Ordinarily I avoid silent films. The reason: the acting tends to be uninvolving and the pacing is distorted by the dialogue cards. Short comedies by Chaplin are rewarding, I prefer Buster Keaton’s full length silents to Chaplin’s. There there is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), the first film I watched in my first and only film class in college, Fall 1970.
The biggest exception to my ‘no silents’ inclination is the works of Fritz Lang. I made my way to Lang’s silent films via M (1931), Fury (1936) The Woman in the Window (1944), The Big Heat (1953), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). His best known if not most important film, Metropolis (1927), unfortunately, has no definitive filmic text and can be found in innumerable editions, from 80 to 153 minutes. Its premier length was 210 minutes.
My devotion to Lang is best illustrated by having watched the two-part, four hour long Dr Mabuse: The Gambler (1922). It had been ten or more years since I had first watched it and had forgotten many key elements, remembering most, if inaccurately, the extent of the chaos perpetuated by Mabuse and his gang. Also forgotten was the extent Mabuse (Rudolf Kleine-Rogge) is drawn toward two women: Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), a cabaret dancer who gathers information on intended victims and the Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker), the object his desires. Carozza, especially, is devoted to him, imagining him as inspiringly all powerful. However, Mabuse doesn’t believe in love, only in satisfying his desires, preferably through sheer will.
Part of the fascination with Mabuse – by the police, his women, his gang, and the movie audience – is his use of disguises. He eludes police detection primarily through this ruse. It’s often difficult to pinpoint him in many scenes until some time passes. State Prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) doesn’t even know who he is pursuing, not knowing his name, until three and a half hours into the film. Mabuse’s intelligence can be traced to his profession, a practicing psychoanalyst (hence, his being called ‘Dr’). He stirs up trouble under his multiple disguises. His favorite method is by playing poker (explaining ‘the gambler’ in the title). Gambling is synonymous with risk taking, amounting to his raison d’etre.
Mabuse controls the wills of people, including the State Prosecutor’s in an attempt to kill him by having Wenk try to kill himself. He causes disruption of the transportation system and stock market, with apparent disregard for the monetary spoils of these activities. His incline toward terrorism is not iterated until Lang’s follow up, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933). Mabuse, captured at the end of The Gambler, has been confined to an asylum where he is in a catatonic state. However, his will is strong enough to reassemble his gang and control the doctor in charge of his care. His activities in Testament seem more directed to bringing about the collapse of the social order.
Curiously, Mabuse doesn’t seem ready or willing to take over. The film’s removal from public viewing by the new Nazi regime fueled many writers since to compare Mabuse to Hitler. The most interesting conclusion, if such a parallel is made, likens the Nazi regime to a terrorist group that has worked its way, through the democratic process, to take power and destroy the democracy. It’s hard to imagine Mabuse running a government or creating a nation state, but in our own time, ISIS, an organization motivated by and freely continuing with terrorism, has done that very thing. By contrast, Mabuse has no historical or religious motivation. Hitler, meanwhile, was very interested in history, starting with Germany being “stabbed in the back” during World War I by the Jews, monarchists, and communists. Mabuse doesn’t make a peep about these elements nor sees himself, as Hitler saw himself, as a revolutionary,
One spots terrorist elements in Mabuse when one reads Joseph Conrad’s description of his terrorist, Verloc, in The Secret Agent:
The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition. To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct. He was a moral agent–that was settled in his mind. By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness. It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind–the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience. [my emphasis]
Conrad understood terrorists and revolutionaries. Check out Under Western Eyes for a thorough analysis of this mentality – or, better, read Dostoevski’s The Devils. Mabuse describes his worldview this way:
“When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime.
A more succinct description of Mabuse and his operations comes from The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008):
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know? I just do things.”
I am reminded of the following dialogue from The Warriors, when Luther explains to the Warriors leader why he killed Cyrus:
Swan: Why did you waste Cyrus?
Luther: No reason… I just like doing things like that.
Mabuse very much liked doing destructive things, especially getting those under his will power to execute the actions. One shudders to think that a nation could put a man in power whose rationale isn’t that much different.