Like Fantomas before him, Dr. Mabuse is criminally unknown in the United States. The master villain was introduced in Norbert Jacques’ 1922 novel, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (also published as Dr. Mabuse, Master of Mystery). Jacques was a French journalist who had immigrated to Germany and wrote the novel as a scathing indictment of the corruption prevalent in the waning days of the Weimar Republic.
Dr. Mabuse is a practicing psychiatrist. He is also an avid occultist who conducts séances and practices Mesmerism. A master of disguise, Mabuse is also the head of a vast criminal empire controlling gambling, drugs, and prostitution throughout the Berlin underworld. Mabuse maintains a stranglehold on both the criminal lower class and the degenerate upper class through their addictions to vice and their reliance upon the occult and psychiatry to direct their lives.
The novel captures much of the corruption and anti-Semitism that were leading Germany on a downward spiral toward Nazism. Mabuse’s surprising ambition is to transform his empire of crime and deception into a utopian dream of a socialist paradise. Jacques saw socialism, the influence of modern psychiatry, and the growing interest in the occult as being as much a threat to Germany as the vice dens that kept the lower classes from rising above their station while simultaneously pulling the upper classes down.
The novel’s success led to the release, later that same year, of Fritz Lang’s epic five-hour silent film adaptation. Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou adapted the book to the screen while her ex-husband, Rudolph Klein-Rogge made an excellent Mabuse. The otherwise faithful film eliminated the utopian themes from the book and altered the ending. While Jacques killed his villain off by having him fall to his death from an airplane, the film adaptation has Mabuse suffer a complete mental breakdown when he is forced to watch his dream empire collapse. The puppet-master is suddenly stripped bare as a pathetic, helpless old man in a better use of the character’s psychology than the book’s rather literal depiction of Mabuse’s fall from great heights.
Lang was arguably the greatest director of the silent era and the film has lost none of its power in the nearly eighty years since its release. Two versions of the film are available on DVD in the United States, the Kino version is the most complete and edges out the earlier Image release (although the latter has an excellent feature-length commentary by the foremost Mabuse scholar outside of Europe, David Kalat). In Great Britain, Eureka’s DVD served as the source for Kino and also comes highly recommended.
The overwhelming impact of a bestselling novel and a critically and commercially acclaimed film adaptation inspired Jacques to write several sequel and prequel novellas and short stories between 1923 and 1934. These would later be collected and published posthumously as Mabuse’s Colony. The title story focuses on Mabuse’s daughter carrying on her father’s work by trying and failing to build a Marxist paradise in the jungles of South America.
Around the same time as Jacques was writing Mabuse’s Colony, Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou were developing a sequel to their epicfilm. Jacques adapted the first draft of Von Harbou’s screenplay as a novel in 1931, but the book was suppressed and would not see publication (under a new title) until 1950. It was a fate that was very nearly shared by Lang’s film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as the nascent Nazi Party forced Lang to flee Germany and quickly banned the film in late 1932. A French version with different cast was shot on the same sets by Lang (as was standard practice before dubbing and subtitling became commonplace) was released in early 1933. It is no small miracle that both versions of the film survive intact as the Nazis ordered all prints destroyed fearing it would incite civil unrest.
The plot that Lang and Von Harbou concocted picks up ten years after the original and has the near-comatose Mabuse succeeding in regaining control over the Berlin underworld despite his being confined to a mental home. Dr. Baum, the head of the asylum, develops an unhealthy obsession with Mabuse and while reading his patient’s diary (a manifesto some have likened to Mein Kampf) sets out to reunite the criminal underworld under his control in the conviction that he is Dr. Mabuse.
Lang works wonders in this amazing film that surpasses the original in greatness and is quite possibly the most innovative film of the 1930’s. Lang mixes occult possession with an interesting twist on the psychological concept of transference. While Mabuse dies half-way through the film, a sick old man who never recovered his health; Baum completely loses his identity, his mind, and ultimately his freedom convinced that he is Mabuse. Klein-Rogge repeats his role as Mabuse, Oscar Beregi is Baum, and Otto Wernicke reprises the character of Inspector Lohmann from Lang’s masterful drama of pedophilia and vigilantism, M. released the previous year. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is available on DVD (both the German and French productions) from Criterion (complete with feature-length commentary by Mr. Kalat) in the States and from Eureka in Britain.
