[This is my fourth entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]
Nothing I love more than a truly terrifying villain. Heroes are OK, and anti-heroes can make for morally ambiguous fun. But a villain! Someone who cooks up and executes diabolical plans! Someone who’s ambitious and charismatic, even at the cost of ethical bankruptcy. It’s gratifying to identify with a villain. I’m just a human being, you see. I’m cosmically insignificant, a speck in an indifferent universe. I like to fancy myself “good,” at least in the sense that I exhibit empathy and avoid hurting others. But when I see a villain like Dr. Mabuse, the titular mastermind of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), I can’t deny his power. He’s fearless, in control, always one step ahead! I may be a “good” person in real life, but in the dream life of moviegoing I can identify unequivocally with Mabuse and suffer nothing but a mild sense of shame.
As he skulks through the Berlin underworld, Mabuse’s authority is total. Foreshadowing director Fritz Lang’s future use of surveillance motifs (M, The Big Heat), he’s a one-man panopticon, using his victims as informants against one another. Mabuse himself, meanwhile, remains functionally invisible. Either he’s wrapped up in one of his many alter egos, or he’s slipping through cracks in the film’s expressionist architecture. He is the master of modernity, ringleader of the Weimar circus. Everyone is in Mabuse’s thrall, and life in his thrall is a waking nightmare. Of course, it takes one hell of an actor to pull off a towering figure like Mabuse, and thankfully Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later the mad doctor in Lang’s Metropolis) is equal to the task. His broad forehead, beak nose, and piercing eyes are accentuated here, making him look like a physical incarnation of a George Grosz grotesque. His swagger, too, is that of an übermensch, a man swollen with megalomania.
But Klein-Rogge, as mighty an actor as he is, doesn’t create Mabuse alone. Every second he’s off-screen, his performance is supplemented by the dark mythology that rises around him. “One of the most dangerous criminals ever,” for example, is how his police inspector nemesis describes him. “He lives above the city—big as a tower!” cries Cara Carozza, a showgirl at the dancing end of Mabuse’s puppet strings. “He is the greatest man alive!” The terror of those in Mabuse’s orbit inflates his evil stature. The film’s duration (4 1/2 hours) works similarly in his favor, since it provides ample time for him to engineer a network of alliances and betrayals. Mabuse ruins the life of one aristocrat after another; he supervises one convoluted heist after another; he bends the masses to his whims. If anything, Mabuse is too thorough of an evil genius, staging increasingly flamboyant ends for his enemies as the police close in around him.
The film’s second half (entitled “Inferno”) begins with Mabuse cocky and drunk, declaring his intent to become a titan—“churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” Yet for all this grandiose rhetoric, his empire is a mere hour or two away from crumbling. After a few more subterfuges and one scene of all-out urban warfare, he’ll be cornered and institutionalized, subjected to a system of disciplines and punishments identical to the one he so recently ruled. (This muddying of the cops/robbers dichotomy is another career-long Lang motif.) And in a final irony, he’ll be back in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, leading criminal enterprises from beyond the grave. That’s symptomatic of how Lang envisions his countrymen: decadent and weak-willed, prime targets for a villain of Mabuse’s caliber. Pessimistic? Absolutely. But vindicated by history with chilling precision, and as true now as it’s ever been.