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Film / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (German: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) is a 1933 German noir film directed by Fritz Lang. A decade after the success of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang decided to revisit the character in the sound era, with a plot appropriately based on the eeriness of recorded sound.

In the film, it is ten years or so since the criminal empire of Diabolical Mastermind Dr. Mabuse was crushed by the authorities, and the evil doctor, driven insane by his fall, confined to a mental hospital. Suddenly, the catatonic Mabuse has reawakened and begun to obsessively scribble notes on hypothetical crimes. Which would only be of academic interest, if it weren't for the new criminal gang that seems to be putting those plans into practice. Opposing them are Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who'd appeared in Lang's previous film, M, and Kent (Gustav Diessl), a down-on-his-luck criminal who joins the gang but soon grows disgusted with their extreme measures.

This was the last film Lang made before leaving Germany. Adolf Hitler was rising to power during the film's production and would become Chancellor of Germany just two months before its scheduled release date. According to film scholar Siegfried Kracauer, Lang envisioned the film as an allegory for the threat that he posed. Accordingly, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels promptly banned it, claiming that it would encourage people to violently revolt against the government — though he reportedly kept and screened a private copy for himself. It's generally assumed (thanks to Lang's own testimony) that the rest of the Nazis recognized its nature as a Take That!, though this isn't certain. After all, the Nazis had praised M as an alleged "pro-death penalty" film.

Regardless, Lang, whose mother was a practicing Roman Catholic but Jewish by birth, left Germany soon after and made his way to Hollywood. In the 1940s, Lang claimed that the final straw was a meeting with Goebbels where the latter complemented Metropolis and asked him to make Nazi propaganda pieces. Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, who had been his screenwriter and creative partner for almost all of Lang's career, joined the Nazi Party, divorced Lang, stayed behind in Germany, and worked in the Nazi movie industry until the end of the war. A quarter-century after he left, Lang came back to Germany and made another sequel, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. The movie was remade in 1962, the remake being retitled The Terror of Dr. Mabuse in English.

Testament had a complicated release history. Lang's original German cut saw limited release in Austria and Hungary in 1933. A French-language version, shot simultaneously by Lang with French-speaking actors, became the basis for most international prints. While the Nazis initially banned Testament, they released a heavily-edited version in the late '30s. The biggest change was added narration by Inspector Lohmann stressing the Weimar setting and claiming Mabuse was Jewish.

Testament didn't reach America until 1943, in the midst of World War II, when it was again reedited, this time to emphasize the Nazi parallels. Indeed, some versions added dialogue comparing Mabuse to Adolf Hitler. In 1952, a heavily cut (from 124 to 82 minutes), English-dubbed version entitled The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse appeared, which remained the standard version for several decades. Lang's original German cut didn't resurface until 1973, when it was re-released to general acclaim.

(It should be noted that this film has a major case of It Was His Sled. To avoid the trope examples below being a block of spoiler code, the famous twist in question has not been whited out. If you really want to see the film unspoiled, don't read any further.)

