The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was directed by Fritz Lang and co-written by Thea von Harbou, and was based on the character created by Norbert Jacques in the novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. This movie is a sequel of sorts to Fritz Lang’s 1922 silent movie Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The same actor plays Dr. Mabuse and the timeline follows the events of the first movie. There is also a third movie, also a sequel-of-sorts, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, from 1960. Got all that? Suffice it to say the Dr. Mabuse is a pretty popular character. He is a master of manipulation through hypnosis and just plain scare tactics. In Testament, Dr. Mabuse himself is actually in a mental institution, where he is mostly catatonic, but he writes constantly on sheets and sheets of paper, which are thought to be simply the ravings of a madman:
However, we the audience get to see that there still is a crime syndicate that appears to be run by Dr. Mabuse. He has a master plan to destroy the chemical works in town, along with robbing a bank, counterfeiting, poisoning water and destroying harvests, all in the same night. Dr. Mabuse sends out his cronies in groups, all the while delivering his commands from behind a curtain:
This movie also has a love story, as one of the miscreants in Dr. Mabuse’s gang actually has remorse for his past misdeeds, and he falls in love with a girl who works for the employment office. Aw.
It’s easy to simply drop all early German film into the “surrealist” or “expressionist” category, but this movie, at least on the surface, is a simple good old detective thriller. The difference is how Fritz Lang drops the audience in and out of scenes with little or no exposition, and the story moves quickly from one subplot to another even before the audience has time to digest what happened in a previous scene. The scenes also have a quality of not being in chronological order. It’s a bit confusing and it makes you pay attention, which means in my book it’s really quite good. Do you need to know the background of the silent 1922 film to understand this one? Not really. Would it help? Actually, probably not. This one stands quite well on its own.
This movie also has the distinction of actually being banned in Germany, and this film was the last one Lang made in Germany before fleeing. There are stories of Goebbels himself banned the film, but that he wanted Lang to make propaganda films for the Nazis. Oddly enough, one thing that is true is that Lang also did a shot-for-shot French version, with French actors, and this was the version seen in Europe, although the German version premiered in Hungary. The movie itself did not actually premiere in the US until 1943.
Strange, but certainly not as strange as the various posters for the film, like this one: