The history of Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is a troubled and interesting one. The film was banned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, it was the last film made at the Jewish owned Nero Studios before it was forced to close down under Nazi pressure and it ultimately led to director Fritz Lang fleeing the country. Whether the film was intentionally an attack on Hitler’s reign of fear or not, it's not difficult to see why the Nazi Party would not be keen on the film with its powerful images of crime, anarchy and terror that are still striking today.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel to Lang’s 1922 two-part silent film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler). Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi), director of the lunatic asylum, provides all the information you need to know about the previous film in a lecture to students about one of the most famous case-studies of insanity. Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) was a physician leading a double life as a criminal mastermind with powers of hypnosis – a genius whose crimes eventually drove him over the edge into insanity. Locked in the asylum for 10 years in a catatonic state, Mabuse starts filling pages and pages with barely legible notes. Through some kind of supernatural power Mabuse is directing a vast network of crime operations from his cell, the notes detailing instructions on how the crimes are to be carried out. A police-detective Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) makes the important and unbelievable discovery, but before he can get the message to Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), he goes insane from the horror of the knowledge he has uncovered.
Lang’s film, like its prequel Dr Mabuse, the Gambler and ’M’, have been read as a powerful and prophetic warning of how Adolf Hitler would eventually control a nation through a reign of both abstract and very real terror. Whether this was the intention or not, both films certainly tapped into the prevailing mood and presented, for all the supernatural and genre trappings, a very real and powerful depiction of the times in which they were living. The film works less well in the traditional crime narrative sections of the film. There is little suspense generated for the viewer over the 2-hour running time and the nominal principal character is mute or in a disembodied state for much of the film. There are however several fantastic set-pieces elsewhere, from the superb opening of the trapped Hofmeister pursued to a pounding rhythm of industrial noise to the thrilling chase sequences and rapid camera movements of the finale. In between, Mabuse’s ghostly apparitions are brilliantly realised with chilling results, but the whole film never holds together to the same extent as either ‘M’ or Metropolis or Lang's similar spy-drama Spione. But just for those thrilling moments, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is compelling viewing.
Premiered in Budapest in 1933 after it had been banned and smuggled out of the country, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse wasn’t shown in Germany until 1951 in a shorter version. The negative of the shorter version still exists and the DVD presentation here has been restored from that negative with the inclusion of missing scenes from prints from other film archives. The film is presented letterboxed in the original 1.19:1 aspect ratio and the DVD is Region-free.
This is another superb restoration of a Fritz Lang film, with a clarity and luminosity comparable to the earlier restoration of Metropolis. The image is clear and sharp and shows tremendous definition in the finely detailed greyscale tones. There are one or two marks at the start of the film, some tramlines and scratches, but the majority of the film is practically spotless and free from any damage, the image remaining steady with only minor and occasional fluctuations of light. The scenes that were not present on the original negative can be easily spotted. Their quality is also very good, but they are only obvious because the quality of the print from the restored negative is so good.
The audio quality has suffered rather more. There are lots of clicks, hiss and background noise, some echo and distortion, but this varies from scene to scene. Despite this however, voices remains clear and audible and are never muffled. The original mono soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, encoded for Pro Logic, but this means that the sound is practically fixed centrally.
English subtitles are optional – white on a transparent grey band that allows them to be seen clearly at all times.
Visual Essay: "Who is behind all this?" (16:40)
The only substantial extra included is the usual informative Visual Essay by R. Dixon Smith, narrated by Russell Cawthorne. The feature looks at the earlier 1922 film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, the reasons behind the banning of the film by Goebbels, and attempts to get to the truth behind Lang’s fabulations about his meeting with the Nazi Chief of Propaganda. He briefly mentions the French version of the film, but there is no kind of comparison made of the differences between the two versions.
A photo gallery is included, containing 12 sepia-tinted stills from the film.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, while it has quite a few exceptional moments is not the best or most complete of Lang’s films, but is nonetheless a fine example of early cinema that was re-inventing itself with the arrival of sound and was still experimenting with and innovating filming techniques that would cross the ocean and heavily influence American noir. The Eureka DVD release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a little bit light on extra features, but with exceptional releases for Metropolis, M and Sunrise maybe we have been a bit spoilt recently. The actual visual presentation of the film however is astonishingly good, not just for a 70 year old film, but by any standards.