This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Prologue: A classic Bond opening. The film gets off to a flying start, interjecting a narrative that appears to be in full swing as a man tries to escape from a building, narrowly missing being killed.
  • Answer Cut: Several times.
    • Lohmann says Hofmeister "must have gone out of his mind with terror", and there is a quick cut to a psychiatrist at a lecture describing exactly that condition.
    • Later in the movie the cops are discussing a criminal and looking at his picture — cut to the criminal wearing the same clothes and in the same position.
  • Arc Words: "The Empire of Crime! The Empire of Crime!"
  • As You Know: When Kommissar Lohmann's assistant tells him that someone named Hofmeister has called, Lohmann makes sure to say "Our former colleague who got into trouble with foreign currency?".
  • The Atoner: In the first act, Hofmeister wants to redeem himself before his former mentor Lohmann by investigating a money-forging operation on his own.
  • Bedlam House: Unexpectedly averted. The place isn't exactly cozy, but even though the head psychiatrist is batshit crazy, the patients don't seem to be ill-treated and most of the staff seem decent.
  • Bond, James Bond: "Gestatten Sie, dass ich mich vorstelle: Ich heiße Mabuse, Doktor Mabuse." ("Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Mabuse, Doctor Mabuse.")
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Kent and Lilli locked in a room, being given three hours to anticipate their deaths.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: When Hardy and Bredow are tailing Dr. Kramm with orders to assassinate him, they join several other cars pulled up at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. As a seemingly neverending crowd of pedestrians crosses in front of them, Bredow begins honking his horn, and soon the other drivers, Kramm included, join in, so that when Hardy shoots Kramm, the gunshot is drowned out by the sound of impatient drivers.
  • Canon Welding: This film pits Dr. Mabuse against Kommissar Lohmann from M. This is alluded to when the archivist goes to recover the files and drops the title of the first film, "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" while holding a fat document that was apparently the script of the earlier film.
  • Cigar Chomper: Lohmann's tough, aggressive personality is complemented by the near constant presence of a cigar in his mouth; almost every scene that features him impatiently interrogating suspects or asking his colleagues for updates sees him either smoking a cigar or removing one from a case and cutting it in preparation to smoke it.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Early in the film, Kent mentions having murdered two people, which motivates his extreme aversion to killing. He later confesses to Lilli that the two people were his girlfriend and the man he thought was his best friend, heavily implying that he killed them in a crime of passion after discovering them in flagrante delicto.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: When Lohmann and the police persuade the Mooks of Division 2-B to give themselves up, we hear a shot, then cut to inside the apartment to see Hardy's hand fall to the floor, the gun slipping out of his now lifeless fingers.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Baum is publicly vocal about his admiration for Mabuse even before he starts going seriously round the bend.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The scene where Hofmeister looks at Lohmann and the police doctor standing in the door of his cell briefly shows a distorted, expressionist decor very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
    • Mabuse's manifesto, in which he calls for the destruction of all that mankind has created and the re-building of an empire of crime on the ruins, was intended to parallel Adolf Hitler's calls to tear down society and re-build it as an empire that would last a thousand years.note 
  • Driven to Madness:
    • Hofmeister is about to tell Lohmann the name of the leader of the counterfeiting ring he has stumbled on when the lights go out and we hear the sounds of a scuffle. When the dust settles, Hofmeister is mindlessly singing a folk tune, which he lapses into whenever he thinks he is being watched - and when he isn't being watched, he holds an imaginary phone receiver to his ear and screams for Lohmann to pick up.
    • In the film's final scene, Baum, now so deluded that he thinks he is Mabuse (and for all intents and purposes, he may be), visits Hofmeister in his cell, triggering the latter into violently attacking him. When Lohmann, Kent, and the asylum orderlies show up, Hofmeister has finally come to his senses, but now it is Baum who is mechanically tearing up the pages of Dr. Mabuse's manifesto with a Thousand-Yard Stare.
  • Driven to Suicide: A number are reported to have happened off-screen, due to being blackmailed by Mabuse's organization.
  • Drowning Pit: Kent risks deliberately turning the room he and Lilli are imprisoned in into this, in the hope that the water will absorb the force of the explosion. Luckily for them, it does, and the water drains through the hole made by the explosion.
