Thursday, 15 May 2008

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. MABUSE (McFARLAND)

To Jacques CHAMPREUX

Hiding in the Darkness, a mysterious mastermind gambles on the weaknesses of the human souls to achieve his sole purpose : the destruction of the civilized world. In five books and twelve movies, under many aliases, many disguises, Dr. Mabuse challenges Humanity.

David Kalat investigates in one of the most interesting books ever dedicated to genre cinema.

« He's stronger than you. He is like a God. » (Cara Carozza in Dr Mabuse der Spieler - quoted in The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 5)

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

« There is a devil loose in Germany, and one day I think I saw the devil myself...» (Norbert Jacques)

Uncertain times generate all kind of nightmares, but some of these beautiful dreamers which are litterary authors are given the ability to exorcize their fears of these troubled ages by translating the dark recesses of their visions through the creativity of their imagination : Moriarty, Fu Manchu, Fantômas... Mabuse, perils of their times, room 101 of their creators. Something wicked this way comes, and Norbert Jacques has seen it.

« Dr. Mabuse operates in the shadows, ruling a world that does not even know his name. » (David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 3)

From the ashes of a fallen empire, from the sins of a cardboard republic, in a country trying to recover from one of the most horrible wars, emerges Dr Mabuse der Spieler. Created by Luxemburg-born journalist turned author Norbert Jacques in 1921, Mabuse first terrifies millions of german readers of the Berliner Ilustrierten Zeitung in a five episodes serial for this magazine, then becomes a best-seller in hardback edition.

« Dr Mabuse der Spieler (« Dr Mabuse the Gambler ») depicts a criminal Führer who exploits social decay to his private advantage » (David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 14). Everything is said and all ressemblances between the « Man without a Face » and a Man with a mustache on his face is the result of circumstances... or prescience. Why « Dr. », by the way ? « Germany knows well from countless experiences the effects titles like Doctor, Professor or Count can have on trust and respect. How often have people hung such titles like a curtain in front of certain truths they don't want to have recognized » explains Jacques in 1928. There's someone behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and this is not the Wizard of Oz.

« He ushered into the world a figure that escaped him. » (David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 11)

Then enters a Mabuse in his own respect : German cinema aspiring Wonder boy, womanizer and camera dictator Fritz Lang. Lang adapts Dr Mabuse, der Spieler in 1922 with a two-part movie scripted by him and his wife Thea von Harbou... former wife of the star of the film (in the title role), Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

LANGER, LANGER ZEIT

« With his monocled eye, barking orders in his German accent, Lang typified Hollywood of the 1930's and ‘40 s. It was an image that swiftly turned into cliché , the sadistic stereotype of the Germanic director. » (Page 20)

Fritz Lang can be considered of one of the fathers of the modern commercial cinema, creating as a writer, a director or both, the codes and conventions for adventure films long before movie buffs began to cry for an « Indy IV » (Die Spinnen, Indische Grabmal), conspiracy thrillers (Mabuse), science fiction (Metropolis), 007 movies (with Spione - just watch Octopussy with the work of Lang in mind) or Film Noir (M). Close to him sits Alfred Hitchcock, minus the flamboyance and the genius, and his North by Northwest (1959) - the mother of all the summer pop-corn blockbusters.

« Alfred Hitchcock (who freely borrowed from Lang, much to his ire) took inspiration from this sequence [the police raid on Mabuse headquarters] for a very similar climax in his 1934 picture The Man who knew too Much. » (Page 58)

Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang take the original Mabuse material from Norbert Jacques and make it their own without betraying the author (who collaborates with the duo on the adaptation), with a subtlety equaling the complexity of their professional and personal partnership (« We were married 11 years, because for ten years we didn't have time to get divorced » cynically admitted Lang). But at the cost of Jacques's descent into collective oblivion (« Jacques did not help matters by largely setting his ambitious litterary projects aside in a vain attempt to recreate the Mabuse magic », Page 16) - finally the man sold the property of Mabuse to the successive masterminds behind the cinematographic life of his creature.

« To get one sequence just the way he wanted, Lang fired real bullets at his cast to achieve truly realistic onscreen gun-shots and bullet holes. » (Page 31)

The two-part action packed Mabuse epic is critically acclaimed and is a domestic hit, establishing Fritz Lang as a prominent director in Germany. But parallel to the golden rule that « the Mabuse Principle demands that Mabuse destroys himself » (Page 31), Herr Lang burns « bridges both behind and ahead of him, abusing and exploiting all around him » (Page 21) and nearly ruins Ufa, the german answer to Hollywood majors of the time, with his Metropolis (1926).

M SCHLÄGT ZU

« Hitler understood the significance of film... » (Joseph Goebbels - quoted page 62)

You can't keep a « good » movie villain dead, or even in a mental institution, forever. The constant public demand to a Mabuse sequel pressures Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou to plan a « Mabuse II ». In 1930, the couple consult Norbert Jacques on the script of what is at the time titled Mörder unter uns (Murderers Among Us, released as M the following year) and Lang asks him for suggestions in order to bring back the mad doctor on the screen (« behind » the screen would be more proper, talking about Mabuse....)

