In an attempt to get back to watching and writing about films after a three week hiatus, forced upon me by too much academic work, I’ll just get something down for now. The first film I’ve seen after this break is the first part of Fritz Lang’s 1922 Dr. Mabuse, a film in which trickery is rife.

The original German title, Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, reveals the various forms of manipulation and play that appear in this first part: Der Spieler is often translated as ‘the gambler’ but it can also mean ‘player’, ‘actor’ and ‘puppeteer’. The psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge)  is all of these things. The opening shot shows him picking one disguise (of many)  from a series of photographs fanned out like cards in his hand. Later, he stands above those on the stock market floor, buying when others sell and selling when others buy, accruing a fortune in the process. He cons players into losing large sums of money on gambling tables with his intense and prolonged stare. We see, for example, Mabuse makes Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) mistake his own sight when, despite holding the ten of clubs and the ace of diamonds, he claims to have lost at cards. ‘I lost again,’ he says simply.

We fear our eyes may be faltering too because many of the images in the film hint at full blown surrealism before revealing instead their (stylised) normality. Take the stock market scene as an example. On first sight, the enormous clock that looms over everyone seems odd: not only is it too large but there seem to be too many numbers. It is only on a second viewing that we realise that there are, in fact, twenty-four numbers and that the clock is a twenty-four hour clock. Unusual, maybe, but it is not the terrible and surreal work station on which Freder (Gustav Frolich) toils in Metropolis (1927).

Freder in ‘Metropolis’ (1927)

It seems Mabuse’s drive to deceive is powered by an awareness of a social misconception, itself a sort of intellectual trompe l’oeil. He says plainly: ‘There’s no such thing like love – there’s only passion – ! There’s no such thing like luck – there’s only the will to gain power — !’ As emotion gives way to a more primal drive and circumstance reveals itself as an illusion (apparently), Mabuse sacrifices his own identity in an attempt to control other people. He derives not only material wealth from such manipulation but also a more general joyous delight. Later in the film, he tells Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) it is a wonderful thing to play with people’s faith.

I look forward to the second part.

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