Fritz Lang’s inventively written and imaginatively shot (Karl Vash, Fritz Amo Wagner) cautionary tale of “The Empire of Crime” has as much to say about the rise of Nazism in the ‘30s as it does about present-day government bullies and terrorists around the globe.
The overarching notion that there is little justice that can be meted out to those whose dreadful acts are deemed to be due to insanity (real, feigned or imagined) also rings pathetically true whether in glorious black-and-white (as is this marvellous remastering from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series based on a number of sources) or viewers’ colourization drawn from the near-daily depictions of death, destruction and mayhem on news screens everywhere.
The primary special effect is the ghostly appearance of Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge with truly hypnotic eyes) as he directs his worldly surrogate, Professor Baum (a largely, if necessarily, one-dimensional performance by Oskar Beregi—notable for the passionate, bug-eyed defence of his patient/commander) to bring about a senseless reign of terror onto the good citizens of Berlin.
To carry out the nefarious deeds, a highly disciplined, organized gang (broken into a variety of cells, so like today’s need-to-know, some-but-not-all revolutionaries) who dutifully appear on cue and take their orders from “the boss” who is never seen but always heard, delivering his assignments from behind a curtain, has been recruited. Tellingly, Tom Kent (Gustav Diessl plays the conflicted crook, convicted murderer—a love triangle—louder than life) was driven to this life of crime because of Germany’s staggering unemployment rate: a situation that has forced millions more into the military or criminal activity (in some cases, the both are synonymous) since the first instance of economic inequality.
Tom’s love interest (meeting in the unemployment office, no less, where she had a job…) comes in the petite, severely parted form of Lilli (ready and willing to take on the role of naïve beyond belief is Wera Liessem).
What must pass for the hero of this fantastic tale is the opera loving (Die Walküre is featured in and out of the cuckoo’s nest) cigar devotee, “I never get to the first act” Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke is appropriately wily but slips over the abyss into the realm of buffoonery in a couple of scene— think Oliver Hardy with a German accent). His character is more catalytic than instrumental to the mystery of just how the testament of an apparently dead evil genius can trigger such catastrophic, no-goal-but-striking-fear-into-the-populace events.
Seen now, more than eight decades after the original production (which, understandably took its time being allowed to reach its intended audience) is to laugh at the definitely not subtle orchestration (screaming into the ear more than the collective angst of the actors), a revolver that seems to have an endless supply of bullets, a gun battle that defies all logic but permits the charging Inspector to singlehandedly disarm Mabuse’s henchmen, and a car chase where the “what’s to stop them?” obstacles are as predictable as Hitler’s rise to power.
Nonetheless, the film’s closing sequence comes full circle in a chilling manner, subliminally reminding thoughtful viewers that the villain’s surname is filled with “abuse.” JWR