Jacques « pitches » Mabuse Kolonie (Mabuse's Colony), his new book project, as a possible basis for such a follow-up. In Kolonie, a mysterious « dragon lady » known as Frau Kristina wants to establish her own mini-empire in the Brazilian jungle and the modus operandi of her criminal project is based on Dr. Mabuse's legacy. Lang feels a lack of cinematic potential of this story but retains the idea of a Last will and Testament. Mabuse will return.

« History was catching up with Art. Dr Mabuse had arrived. » (Page 34)

The sole trail to a gang of counterfeiters, a corrupt ex-cop working undercover, goes insane but leaves a clue to his former superior, Inspector Lohmann - the cynical old dog with new copper tricks from M (played again by Otto Wernicke) and this clue is a name : Mabuse. The problem is that Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, of course) has been locked in the cell of an asylum for a decade and the criminal mastermind is almost a vegetable.

Flashback... 1924, Adolf Hitler is in a cell after a failed coup, and writes Mein Kampf, his manifesto. Fast forward... January 1933, the Nazis come to power in Germany while Lang is shooting simultaneously Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse and Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse (a French version with a French cast and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Everybody's favourite evil Mastermind). Due to premiere on March 24 in the same theatre that hosted the first Mabuse in 1922, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is delayed « for technical reasons » and then officially banned by the German Board of Film Censors, a puppet entity between the hands of Dr. Joseph Goebbels - Hitler's minister of propaganda.

Fritz Lang flees to America. The legend will later tell the tale of a meeting with Dr. Goebbels, like his master a true fan of Lang's work since Die Nibelungen (1924), where Goebbels tempts Lang with a Faustian deal regardless of the jewish origins of the director. Anyway the one who is seduced by « the dark side of the Force » is Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife.

ATZE BRAUNER, DER SPIELER

« This would be the legacy of Artur Brauner. As would happen time and again throughout the history of film, commercial success was bought at price to one's artistic reputation. For everything that Brauner did to revive and reinvigorate German cinema, he would be forever regarded as a glorified P.T. Barnum. » (Page 132)

The prospect of second Mabuse resurrection originates from the dream of a man to rebuild the cinema industry of this country, a genius with an authentic taste for Art and a real sense of commerce, first dealing to equalize both before surrendering to box office canons with profit. Despised by his pairs and critics but tacitly approved by the german public, snubbed by movie historians, Artur « Atze » Brauner is the third father of Mabuse after Norbert Jacques and Fritz Lang.

Founder of CCC Films in 1946, Brauner wants to lure back to Germany the director of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, the film who gave him the will and the strength to reach the top of the food chain of the german cinema industry. « It was the first true gangster film, garnished with every delicacy that would then become typical of this genre... » once recalled the man with the most sincere emotion.

« Lang makes you want to puke. Nobody in the whole world is as important as he imagines himself to be. I completely understand why he is so hated everywhere. » (Kurt Weill - quoted page 92)

Perceived as a « little dictator » in the United States, a Mabuse with a monocle, Fritz Lang « had fought almost everyone in Hollywood from the most revered of moguls to the most anonymous of technicians » (Page 111) - to the point that some even wanted to kill him - changing studios at the speed of light, the director of The Big Heat (1953) puts methodically nails the coffin of his US career in the most mabusian self-destructive way.

Artur Brauner, the most powerful movie tycoon of postwar Europe, dreams of a remake of Das Testament but seduces the Great Herr Lang's ego with an offer his vanity cannot refuse : the remake of the two-parter Indische Grabmal (1921) scripted by Thea von Harbou and Lang but directed by Joe May, much to Lang's discontent. The wonderful Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal (1959) are paned by malicious critics. Behind the curtain, Mabuse awaits...

LA VENGANZA DEL DR. K

« I already killed that son of a bitch ! » (Fritz Lang)

A Berlin cop (Gert Fröbe), an american businessman and playboy owner of a nuclear plant (Peter Van Eyck) and a young and beautiful damsel in distress (Dawn Addams) are the pawns on a luxory but deadly chess-board... the Hotel Luxor. And the game is watched by 1000 eyes monitoring the private lives of the guests in the palace. Only a psychic (Lupo Prezzo) and a psychiatrist (Wolfgang Preiss) seem to know the rules and why is an irritating insurance salesman (Werner Peters) the only one in position to checkmate the Master ?

Mabuse is dead, long live Mabuse ! Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse(The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960) is the swan song, the testament of Fritz Lang. Perils of troubled times, room 101 of a creator, from the anticipation of the Nazi terror to the nuclear Angst of the sixties and the intrusion of technology in everyday life, something wicked this way comes, and Fritz Lang has seen it all. Instead of the remake wished by Brauner, Lang offers a brand new Mabuse. 1000 Augen is a hit in Germany and is regarded as a masterpiece in France. Brauner offers the Master to helm a franchise but Lang refuses.

