Lang’s Early Epic: Dr. Mabuse The Gambler

Fritz Lang is a talent that has proved to me with my first venture into his filmography not so long ago with Metropolis; it was that immediate admiration for such an opus that I found it easy to slip into his other films, even if they lack grandeur and influence of his science fiction epic. I found it to be quite surprising that ever since Lang has entered into the ground-breaking medium of sound cinema, his vision have taken a smaller size, opting for more intimate stories rather than one of scale and thought. Viewing films like Scarlet Street and You Only Live Once shows the director honing on the emotions of its characters, as detailed characterisation and intimacy motivates our perspective of the film, at times restricting us from searching beyond what is presented.

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Much like Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is a testament of the director’s ability to take on a material in an expansive scale, even if the film remains within the realm of human drama rather than thoughtful themes and vivid imagination. Lang wastes no time in his four hour epic, capturing almost every aspect of its narrative, allowing each character a moment of breath that would help shape the audience’s perspective of their defining qualities. I cannot easily state that an act of this film required to be eliminated as each moment has a purpose, even if very little, and somehow all ties together in the inevitable outcome of its characters.

However, due to the film’s almost egocentric title, I hoped for the film to enter into the titular figure far deeper than I was left with; in favour of establishing the narrative in a much grander and comprehensive scale. Dr. Mabuse is a fascinating figure, evoking flaws of desperate greed and grandeur, utilising his abilities of ‘psychoanalysis’ to penetrate the minds of his weaker subjects, and through that he possibly aims to rule the world. Lang shows the audience that faithfulness that his disciples display around him, blinded by the fact that he doesn’t share the same sentiment and affection for them, as he constantly finds himself to wrapped up in his upcoming operations or nit-picking the mistakes or shortcomings of his disciples’ ability to achieve their responsibilities.

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The film instead finds its focus on the rivalry between Dr. Mabuse and State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenck, constantly filling each frame with heat and distaste for one another, as the prosecutor prevents the Dr. Mabuse from reaching his personal ambitions, while the pursuer finds himself lost and obsessed with the case, stopping at nothing and finds himself in such a restless state, in order to pin down the legendary criminal. The confrontations between the two individuals rise slowly in tension, with each one carrying more risk and desperation than the last, and with each passing encounter finding themselves lost in their personal demons, intellectual competitiveness that never gains the other a sense of satisfaction until one or the other’s failure is concrete. Though certainly fascinating to watch, as it keeps you wondering how one would outsmart the other, but I keep thinking that the entire experience would have been more gripping and attractive for emotional investment if it takes on a singular perspective, most favourably Dr. Mabuse himself, as it would add texture to their decisions through their fears and desires, but I guess that would just be wishful thinking from me.

It is in the film’s bookends that the film is at its highest strength, with compelling action or tense psychological deconstruction filling its atmosphere, gripping audiences until the forthcoming act or its final shrink to black. It is during those two areas that the film demonstrates the peaks of its titular character, to see him at his most devilish and cunning, or at his most vulnerable and sympathetic; and Lang constructs and executes them with a sense of passion that would become more refined during his production for Metropolis.

Indeed for a film that treads at this length, it is conscious and committed decision to take on such a film, but the film thankfully never painfully drags in its place as there is always something interesting depicted on screen, and each accumulated moment does further enrich the moments that appear later on. I would have to admit that breaks needed to be taken during my experience, almost stretching it to a five hour time frame rather than its intended four, but repeatedly returning to the film never felt jarring or disorientating, instead it allowed me time to process certain elements and help shape my perspective towards the scenes ahead.

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Fritz Lang have taken a story that could easily been condensed of becoming a tense and intimate crime thriller, but in doing so would strip the film from that epic sense that makes Dr. Mabuse rise and fall tale all the more outstanding; even if I personally feel the film could have peered deeper into the soul of its titular character.

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