisable today, as they were at any time in history, making this a highly significant and effecting piece of cinema. 

(1) http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/testament_dr_mabuse/

(2) In an interview with Mark Shivas, published in the September 1962 issue of Movie - http://www.classicfilmpreview.com/dogged-determination/s eventually lead under the care of the psychologist Professor Baum (gei).  

(3) http://www.moria.co.nz/fantasy/testament-of-dr-mabuse-1933.htm

Other Works Consulted 

http://mikegrost.com

http://www.filmcritic.com/reviews/1933/the-testament-of-dr-mabuse/

http://dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.com/2011/04/testament-of-dr-mabuse-1933.html

http://www.listal.com/viewentry/1156780

Kerry is a Writer, Stylist, Digital Consultant, Editor, Blogger and Vintage Dealer based in London. Kerry writes for and edits a number of publications alongside managing Marketing Campaigns for Fashion clients, Digital Consultancy and offering a creative input to a variety of campaigns and projects. Also a published Poet and Vintage Fashion dealer Kerry spends her spare time on Market stalls and writing the blog www.tricky-customers@blogspot.com.