Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s sequel to their adaptation of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is not nearly as grand or ambitious in scope, but ends up being its own fresh, and perhaps better, story of the hypnotist criminal mastermind. For instead of focusing on the grand crime schemes, the Testament of Dr. Mabuse is built around the lives surrounding Dr. Mabuse’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) web of crime.
After his mental breakdown in The Gambler, Dr. Mabuse is at a mental institution, locked away and no longer a harm to anyone…or so it seems. For there is still a crime crew being led by Mabuse. But none of the men have seen Mabuse with their own eyes and the criminals speculate as to why. One such criminal is Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl), not a rough sort, but one who turned to crime in desperation and now seeks to flee it before lost in its cold clutches forever.
Meanwhile, Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is seeking to discover who is behind these crime sprees. When one of his former colleagues calls him frantically one night, is cut off before delivering a secret and discovered raving mad days later, Lohmann takes on the case and attempts to find some sort of connection to the mysterious entity responsible for the latest crime spree.
Therefore, Dr. Maubse is not so much a character in the film as a presence or an idea. Besides the withering man in the mental institution, Mabuse has little form, he’s a voice, an idea, a boogie man, a monstrosity, as frightening and powerful as one can imagine him to be. His ability to carry out his will without any of his men actually seeing him is a testament to the way fear can control a person, particularly fear of the unknown.
While Dr. Mabuse impressed and frightened in The Gambler, here Mabuse is an even more frightening and powerful entity. Here it is shown how much a man can lead people without even being around, how the idea of a man, the mystery and enigma of a man, can lead an entire crime syndicate and gain control over the lives of so many. Much like The Gambler, there are uncanny parallels to Hitler’s rise to power to retroactively tease out of the film.
But more than that, the strength of the film is its interest in how Mabuse impacts the lives of those around him. By showing the affects he has on people and how that changes them, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a more grounded look at the impact of crime syndicates on the lives of people and how it can reign over people.
It’s not as ambitious, thrilling or spectacular as The Gambler, but The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is more focused, fleshing out an interesting perspective to the crime drama. While there’s certainly something to be said for the grand crime epic, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse leaves a lot of the crime as simply a backdrop for exploring the characters instead of spectacles in and of themselves.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing