The ghost of Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) visits
a fellow criminal in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's follow-up to M, is a relatively straight-forward thriller that's unusual because it's main villain—main character, really—appears on screen for no more than 10 minutes. The titular Dr. Mabuse is a megalomaniac driven insane by his plans at the end of Lang's 1922 film, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. In Testament, Mabuse is still in the asylum, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to speak, but he scribbles from dawn until dusk. Much of what he writes is nonsensical, but occasionally, he'll compose a foolproof plan which a well-organized crime syndicate—led by the mysterious "man behind the curtain"—carry out. When these crimes come to the attention of Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), a cat-and-mouse game begins that will lead to a few deaths and some very strange discoveries.
The film is by no means conventional, especially for its time period. But I have to say that having seen Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, I was hoping for a little more of Dr. Mabuse himself in its sequel. The labyrinthine plot is fun to unravel—especially with a hero as naturally charming as Otto Wernicke's Lohmann—but the payoff is a little weak. Dr. Mabuse is a larger than life figure. He's been called the predecessor to every megalomaniacal villain in film history. But his mere spectral presence in this film is disappointing, especially when you see what the clowns that replace him. It's like going from Hans Gruber to Boris and Natasha (minus the laughs).
But The Testament of Dr. Mabuse largely overcomes this issue with great direction from Lang and some really fascinating ideas beneath the surface of this crime thriller. The film was so controversial when it was released in 1933 that Lang fled his home country of Germany. Many people in power viewed the film as anti-Nazi (with its themes of hypnosis and the dangers of groupthink), and it actually didn't screen in Germany until the 1960s. It's that kind of real-world vision that defined Lang as a filmmaker and makes his filmography so timeless. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, while perhaps a little less compelling than films like M and Metropolis, is a powerful example of art imitating life.