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Movie Review – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933 - Germany)

Updated on February 10, 2012

The film is a perfect puzzle, which demands the viewer to put the pieces together after the film is over—am I talking about The Usual Suspects , Memento or maybe L.A. Confidential ? No, go back a few years; okay, go back further, even further, how about go way back, to 1933 and the birth of the sound era? The puzzle is the complex and creepy plot of a remarkable Fritz Lang film, and I challenge anyone not be hit over the head by the action-packed first ten minutes of this terrific talkie! Sound in film was brand new, and Lang uses it to tell the story in ways that transcend speaking. Watch the movie and within a few minutes you will hear what I mean.

Watch the original 1933 trailer:

The eponymous character, Dr. Mabuse, was introduced by Lang in Dr. Mabuse: der Spieler , the first part (and the first eight-reels) of Lang's twenty reel, two-part silent 1922 crime thriller, Dr. Mabuse . The German “der Spieler” can be translated as The Gambler, but with equal veracity as “The Player,” “The Actor” or “The Puppeteer,” and the silent film has been released under all those possible English titles. Most often the second half of the saga is titled Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age (Part II - Inferno: Ein Spiel um Menschen unserer Zeit ) and packaged separately from the first part, although I have seen both portions offered together on one DVD. Lang’s film was base upon the 1921 Norbert Jacques novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler , and reflects the economic turmoil and paranoia of the times, when Europe was racked by repeated bouts of financial crisis. Dr. Mabuse is an early representative of what became a classic film villain: the criminal mastermind set upon achieving control of (or, possibly, the destruction of) the world. He also has the power of psychology on his side, as well as hypnosis and the ability to wield mind control over his victims. Mabuse’s motives go beyond mere greed and seem as mysterious as those of any villain from a Bond film. Lang’s work presents Mabuse as a fully formed psycho/genius, and we are left to puzzle over what created him, or not, as we choose.

When Lang revisited Dr. Mabuse in 1933 (played once again by Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the situation in Germany had not improved; if anything, the economy was even more fragile, the political situation even more precarious, and the prevalent paranoia had become institutionalized by the rise of National Socialism and Adolph Hitler. Lang’s use of his fictional Dr. Mabuse to satirize contemporary events and attitudes was not so veiled as to pass unnoticed by those in power; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned by Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, for what was perceived as its subversive tone and the prospect that it might "incite people to anti-social behavior and terrorism against the State".

The Diabolical Dr. Mabuse

What came next is a parable of art versus oppression; in a story told later by Lang, Goebbels summoned him to explain in detail why the movie would not be released. saying that he was a great fan of Lang’s Metropolis and offering Lang a position as the head of the Reich Department of Cinema. Lang noted that his mother was Jewish. "We will decide who's Jewish and who's not!" Lang said Goebbels replied. Lang went home, gathered all the cash he could lay his hands on and took the first train out of Berlin to Paris. (There are those who dispute Lang’s version of events, by the way, but that was his story, and he stuck with it for the rest of his life.)

This film thus has historical value as a pioneering sound film, a political statement and the culmination of Lang’s musings on his mercurial main character. But that’s not why you should watch it; you should watch The Testament of Dr. Mabuse because it’s a very, very good movie!

Highly recommended.

Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.

(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at

Genre: Drama, Art House & International, Mystery & Suspense, Classics

Rating: Unrated

Running time: 2 hr.

Directed By: Fritz Lang

Written By: Fritz Lang, Norbert Jacques

In Theaters: Jan 1, 1933 Wide

On DVD: May 18, 2004

Originally distributed by: Nero-Film AG


Rudolf Klein-Rogge - Dr. Mabuse

Otto Wernicke - Commissioner Karl Lohman

Gustav Diessl - Kent

Wera Liessem - Lilli

Karl Meixner - Hofmeister

Theodor Loos - Dr. Kramm

Camilla Spira - Juwelen-Anna

Paul Henckels - Lithographer

Which Fritz Lang film do you think is his masterpiece? (Another choice? Enter it in the Comments box, please)

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