Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse: Weimar angst

[Screenshot]This one’s intriguing in the way films from the early era of motion pictures often are. It’s an early talkie, so the artificial explicitness of the dialogue must be excused. The characterizations were generally pretty sound, working with broad but effective brush-strokes. Probably the most interesting elements of this film were, however, its effects and its themes. The special effects were pretty much the earliest of its kind, with some fairly impressive sound effects and pyrotechnics. All in all, the sound and lights and basic cinematic technique was awfully advanced, which lead to not-difficult-to-watch experience for my modern eyes. It helps that this DVD had a really clean restoration.

So onwards to theme. There’s a great temptation to read a lot of political significance into pre-World War II Eurpoean cinema, simply because it really was a continent in crisis, and everyone was working through that crisis in their own ways. So you have propaganda pieces like Александр Невский and Броненосец Потёмкин coming out of Russia, or a bit later from Germany, Triumph des Willens, for instance. But under a weakly governed crisis-ridden political and economic cloud, Germany produced some intriguingly dark film—the industrial dystopia of Metropolis; the psychological horror and expressionistic violence of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari—this was a nation working through some pretty serious trauma. Dr. Mabuse rather resembles Dr. Caligari in several respects, the most overt being the syntactic similarity of the titles. But in addition, there is the presence and plot-significance of insane asylums, with the subordinate themes of confusion about identity and reality. “Who is Dr. Mabuse, and who is the madman?” one might ask upon viewing both. Of course, this highlights a constant facet of German confusion in the interbellum: the setback to nationalism and the loss of a central authority asserting the reality of thier political and cultural worldview. The differences between the two, to some extent, shed light on changes in attitudes in the intervening decade. Some of the modifications are purely aesthetic: thematically, Mabuse is compatible with the expressionistic and abstract design of Caligari, but with a more advanced cinemacraft, Lang opted for a realistic approach. Others reflect the encroaching of reconsolidated political power: for instance, a notable theme in Mabuse is the use of crime as means to the assertion of power. Some cinephiles read this as a direct reference to Nazi chicanery (such as the Reichstag Fire), but it might just as easily be a paranoid response to the lawlessness engendered by Weimar weakness, exploited by every scheming party, not just the Nazis. It’s a fantastic look at the times, an extraordinary look into the psyche of at least one German on the eve of national catastrophe.

And, er, on top of that, it’s a really good film.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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