Germany. Post World War One. A depression hangs over the country. Poverty, mass unemployment, high inflation and severe social unrest are tearing the nation apart. A financial chasm has opened up between the poor majority of the population and a newly created rich German upper class. Conditions are perfectly set for a deadly devious, sinister, manipulative and as yet unknown figure to emerge from the shadows. Someone like………
Fritz Langs’ 1922 opus, Dr Mabuse - der Spieler, usually known in English as Dr Mabuse the Gambler is at once an epic, intimidating, incredible and for some, overwhelming work of German silent cinema. Split into two parts, clocking in at a bum-numbing 4 and a half hours, the film takes its time in unravelling its complicated narrative. Part one, subtitled An Image of the Age, is mostly concerned with setting up our antagonist, the master of disguise and manipulation, Dr Mabuse, whilst also validating the ‘gambler’ part of the movie’s title. We see Mabuse organise the theft of a legal document enabling him to play the stock exchange and become incredibly wealthy, swindle an aristocratic playboy, outwit state attorney Von Wenk, who almost catches him, manipulate a besotted, would be lover, Cara Carozza, to aid him for his own ends and finally kidnap a Countess and imprison her in his lair.
Part Two, A Game for the People of Our Age, contains more of what we would call regular action, featuring as it does, several deaths, an attempted bombing, telepathically suggested suicide, the tense face-off between our hero, Von Wenk and Mabuse, a gangster style final shootout plus a quite haunting denouement.
I think challenging is a fair word to use in describing the viewing experience of Dr Mabuse the Gambler, certainly in one four hour plus session! However, whether viewed in one sitting or over two, as originally intended, (the two parts being released separately a couple of months apart) it is undoubtedly a rewarding experience. Expectations must be measured of course, as the movie is almost 100 years old but Lang along with his wife, Thea von Harbou, fashioned a brilliantly imaginative screenplay from the original source novel by Norbert Jacques. Produced by the great Erich Pommer, the man behind The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Faust, The Last Laugh and Metropolis amongst others and with cinematography and lighting by Carl Hoffman, (Faust), Dr Mabuse the Gambler features a terrific star turn from Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang in Metropolis) as the titular villain. Whether as himself or when donning a variety of disguises, he is always a commanding presence with his piercing, hypnotic eyes. State Attorney Von Wenk is played, manfully, by Bernhard Goetzke (Die Nibelungen) and the cast also includes Alfred Abel, (Joh Frederson from Metropolis) as a somewhat effeminate and unfortunate aristocrat and Aud Egede-Nisson as Mabuses’ doomed moll, Cara Carozza.
We can only wonder today what audiences must have made of the ingenious visual effects in the movie. Floating, disembodied heads, double exposure trickery, clever transitions, vivid neon lettering on a gaming table and best of all, phantasmic words, literally, leading a character to a car accident and certain doom are all credibly realised. Mention must also be made of the ground breaking car chase sequence in Part One, being an early example, in at least one shot, of night-time location filming and for featuring a camera in a moving car, looking out the back window at a pursuing vehicle. All of these effects would be easily achieved now but in 1922 they must have been game changing and for an audience, spellbinding.
Fritz Lang made a trilogy of Dr Mabuse films with the sequel, Das Testament der Dr Mabuse arriving in 1933 and finally, Die 1000 Augen der Dr Mabuse being released in 1960 but the character was in fact the creation of one Norbert Jacques, a Luxembourg born, turned German national, journalist/author. Jacques seems to have been quite a prolific writer for a time, with 17 credits on IMDB but he is ultimately best known for his tales of Dr Mabuse.
Dr Mabuse the Gambler is presented in an aspect of 1.33:1 and given a 1080p encode which means it is framed for a 4:3 screen (vertical Black bars either side of the image) before the widescreen 16:9 HD format became the norm. In a title card before the film we are told that we are watching a restoration done in 2000 by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, based on a camera negative for distribution in Germany and an export negative from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin. This version follows a reconstruction by the Filmmuseum Munchen from 1991. The intertitles were taken from the negative. Missing, faulty or damaged titles were revised and restored with the help of the censor records. The master negative of this edit was used for the 2K digital version.
So how does it look?
The quick answer is – very good but with limitations. Again, expectations must be held in check because of the age of the film. I compared this new Blu-ray edition to my old DVD copy and the difference in brightness, contrast and fine detail is quite startling. However, this improved brightness brings with it a minor caveat. The flickering effect, common with old movies and present on the DVD edition but not annoyingly so, is much more noticeable in this ‘brighter’ Mabuse. The effect does calm down but in the early scenes I found it terribly distracting. I don’t know if more can be done to the current negative or not but I do know that my Blu-ray editions of Metropolis, M and Murnau’s Sunrise do not show the amount of flicker on display in the early stages here.
Black levels are mostly fine but not consistently so. There is an occasional brief but badly damaged scene, there are still a fair amount of spots, flecks and specks present and there are one or two scenes where the picture visibly wobbles. These issues however, are all quite understandable for a film of this vintage and are far from distracting for aficionados of silent cinema. Image detail and clarity is much improved with the patternation visible in stone walls, ornate carvings in door frames, different textures on clothing and close ups of faces all looking fabulous. Grain is natural and film-like with only a few scenes where I spotted it dancing around. Eureka have provided English subtitles where required but unfortunately they have been rendered in white and can be quite difficult to discern over the white text of the intertitles at times. Perhaps yellow would have suited more. Overall though, this is a very fine presentation and the best I’ve ever seen it, despite the flickering evident early on.
The film has a lossless 2.0 stereo audio track and it conveys the new chamber orchestra score by the late Aljoscah Zimmerman very well. The score compliments the visuals beautifully and at times reminds me of some of the early experimental 1960s’ Doctor Who scores with its piano, violin, woodwind and marimba vibe.
Once you’ve watched the film at least a couple of times, do yourself a favour and listen to David Kalats’ audio commentary which runs the entire length of the two parts and is fascinating. Kalat is a Fritz Lang expert and the knowledge and information he imparts throughout the commentary is extremely insightful and well conveyed. He is enthusiastic, affable and a goldmine of trivia on all aspects of Lang’s films. Importantly, he never sounds like he’s reading from an essay and he never dries up for four and a half hours!! Kudos to Mr Kalat for one of the most exhaustive commentary tracks I’ve ever listened to. Also included is an interview with composer Aljoscah Zimmerman, who died in 2009, playing through and explaining some of the musical cues in the movie, a ten minute featurette on the creator of Mabuse, Norbert Jacques and a brilliant half hour documentary called Mabuse’s Motives which examines Mabuse in the context of other German silent films, its history and significance going forward. This documentary also includes Lang himself, from archival video interviews. These three extras are all in German with English subtitles available. Eureka also usually provide a worthy booklet with their releases but I don’t have it to review.
It seems churlish to gripe over a minor issue like image flickering when the fact is we are very fortunate to have the film to view at all in such fine form. A legendary, hugely important silent movie and the first in a series for the sinister Dr Mabuse, the Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is a definite upgrade from the DVD edition. Throw in the superlative commentary from David Kalat and the three worthwhile featurettes and you have a package which more than compensates for some minor, age related, image issues.