Suppose you’d spent your entire life in the movie business… you’re getting one day older and it’s time for you to turn your back to the silver screen. There’s one final movie left for you… which would you pick? An unseen masterpiece or a movie update on one of your biggest themes ever. Given Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, David Lynch seems keen on the first option, but legendary director Fritz Lang chose for the second one. Lang may be best remembered for his sci-fi epic Metropolis, but if there’s one name running through his filmography, that name must be Mabuse.
The evil doctor first popped up in 1922 in Lang’s five-hour-long Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and returned in the 1933 movie, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. Not only did the evil mastermind Mabuse return for this movie, Lang managed to layer this movie with a warning for worse times to come. History knows he was right.
In 1960 Lang directed his final movie, before leaving the silver screen with a cameo in Godard‘s Le Mépris. His directorial swan song was Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse).
This film wasn’t just a thriller, it wasn’t just a return to a familiar nemesis… Lang managed to include several other themes. Early on in the movie you have the suspicion that something isn’t quite right: some things happen that shouldn’t have happened (or be known) without all-seeing eyes. These eyes are for real, it seems, as the location (a hotel) is closely monitored with dozens of hidden cameras. Dr. Mabuse has become an evil mastermind who’s evolved with his time: thanks to camera surveillance he knows more of his victims than is good for them. The message is clear: like Big Brother in 1984, Mabuse is watching you.
The all-seeing eye and the fact that every step is being watched is a theme running through this movie, just like the bleak post-war trauma. It’s the late 50’s and the war may be over, but the wounds haven’t healed. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse was a warning for the war, this movie shows Germany is still licking its wounds.
By the way, the Mabuse of 1000 Augen isn’t the same as the Mabuse of the earlier movies. This guy is a criminal who’s besotted with the evil genius of Lang’s earlier movies and took his name, as a dedication and – as the character remarks somewhere in the film – in honour of earlier and ‘better’ times.
As a movie, 1000 Augen isn’t the strongest of Lang’s movies, but it’s just strong enough to leave with a 7 out of 10 ranking. The message may be clear in the film, but the plot doesn’t always manage to reel you in. There’s an international playboy who’s staying at Hotel Luxor. There’s a suicidal woman who threatens to jump off the building, but who’s saved by the international playboy. (“Thank God,” a bystander remarks, “if she’d jumped, I would’ve lost my appetite.” – the Germans and food, eh?) There’s a tv journalist, who allegedly dies because of heart failure (but the real cause of death appears to be a poisoned dart in his neck). There’s the hotel’s house detective, who spies on the suicidal woman from the next apartment. There’s a blind fortune teller (who’s laying on his blindness act so heavily a toddler can work out his eyes see more than he lets everyone suspect).
All these stories are tied up neatly by Lang, but the climax of the film demands a bit of suspension of disbelief. Too much for the film’s good, even.
Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse made enough of an impression for the film to get a number of sequels. Along with the several adaptations of the Edgar Wallace books, that must’ve meant an overdose of crime movies in Germany in the early 60s. In a way, the Mabuse series looks a bit like the Sherlock Holmes movies of the early 40s: every year there’d appear one or two movies from the series, mostly with the same cast. Only here, the main role wouldn’t be for Sherlock Holmes (or detective Lohmann – played by Gert Fröbe), but for Moriarty (Mabuse).
None of the sequels were directed by Lang, even though the third movie bears the same name as Lang’s 1932 sequel: Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. To an extent, the 60s sequel is a remake of the 30s sequel.
The second Mabuse film, Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse (1961), was directed by Harald Reinl, who earned a reputation for directing crime movies. He directed two Mabuse films (also Die Unsichtbare Krallen des Dr Mabuse), five Edgar Wallace adaptations, one Bryan Edgar Wallace movie and three Jerry Cotton movies. He also directed three Karl May adaptations of Winnetou and the cult horror Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (based upon an Edgar Allen Poe story). Stahlnetz shows Mabuse even more as a criminal mastermind, with ties to international maffias, a plan to rule the world and a formula that turns prisoners into zombie servants. All this makes Reinl’s sequel entertaining and original enough to be classified as a “good sequel”. A phrase you don’t hear too often.
As with nearly every series, you can safely say the subgenre is dead when Jess Franco makes a movie about it and in 1972 Franco made Dr M. schlägt zu, an incomprehensible movie about a moon stone and an evil mastermind (Mabuse) who’s keen on ruling the world. The only thing I remember about this film is its relentless silliness and an impressive house where part of the movie takes place. Aspriring architects shouldn’t miss out on this film, but they’re about the only ones.
But Mabuse, true to his reputation, isn’t that easily killed: in 1990 Claude Chabrol made a movie Dr M., which is a wink to the Lang character and the IMDb site mentions there will be a movie called Dr. Mabuse in 2010. True evilness never dies, it seems.