While Lang was fortunate to escape to America and avoid confinement in a concentration camp, Norbert Jacques would find no publisher interested in his now-forgotten character. He decided to sell all rights to Mabuse to film producer Artur Brauner and his production company, CCC in the 1950’s. Brauner succeeded in bringing Fritz Lang back to West Germany where he made his final film with 1960’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Lang’s swan song uses Mabuse as commentary for Communist-controlled East Germany with Mabuse (not the original Mabuse, but another obsessed or possessed follower) using closed circuit television to spy on guests at a luxury hotel in Berlin and manipulate their lives, blackmail them, assassinate them, or lead them to suicide. The film is an effective portrait of a divided Germany during the Cold War even though Lang recycles many elements of his 1932 sequel along the way. is available on DVD from David Kalat’s AllDay Entertainment (with his usual thorough and informative feature-length commentary) in the States while Eureka offers the film on DVD in Britain. It is a strong farewell from one of the finest directors of the 20th Century.
After Lang retired from film-making, Artur Brauner continued the series working with scripts from Ladislas Fodor. CCC would release five more Mabuse sequels over the next three years. Dr. Harald Reinl, a protégée of famed Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, helmed the next two sequels: The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961) and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962). Neither film matches Lang, but they are entertaining Cold War spy thrillers in their own right. Werner Klingler directed an underrated update (rather than an outright remake) of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1962. Paul May, son of Lang’s contemporary and rival, Joe May directed 1963’s Scotland Yard Hunts Dr. Mabuse re-fashioned from an unrelated thriller by Bryan Edgar Wallace whose work was quite popular in Germany at the time. The last and least of the initial set of CCC sequels was Hugo Fregonese’s The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964) which seeks to crossbreed Mabuse with James Bond and Gidget. Yes, I do mean Gidget.
These five films featured the likes of Gert Frobe, Lex Barker, and Peter Van Eyck as the protagonists while Wolfgang Preiss and later Walter Rilla played the men with an unhealthy obsession with the late Dr. Mabuse. Only the 1962 Testament has been given a quality DVD release from Kalat’s AllDay Entertainment. Fred Olen Ray’s RetroMedia has released English-dubbed versions on a single DVD of Return, Invisible, and Death Ray. Sinister Cinema remains the only source for an English-dubbed version of Scotland Yard Hunts Dr. Mabuse sourced from a 16 mm. print.
While the series ran out of steam in the mid-sixties, there were still a few last gasps. A cult classic Vincent Price thriller, Scream and Scream Again (1969) was re-titled and dubbed for German audiences to pass it off as a Mabuse film. Finally, the notorious Jess Franco wrote and directed an in-name-only Mabuse picture, The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse in 1970. The film, actually a remake of Franco’s earlier The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), had no connection to any prior Mabuse film. Neither the German dub of Scream and Scream Again nor Vengeance is available on DVD.
Twenty years later, the circle was completed when acclaimed New Wave director Claude Chabrol made Dr. M. with Alan Bates as the Mabuse-like Dr. Marsfeldt, a media mogul and cult leader eagerly using mass media and his travel agency to precipitate a wave of suicides throughout East Germany. Like Norbert Jacques before him, Chabrol was a Frenchman using Mabuse to comment on the fall of Germany (in this case Communist East Germany). In its original German form, Dr. M. is a stunning tribute to Fritz Lang’s three Mabuse classics from a master film-maker. In its badly-dubbed English language release as Club Extinction the film is a disaster. Both versions are available on a DVD from Capelight available for sale in Germany only.
Another twenty years have passed and Dr. Mabuse is headed to the silver screen once again in a new film currently in development from director Cyrill Boss and CCC. How successful Boss will be in constructing popular entertainment that also sheds light on the various forces that threaten contemporary society remains to be seen. The Mabuse films have gained an avid cult following. A successful revival making effective use of the franchise would certainly be welcome. Until that time, DVD releases of the classic films and David Kalat’s excellent book, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse (the first book-length study of the series in English) from McFarland will have to suffice.
Finally, it bears remembering that anyone could become the next Dr. Mabuse…even you.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). He is currently working on a sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu as well as The Occult Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com