« There is no Mabuse because « Mabuse » is not a name, not in the traditional sense. It is a sign. It is a password. It is an ideology » (David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 5) .

Stop the press ! (the Yellow Press ball ?) The strength of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, by David Kalat, lies here : Mabuse survived Fritz Lang and Mr Kalat recalls us that reality. Dr. K is not only the author of one of the greatest books ever written about a genre movie series (with Focus on... The Pink Panther by Philippe Lombard) but also the boss of All Day Entertainment, a company releasing Collector's Editions of « Cult movies » on DVD. « My passion for the Mabuse series drove me to write this book, and it also drove me to license some of them for DVD release through All Day » confesses the man almost as an apology for those who could consider that this situation could affect his comments. Rather call this professional consciousness...

« If Lang would not cooperate, his low-rent doppelgänger Dr. Harald Reinl would » (Page 143). Like specialist Jean-Pierre Dionnet during the wonderful and glorious hours of Cinéma de quartier for french pay-tv channel Canal Plus, David Kalat puts the spotlight on the « others » Mabuse : six movies produced between 1961 and 1970 deliberately ignored or despised by movie critics or historians.

DR. MABUSE SCHLÄGT WIEDER ZU

« Reinl retooled the Mabuse genre he inherated from Lang. Discarding any pretensions to art, he rebuilt it as a franchise, with an easy-to follow formula. And his contributions were significant : Lang directed three Mabuse films, Reinl two. » (David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, Page 145 )

Artisan and artist extraordinary, king of german box office at the heights of his career, the name of Harald Reinl is associated to the Golden Age of Germany's popular cinema : Edgar Wallace, Winnetou, Jerry Cotton, Kommissar X... and of course Mabuse. With its omnipotent all-star yet invisible (almost...) villain - Wolfgang Preiss, the return of his challenger, Inspector Lohmann (Gert Fröbe - he was called « Kras » in the previous episode but who cares ?), the mysterious triple-crossing charming superspy (Lex Barker) and the gorgeous lady with a secret (Daliah Lavi), The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961) delivers with style top-notch entertainment. And why has that guy Bömmler the face of the insurance salesman of 1000 Augen (the great Werner Peters) ?

The Return scribe Ladislas Fodor pens two more Mabuse : The invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), directed by Reinl (with Lex « the Rex » Barker again) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse . Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1962) is directed by Werner Klinger, another artisan, who realizes Artur Brauner's dream of a remake of the Fritz Lang's masterpiece. The next entry, Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (1963) transposes heavily Mabuse into the Edgar Wallace franchise (through the adaptation of a book of his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace) and The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964) strikes too much like Thunderball (released... the following year - another mabusian trick ?)

« Even Brauner himself seemed a triffle scandalized by the whole affair ; of the eight films he produced with Jess Franco, La Venganza del Dr. Mabuse (« The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse », 1970) is the only one not listed in CCC's official catalogue of films. » (Page 239)

They say that all good things must come to and end but Dr. Mabuse is all but good and his evil never ends. He resurfaces in Spain with La Venganza del Dr. Mabuse (1970). Produced discretely by Artur Brauner, this Vengeance in color is directed by the most revered icon of the genre cinema : el Don of B to Z movies with an attitude, spanish director Jesus Franco himself. Die Hard with a Vengeance ?

DR. M LIVES

« No one will discover me. No one imagines that Dr. Mabuse lives. » (Professor Farkas in La Venganza del Dr. Mabuse)

The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse - A Study of the Twelve Films and Five Novels, by David Kalat (published by McFarland) not only explores the universe of the litterary Mabuse and the « official » movies but also, two movies : Scream and Scream Again (1969) and The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press (1984) he associates to the character.

« Chabrol's love of Lang is absolute. » (Page 275)

David Kalat ends his fabulous book with a study of the excellent Club Extinction (aka Dr. M, 1990), the Claude Chabrol tribute to the Langian visions of Mabuse. Dr. Marsfeldt is the last heir of the testament of Dr. M, or is he ? Mabuse lives through the book of Mr Kalat, a celebration of one of the monuments of popular german cinema, a cinema unfairly ignored. Mabuse will return, he always does.

Uncertain times generate all kind of nightmares, but some of these beautiful dreamers which are authors are given the ability to exorcize their fears of these troubled ages by translating the dark outposts of their visions through the creativity of their imagination : Moriarty, Fu Manchu, Fantômas, Mabuse... Marsfeldt, perils of their times, room 101 of their creators...

« ... From this summary of recent events, what meaning can we deduce ? Can we recognize the coming apocalypse ? What horrible future do these signs portend ? » (Norbert Jacques, Mabuse Kolonie, 1930)

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