Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse the Gambler] (1922)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Dr. Mabuse the Gambler</strong>] (1922)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) If you’re a visual kind of person, let me offer you a metaphor for movie history that looks a lot like a Science Fiction megapolis with layers and layers of levels built upon each other. Current movies are at the surface where the sun shines and people live, but everything is built upon a foundation and as you go deeper underground, racing back toward the bedrock that is the invention of cinema, you start discovering foundational layers that once were very important even if they may not be readily accessible these days. That’s largely how I feel about writer/director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, an unwieldy, overlong and slightly exasperating film that nonetheless puts together many prototypical elements of modern super-villain movies. Put simply, this is a film about a criminal mastermind who, thanks to his exceptional skills at disguises and psychology and a team of collaborators, can hypnotize or coerce other people in doing what he wants … and what he wants is usually money or chaos. You can clearly see the origins of modern supervillains here, especially as the film makes a conscious effort to set the story in Germany’s complex post-war industrial society—and as is often the case with 1920s–1930s German cinema, it’s hard to avoid the chill of knowing what’s coming next for the country. Visually, there’s also quite a bit of foundational work to be seen here. In Lang’s hands, the film shows a glimpse of what would become the German impressionistic style, through some primitive special effects and moody directing. Good performances, car chases and explosions round off a film that often does feel far more modern than its true age. But there’s a price for all of this, and that price is time. Coming from the silent movie era where storytelling techniques were still being developed, audiences weren’t all as cinematically literate and there was little expectation of efficiency, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler lasts a staggering 268 minutes—or roughly four hours and a half. It’s not just the objective length (modern miniseries regularly exceed that), as much as the feeling that it’s very, unbearably long. Thanks to title cards and lack of concision, everything literally takes at least twice as long as a similar film made today. My patience was sorely tested: I can’t swear that my attention was constant throughout the film. I can’t even swear that I did not press the skip-forward-30-seconds button (without loss of comprehension) a few times. And while I certainly recognize this first Mabuse film as an essential part of cinema history, I’m certainly not recommending it for casual viewing. Unless you have something like five hours to spare.

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