© 2012 William Ahearn

Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse (1933)

The second Dr Mabuse film was scheduled for its premiere on March 24, 1933 at the Berlin UFA-Palast. It didn’t happen. The Nazis replaced Fritz Lang’s film with “Blutendes Deutschland” (“Bleeding Germany”) that was described as a film of “national resurgence dedicated to the German people.” On March 29, 1933, the Filmprüfstelle (the national censor), announced “Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse” was formally banned “for the legal reasons that it threatened to endanger the public order or safety” and “on account of its cruel and depraved content.”

It is in March 1933 where the meeting between Goebbels and Lang supposedly took place and it is also where much of the Lang mystique is cultivated. Lang didn’t leave Germany until June and made subsequent trips back-and-forth from Paris to Berlin. He also made a deal with Erich Pommer — now working in Paris for Fox Europa — to direct a film in France before he even left Germany.

Lang also has stated numerous times that the film was banned because he had created an allegory of the Nazis in Dr Mabuse. Many of the German émigrés in Hollywood point out how slow Lang was to respond to the Nazis and that his films are — considering the times — apolitical at best. Der Kinematograph, reviewed the film when it opened in Vienna on May 16, 1933, and noted that the film is “superior,” but “the script makes too exaggerated a demand on the credulity of the public; in addition, the film features many crass things which could cause a certain demoralization among the public which would explain the film’s exclusion in Germany.” Variety reviewed the film’s premiere in Budapest after the Berlin banning and didn’t mention any allegories although it did note that Lang is an “ingenious director” and that the film is “long-winded.”

The gist of Lang's claim is based on Dr Mabuse saying that he would create a criminal organziation that would last for “a thousand years.” More than likely Thea von Harbou was making a biblical reference to the Revelations section where after the battle of Armeggedon, Jesus and the saints would reign on Earth for “a thousand years.” What gives credence to this theory is that the fact that Adolf Hitler didn't claim the Third Reich would last “a thousand years” until 1934, well after the film was made.

“Contrary to the statements of Lang,” Frederick Ott writes in The Films of Fritz Lang, “made ten years after the production of ‘Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse,’ there is no evidence to indicate that Goebbels or the Filmprüfstelle censored the film because it was thought to be an anti-Nazi allegory; instead, it was censored because of its criminal rather than its political theme. Lang’s interpretation appears to have been appended to [“Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse”] at the time of its American release during World War II in order to make a criminal melodrama seem significant and timely.”

Disentangling the Lang myth and seriously flawed theories about his films from the films themselves is difficult at this point since so much of it has been repeated so often that it serves almost as gospel. As early as 1943, when the French version of “The Last Will of Dr Mabuse” premiered in New York City, The New Yorker review noted: “In an introduction which he wrote recently and which appears on the screen, Mr Lang says that this sequel was made as an allegory, that he had hoped to expose, by putting Nazi doctrines in the mouths of the gang of criminals depicted in the film, the political menace that was just cropping up. It’s not quite clear to whom is due the credit for this early perspicacity, Mr Lang’s implication being that it belongs to him and the facts indicating that it must belong to either Thea von Harbou, who wrote the original scenario, or one René Sti, who did the French adaptation.”

What Lang appended his statement to wasn’t his film but a hybrid French remake that starred Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr Mabuse with a French cast and shot by the German crew that worked on the original. René Sti rewrote the script and was credited with the adaptation and dialog, as well as co-direction. It is also rarely noted that it was during this time that Harbou became a member of the Nazi party and it is highly unlikely that she would be making fun of them as psycho killers. While The New Yorker questioned the “Nazi allegory” story immediately, Lang kept telling it and told it to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1965, to the BBC in 1967, to Sight and Sound in 1967, to the authors of The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak in 1969, and to the authors of The Real Tinsel in 1970, for example. Lang would tell that story — almost word-for-word — and repeated it once again to William Friedkin in a filmed interview in 1975 that is available here that was produced shortly before Lang’s death in 1976.

In April 1933, Janet Flanner wrote in The New Yorker that Lang's film was banned and "though Lang is a Nazi, his backing was Jewish."

What’s notable about Fritz Lang is that the more his films become demystified and the more nonsense that is peeled away, the more interesting the films become and “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” is the perfect example. Not only is Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) back, so is Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), the police inspector from “M” who inspires almost as much fear in the hearts of criminals as Dr Mabuse. The gist of the story is that the hopelessly insane Mabuse is taking over the mind of his psychiatrist to continue his criminal mayhem by proxy. Numerous critics have noted parallels between Dr Caligari and Dr Mabuse and Lang tweaks their noses with a momentary expressionistic vision inside the asylum via the insanity of Detective Hofmeister (Karl Meixner). Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “it is a good, old film, well played and beautifully directed — but a battered antique, none the less.”




That “antique” quality now serves the film better than it did in Crowther’s time as the look of the film actually enhances the bizarre nature of the story. Once again, we have Lang pursuing a story that doesn’t end and instead of a moralistic crime drama, we have a procedural that leads back to where it begins and that beginning resolves and explains absolutely nothing. At the end, Inspector Lohman realizes that the events of the film are beyond the limits of the police and a mere criminal inspector is at a loss as to how to deal with an insane psychiatrist who is haunted by a ghost. The film exists somewhere between realism and another place that allows for the Langian devices of crimes in traffic, murder, rooms filling with water, ticking clocks and other sensation film flourishes that Lang seemed never to want to give up, and the modern crime film that he helped to create. Hans Beckert from “M” may be on the way to the gallows and Professor Baum might be in a padded cell and yet Lang realized these are mere players in a continuing drama that will recast the actors and move on.

The real strength of Lang’s films is that he never became a master of any particular genre other than his own. He used romanticism as a way to explore the limits of devotion and used expressionism, mostly as satire, and then adopted the New Objectivity when he needed it and abandoned it to return, once again, to a re-imagined sensation film that became more and more sophisticated each time he toyed with it. 

Produced by Fritz Lang and Seymour Nebenzal. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Norbert Jacques (characters), Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. Cinematography by Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner. Art Direction by Emil Hasler and Karl Vollbrecht       

Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke, Oscar Beregi Sr., Gustav Diessl