Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
“The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age”, the first part (in 6 acts) of Fritz Lang’s 1922 Expressionistic crime epic Dr. Mabuse, introduces us to the famous Doctor Mabuse, hypnotist, telepath, master of disguise and, last but not least, criminal mastermind. Through a cast of characters he expertly embodies, Mabuse (the stunning Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who here rivals Chaney) controls the underworld, but is mostly seen tormenting the young socialite Edgar Hull. Under the guise of Hugo Balling (yes — ballin’), Mabuse infiltrates Hull’s gambling circles, systematically ruining him in every facet of his life until Hull is eventually killed. Prosecutors and aristocracy get involved, things get far more complicated and a lot is left to be resolved in Part Two…
Striking example of Lang’s visual bravado, Dr. Mabuse (which would be followed by two sequels, 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and 1960’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) engulfes Berlin in a slimy nightmare of slant angles and organized crime, gambling and corruptio — further perpetuating a cycle of German films concerned with the figure of the tyrant or the post-WWI tyrannic presence at the period (from Nosferatu to the aforementioned Testament of…), both prefiguring and foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party a decade later.
Yet before such subtext is even perceptible, Mabuse is a hypnotic, dense and ambitious (clocking at more than 4 hours) crime saga that places you on the side of the villain: a bold thing for Lang to attempt and an early exploration of the urban underworld that would lead to masterpieces such as M (1933). And as if the sheer scale of this project wasn’t enough, Lang would tackle the two-part epic Die Nibelungen in 1924.