Norbert Jacques wrote Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1922. His conceit of an omnipotent criminal wasn't new: Marcel Allain's Fantomas, Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Moriarty all predate Mabuse. But Jacques designed Mabuse to probe modern society - specifically tumultuous interwar Germany. "There was a devil loose in Germany," Jacques wrote, "and... I think I saw this devil myself."
Fritz Lang adapted Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) with future wife Thea von Harbou. This epic stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later Rottwang in Lang's Metropolis) as Mabuse: psychologist by day, master criminal by night. Mabuse employs countless minions who manipulate currency, rob banks and extort millionaires. Mabuse uses disguises and hypnosis to evade detection, manipulating a rich Englishman (Paul Richter) and Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker). Stuffy Inspector Wenk (Bernhardt Goetzke) seems unable to resist Mabuse.
Dr. Mabuse comes subtitled "An Image of An Age." Indeed Lang and Jacques vividly conjure Weimar Germany, beset by political violence and economic collapse. Mabuse's opening gambit shows him manipulating the stock market, recalling Weimar's monstrous inflation. Yet Mabuse represents neither the right-wing Freikorps nor the leftist Spartacists; he's an apolitical villain embodying national angst.
Siegfried Kracauer labels Mabuse "a creature of darkness devouring the world he overpowers." Like a gangster, he insulates himself through a web of henchmen (including blind counterfeiters and the seductive Cara [Aud Egede-Nissen]) and outward respectability. But Mabuse's also a hypnotist and change artist: in one chilling scene, he persuades one victim (Alfred Abel) to kill himself. He plays with human lives like a poker player. What chance does a square like Wenk stand?
Even when Wenk's police liquidate Mabuse's gang, the boss escapes. Haunted by visions of his victims, Mabuse literally goes mad, destroyed not by opponents but personal overreach. Yet as any student of pulp fiction could tell you, villains like Mabuse aren't so easily beaten.
Lang revisited the character in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Confined to an asylum, Mabuse scrawls out indecipherable gibberish - a master plan for world conquest. Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) gradually unravels the conspiracy, helped by Thomas Kent (Gustav Diesel), Mabuse's disenchanted follower. Crimes continue after Mabuse's death, drawing suspicion to psychiatrist Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Jr.).
Unlike Gambler, Testament takes a political stance. Lang's M (1931) equated Berlin's underworld with the Nazi Party, more efficient in tracking serial killer Peter Lorre than Wernicke's Inspector Lohmann. The Weimar Republic died as Lang developed Testament; Adolf Hitler took power in January 1933, two months before its release. Having admired Lang's earlier epics, Nazi leaders were appalled by this vicious denunciation.
Parallels between Mabuse and Nazism aren't subtle. Mabuse writes his "testament" within the asylum, like Hitler dictating Mein Kampf in Landsberg Prison. Mabuse's henchmen divide into "divisions" like Stormtrooper battalions, or terrorist cells. Baum even imitates Hitler's mannerisms eulogizing Mabuse. Finally, the ghostly Mabuse proclaims an "Empire of Crime" replacing order with chaos.
Unsurprisingly, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned Testament as subversive. Yet Goebbels offered Lang leadership of Germany's film industry! Lang loved telling how he met Goebbels, then immediately fleeing to Paris - which biographer Patrick McGilligan insists Lang embellished. Regardless, Lang divorced Thea Von Harbou, who became a fervent Nazi while Lang resettled in Hollywood. Lang's anti-Nazism shows in Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
More striking than its anti-fascism, Testament makes evil a virus-like idea - communicable between people, resisting virtue, outlasting its host. Mabuse's death doesn't stop his underlings: his madness passes to Baum. Lohmann arrests Mabuse's gang but can't foil a deadly bombing. Late in the movie, Kent bursts into Mabuse's headquarters... revealing his boss as a cardboard cutout. The modern resonance is obvious: why kill Osama Bin Laden when terrorism survives? How can you kill an idea?
Lang spent three decades in Hollywood, producing numerous classics: Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window and The Big Heat among them. He returned to postwar Germany, now divided between superpowers, Ground Zero for the Cold War. His final movie, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), plays off Cold War suspicions.
Unlike earlier films, 1,000 Eyes makes Mabuse's identity a mystery. Someone's recreating Mabuse's crimes, baffling Police Inspector Kras (Gert Frobe). Mabuse's latest target is Henry Travers (Peter Van Eyck), an American millionaire. Other bizarre characters complicate things: a blind clairvoyant (Wolfgang Preiss), a businessman (Werner Peters), a suicidal woman (Dawn Addams) and a clubfooted killer (Reinhard Koldehoff).
Lang's stylish direction aside, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is a poor sister to its predecessors. Yet Lang again conjures contemporary anxieties. Mabuse uses a hotel room to entrap and surveil victims; nuclear power becomes his preferred method of domination. As before, Mabuse has no interest in material gain: robberies and extortion are means to an apocalyptic end. Lang analogizes the US-Soviet rivalry into a single, omnipotent dastard.
1,000 Eyes spawned four sequels. The Return of Dr. Mabuse sees the villain brainwashing convicts to destroy nuclear plants. In The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, he steals an invisibility ray. The Terror of Dr. Mabuse remakes Testament, killing its antagonist. Yet Mabuse returns as a ghost in Scotland Yard Vs. Dr. Mabuse and Dr. Mabuse's Death Ray Mirror. These films are silly curios, no match for Lang's classics. Later efforts, like 2013's Mabuse, aren't much better.
Mabuse codified the modern supervillain. James Bond's opponent Blofeld seems a direct successor, in his suavity, shadowy organization, outlandish schemes and femme fatales. Angela and Luciana Giussani's Diabolik graphic novels mix Mabuse with 007 for its antihero. And Batman's nemesis The Joker resembles Mabuse, especially Christopher Nolan's version. Nolan called Testament "essential research for anyone attempting to write a supervillain." And screenwriter Jonathan Nolan remembered "Chris making me watch Fritz Lang’s... Dr. Mabuse all those years ago."
Indeed, The Dark Knight (2008) is Mabuse's spiritual successor. Nolan's Joker (Heather Ledger) is an "agent of chaos," manipulating Gotham's mob bosses and befuddling Batman (Christian Bale) and authorities with motiveless crimes. Like Mabuse, Joker represents modern bogeys (namely terrorism). Like in Gambler, he oversees dozens of deranged henchmen. As in Testament, he bequeaths his legacy to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the idealistic DA corrupted under Joker's influence. Unlike Lang, Nolan shows society surviving... until The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where Bane drives Gotham into anarchy.
Ninety-two years after his debut, Dr. Mabuse cemented his legacy. Whether led by a German gangster or anarchist clown, the Empire of Crime endures.