Mabuse the gambler, the protean kingpin and "the state within the State," Mabuse the film critic: "What is your attitude toward Expressionism, Doctor?" "A mere pastime, but then again, everything today is pastime." Germany between the wars is a land of jaded sensation-seekers and "modern cannibalism," split by Fritz Lang into two labyrinthine blocks with proto-Syberberg subtitles ("A Portrait of the Age," "A Play About People of Our Time"). The criminal mastermind (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is a hollow husk with a controlling eye and a bottomless supply of disguises, elderly aristocrat and proletarian agitator flow equally from his makeup box. Nicknamed "the Great Unknown," he floods the country with counterfeit bills and stands above the undulating mass of top hats at the stock exchange. "Playing with people and their destinies" is his favorite game, his latest obsession is the bored countess (Gertrude Welcker) helping his nemesis the inspector (Bernhard Goetzke). In a Weimar Republic of parallel and concealed worlds, you get poisoned in the back of a cab and wake up adrift in a rowboat. Opium-den languor and malefic hysteria are two sides of the same hypnotizing coin, the rotating gambling table and the interlocked palms of the séance session, the discarded mistress (Aud Egede-Nissen) who’s a Klimt beauty one moment and then Renfield in prison writhing for her Dracula. Visions, sets and even words come alive in Lang’s epic, where not even cinema itself escapes scrutiny: An auteur of many fictions, the villain at one point conjures up images that literally spill off the screen into the audience. It all builds to Mabuse in the catacombs surrounded by ghosts and blind men and scattered forgeries, the refracted visionary on his knees. The lines of influence are many and varied: Scarface (the police shootout), The 39 Steps (the clairvoyant on the philharmonic stage), L’Eclisse (the stock-market vortex), High and Low (the stolen valise hurled off the moving train). Herzog in Invincible finds the mesmerist as Hitler's Minister of the Occult, the greatest analysis after Lang's own sequels. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann. With Alfred Abel, Paul Richter, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, and Hans Adalbert Schlettow. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce