Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s landmark study Obedience To Authority suggested human beings are easily led to do horrible things, especially when a domineering figure is calling the shots. Years earlier, director Fritz Lang came to a similar conclusion with his masterful The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), now available in a fine two-DVD set. By the time Lang made Testament he’d been incorporating the figure of evil authority into many of his films. He contributed to script development for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and went on to explore the theme in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). But for Testament, Lang revived the figure of Mabuse, expanding the role of the twisted überman, whose mad genius and hypnotic power prove irresistible even to medical science.
The film begins with Mabuse confined to an asylum, spending his days in a catatonic state and scribbling his plans for an “empire of crime.” As his blueprint for anarchy begins to come to life in a string of illegal acts, the dogged Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke reprising his colorful role from M) is called in to crack the case. Lang’s sly incorporation of elements from another great German commentary on totalitarianism, Dracula, makes his intensions all the clearer (including hypnotism and the clear parallel to the lunatic Renfield in the role of Hofmeister). It’s no surprise Joseph Goebbels immediately banned the film, causing Lang to flee Germany and the Third Reich.
With impressive bonus material, such as filmed interviews with Lang, supporting actor Rudolf Schündler and Mabuse expert Michael Farin, the set offers a particularly enlightening view into one of the great fascist cautionary tales ever committed to film. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also an endlessly entertaining potboiler.