  • Dunking the Bomb: Mabuse, in a shining example of Bond Villain Stupidity, locks Kent and Lilli in a room with a bomb set to go off in three hours. Kent opens up the pipes and deliberately floods the room in an effort to muffle the explosion. They almost drown, but in the end it works.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Kent may willingly participate in Mabuse's counterfeiting organisation (as he tells Lilli, there's not much else an engineer with a criminal record can do to earn a living in Weimar Germany), but he draws the line at murder. A combination of being told he has no choice about killing on Mabuse's behalf and discovering that his love for Lilli is requited after all prompt him to leave the organisation (but not without a fight).
  • Exposition Victim: Dr. Kramm notices that Mabuse's manifesto includes detailed plans for a jewel robbery identical to one that is reported in that day's newspaper. He shows Professor Baum the similarities between the two and says he needs to tell the police. Unfortunately for Kramm, Baum is behind the robbery and arranges to have him shot in his car.
  • The Film of the Book: Subverted. The screenplay is based on the novel Dr. Mabuses letztes Spiel ("Dr. Mabuse's last game") by Norbert Jacques, which at the time was still unpublished and would only come out in print in 1950.
  • Flashback: When Kent invites Lilli out for coffee and tells her it's a special day for him, we flash back to six months earlier, when the then-unemployed Kent was making daily visits to the job centre at which Lilli worked as a secretary, and, seeing his desperation after three futile months looking for work, she loaned him 20 Marks to sustain him until he could get stable employment.
  • Foreshadowing: It's easy to miss (without playing the relevant scenes back to back), but the first two times Baum locks himself in his office after telling his assistant that he is not to be intruded on for any reason, his assistant tries to open his door, only to hear Baum saying "Ich möchte jetzt nicht gestört werden" ("I do not wish to be disturbed right now")... with completely identical inflections both times. This foreshadows the eventual discovery that the voice is only a recording.
  • For the Evulz: Mabuse's motivations in this film are purely to create chaos and a Hobbesian-nightmare "Empire of Crime". Lampshaded in scenes where some of his minions discuss their bemusement at why they're being paid to commit crimes that don't actually seem to make any money.
  • Grand Theft Me: One possible interpretation of the film is that Mabuse succeeds in doing this on Baum with his psychic powers. Notice that Baum stiffens when he tries to take Mabuse's pulse in the same way the victims of Mabuse's hypnosis stiffen in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Kent's barely a villain to begin with, but he rapidly turns against Mabuse once he realizes how insane his scheme is.
  • Herr Doktor: Apart from Dr. Mabuse and Professor Baum there's Dr. Hauser, who works as one of Mabuse's blackmailers.
  • High-Class Glass: Among Professor Baum's students is a woman wearing a monocle.
  • His Name Is...: Hofmeister is attacked just as he's about to tell Lohmann who the bad guy is. Unusually, instead of being killed, he's driven mad. As it turns out, Hofmeister managed to scratch the name into a window pane with his diamond ring, but it takes halfway through the movie for the police to decipher it.
  • Hypnotic Eyes: Mabuse still has them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Despite his initial disgust of the disgraced Hofmeister, Lohmann is horrified to learn of Hofmeister's being Driven to Madness and swears to get his hands on the people responsible. Lohmann also apparently treated Kent kindly while arresting him, despite his usual irascibility.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Baum's lecture on Mabuse, which gives a condensed run-down of the plot of the first film, and sets up his undue admiration of his patient.
  • Love Redeems: When Kent is told he will have to kill on Mabuse's behalf, he writes a farewell letter to Lilli begging her to forget him, even though he will never forget her. However, after he receives instructions for an operation to break into a bank vault and replace real money with forgeries, he returns to his apartment and finds a note from her saying "I love you", after which he finds her standing on the stairs outside his door. Even when he tells her that he served (most of) a five-year sentence for double homicide and could only find work as part of a counterfeiting ring, she insists she still loves him and that they can run away and start a new life together. This is enough to convince him to leave his life of crime (despite his boss' attempts to kill him for defying him).
  • The Man Behind the Curtain: Dr. Mabuse. On the surface he turns out to be a cut-out silhouette and a loudspeaker when Kent tries to shoot him, but his real identity becomes revealed eventually. Foreshadowed in Professor Baum's lecture when he describes Mabuse's role in the first movie as that of the man behind the curtain.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mabuse, again.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Whether Baum was simply mad, or whether Mabuse actually did manage to do a Grand Theft Me on him by some mystical means.
  • Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All: The central mystery is how Mabuse is achieving this.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Four of Mabuse's minions - Hardy, Bredow, Karetzki, and Griforiew - get killed or arrested because Griforiew stupidly gave his moll a stolen piece of jewelry to wear in public.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Mabuse and Baum. Also Dr. Hauser, one of Mabuse's mooks, and Dr. Kramm, who wants to report the similarities between Mabuse's notes and the off-screen jewelry heist to the police and is murdered.
  • My Brain Is Big: Baum's visions of the dead Mabuse show him like this with a huge exposed brain. (According to Word of God, this was intended to be Baum seeing Mabuse as he last saw him, while Mabuse was being dissected on the autopsy table.)
  • My Death Is Just the Beginning: Dr. Mabuse may be dead but his writings still exist, waiting to be unleashed on the world. In the finale, Baum, in his madness comes to find the doctor possessing him entirely.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Baum fully believes by the end that he is Dr. Mabuse.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Ladies and gentlemen, the Ur-Example. Lang recasts Dr. Mabuse as an evil visionary writing an insane manifesto inside his cell, promoting an "Empire of Crime" dedicated to sowing chaos and destruction. Unsurprisingly, Joseph Goebbels saw Mabuse as a Hitler analogue and promptly banned the film.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: As in M, Lohmann is modeled on Ernst Gennat (1880-1939), the head of Berlin's Mordinspektion M1, known to Berliners by affectionate nicknames like "the Buddha of the Alex" (i. e. the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz).
  • No One Sees the Boss: The gang's "boss" is seen only as a silhouette behind a curtain, which turns out to be a cardboard cut out with a microphone and loudspeaker.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: We never find out exactly what Hardy and Bredow did to Hofmeister to drive him mad.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: While Baum notes that Mabuse's condition has markedly improved, he still insists that Mabuse is insane, an assertion that is challenged by Dr. Kramm, who suggests that Mabuse is faking it. It's left ambiguous whether Kramm was right.
  • Police Procedural: Well, it's not just a sequel to the first Mabuse film, but also to M...
  • Posthumous Character: Mabuse dies halfway through the film, but his shadow looms large over the second half as he seems to continue pulling the strings of his criminal organisation from beyond the grave.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Mabuse's past as a psychoanalyst is referred to, and his psychiatrist Baum initially starts committing crimes in admiration for him and finally becomes deludedly convinced that he is Mabuse.
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: In the first act Lohmann still feels a deep sense of personal betrayal by Hofmeister's past involvement in a foreign-currency racket.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Kent, even before he realizes how deranged Mabuse's plans are. He starts the film genuinely trying to go straight and find honest work, and only very reluctantly joins the Mabuse gang to make ends meet as nobody wants to hire an ex-con, especially at the height of the recession.
  • Real Time: Not within the film, but dialogue establishes that both this and the first film are set at the time of their release, with a ten-year-ish gap in between in canon.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: For Kent and Lilli, with a time-bomb included.
  • Shout-Out: Arthur Miller in his autobiography, stated that he got the name for Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman from this film, specifically for a scene where one of the characters calls the detective "Lohmann" several times on the phone.
  • Terrorists Without a Cause: One of Mabuse's underlings talks to another about the apparent purposelessness of their criminal activities — for example, they flood the streets with drugs but are ordered to give them away rather than turn a profit. It turns out that Mabuse's true goal is not profit, but rather to plunge the world into chaos and crime.
  • Those Two Guys: Mabuse's organization dramaturgically breaks down into pairs — Kent and the Lithographer, Karetzky and jewelry expert Griforiew are the prime examples, but there is also the nameless blackmailer and his partner — where one is beginning to feel uneasy about the methods used in or the apparent purposelessness of Mabuse's wave of crime, while the other warns him not to incur Mabuse's wrath.
  • Thou Shall Not Kill: Although part of a criminal organization, Kent draws the line at murder, saying that he's already killed two people and doesn't want to repeat the experience.
  • To Create a Playground for Evil: Mabuse's motivation in this film is reduced to simply turning the world into a lawless "Empire of Crime".
  • Villain-Based Franchise: The first of the sequels in what would become an irregular but long-running example.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Baum is essentially having one throughout the film, culminating in him trying to kill Hofmeister while proclaiming himself to be Mabuse. He's finally seen sitting in Mabuse's cell, staring vacantly and ripping up Mabuse's notes.

Alternative Title(s): Das Testament Des Doktor Mabuse, The Last Will Of Dr Mabuse, The Testament Of Doctor Mabuse