Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before it, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a cinematic work so connected to the post-WWI German experience that it’s almost impossible to understand (or, at least, to appreciate) without that context. The enigmatic figure of Dr. Mabuse himself, a strange, cruel hypnotist whose unchecked powers allow him to put the German economy into a stranglehold as he casually manipulates the stock market to his own advantage, is central to the anxieties of a nation facing humiliation after a lost war and near-total economic collapse.
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, revolves around the efforts of a mysterious criminal hypnotist to gain wealth and power by psychically manipulating anyone whose position grants them access to large sums of money. He has a seemingly endless bag of tricks in his pocket, but most of them seem to entail using mind control to make his targets especially bad at gambling. When his activities attract the attention of Prosecutor von Wenk, a high-ranking detective for the state who begins an investigation in earnest, Mabuse and his gang of operatives and followers fight to evade detection. It occupies some of the same space as many of the crime serials that came out within a few years of this film, exploring the seedy underbelly of a European city, complete with criminal masterminds who are preternaturally gifted at subterfuge and disguise.
This represents the first of five films from director Fritz Lang to grace our list. The character of Dr. Mabuse is one that Lang would revisit over the years, and he does, unfortunately, reflect very harmful societal attitudes. Fritz Lang was not a Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer, or anything of the like. His mother and first wife were both Jewish, and although he was raised Catholic, he was considered Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws. Despite being offered a prominent position in the German film industry by none other than Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels himself, Lang left Germany for good in 1933, emigrating first to Paris and then to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen. In fact, one of his later Dr. Mabuse films (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933) was banned under the Nazi regime due to its alleged incitement to public riot.
I emphasize that Fritz Lang was most assuredly not a Nazi because Dr. Mabuse is such a compelling microcosm of Nazi paranoia about the Jewish people. Wealthy, powerful, manipulative, and in possession of mystical powers, he could be seen as a representation of the anti-Semitic myth of the international Jewish cabal secretly in control of the world’s finances that the Nazis so fervently believed in and feared. And in a way, given the state of Germany after World War I, it’s easy to see why that would be so attractive, even comforting, to German moviegoers: it gives them someone else to blame. If Dr. Mabuse is using mystical powers to wreak havoc on the stock market and lay waste to traditional positions of authority (his most prominent victims are, significantly, members of the aristocracy and state law enforcement officials), then that means that Germany’s economic failures are no fault of their own, but rather the impact of malevolent forces from within trying to sabotage its post-war recovery. You can imagine why such a narrative would be appealing.
As a reflection of the German psyche in the aftermath of war, only a few short years from embracing a violent fascist regime, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is invaluable. As a work of cinema, however, it’s a mixed bag. It is, let’s be honest, both very long and very slow. At over four and a half hours long, it is often screened as two films, labeled Part One and Part Two. Part One is really a rather dull affair, structured so that it plants seeds for the second part but doesn’t quite stand up on its own. Things don’t really begin to pick up until the tail end of Part One and the start of Part Two, as the sting operation gets fully underway and Mabuse grows increasingly desperate. But when it picks up, wow, does it pick up. The depths of Dr. Mabuse’s depravity know no bounds, and the film has no qualms whatsoever about going to a surprisingly dark place.
This, then, can perhaps be seen as most significant in terms of its influence on Lang’s later career. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler highlights the stylistic flourishes and tendency towards shadowy, grim, subversive narratives that would become fully developed in not just his German masterpieces (Metropolis, M), but also as he would go on to be a key player in Hollywood’s film noir.