It’s hard to talk about this film without some knowledge of the director, Fritz Lang. A Jew, Lang was one of the preeminent directors in Germany during the years between the World Wars. Obviously, being Jewish in Germany in the 1930s (and really even before then) was not a good thing, what with the rise of the Nazi party and all, so Lang left Germany in 1933. He claims that he left the night Joseph Goebbels offered him the job of fuhrer of the German film industry, on a midnight train to Paris, but this probably is not true (Lang was prone to embellishing facts). “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was his last film before leaving, though it was banned by the Nazi party because, as Lang said, “This film meant to show Hitler’s terror methods as in a parable. The slogans and beliefs of the Third Reich were placed in the mouths of criminals.”
Knowing that Lang intended the film to be anti-Nazi makes it very easy to see what specific things for which the Nazis would have banned it. For one, there are those Nazi slogans being spoken by gang members, implying that the Nazis are a bunch of crooks and criminals. The titular Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is, as head of the gang, meant to represent the Nazi party, an analogue for Adolf Hitler. Referenced in this film but actually taking place in an earlier Lang film (“Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler”), an insane Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) declares, “I am the state!” when discovered by the police. Absolutist monarch Louis XIV originally said that to describe his total control over the French government, painting criminal mastermind Mabuse – and by extension, Hitler – as a wannabe dictator mad with delusions of power.
Lang also deals with madness in “Testament,” which features three important characters that either start out insane or are driven so. These characters and their insanity also tie into the anti-Nazi theme. Mabuse himself is insane, locked away in a mental hospital under the watchful and admiring eye of Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.). All he does every day is write incredibly detailed plans to crimes that then play out in the real world. These crimes are meant to terrorize the public and were actually taken from the headlines of contemporary headlines in 1933. The gang that Mabuse runs distributes large amounts of cheap drugs to the populace, steals poison and blackmails random people until they are ready to pay any sum, only to quit at the last second. Mabuse tries project his own insanity onto the German public, creating a climate of fear and terror to bring Germany down around its ears, much like Lang and other Nazi dissenters felt Hitler was doing.
Former policeman Hofmeister’s (Karl Meixner) insanity represents the debilitating influence of the Nazis on the German people. He was a rising star on the police force, being groomed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) to take over as Chief Inspector. He was investigating Mabuse’s gang, mind unraveling more and more as the gang tries to kill him. Finally, he discovers that Mabuse is behind everything and is on the phone with Lohmann ready to tell everything he knows, when the lights go off in his apartment. He cries out and fires his gun in the dark before everything goes silent. The next sound is of him singing a children’s song, telling us that his mind has broken. A smart, intellectual German man is driven to a child-like state by the “Nazis.”
Professor Baum, overseer of the mental hospital in which Mabuse is incarcerated, is also driven insane by Mabuse’s influence. This time, insanity is used to symbolize the mental state of Nazi supporters. Baum clearly has a fanatical obsession with Mabuse, multiple times lecturing to the audience on the magnificence of Mabuse’s mind. He tells Lohmann in one scene how Mabuse, who has just died, would have used his mind to completely tear down society. Later, alone in his office, Baum sees Mabuse’s ghost and the ghost steps into Baum’s body. Here we see the literal spirit of “Hitler” take over the body of a normal German man and use him for his nefarious criminal plans.
Beyond this, “Testament” is a wonderful film that anyone interested in German Expressionism or film noir should watch. It was Lang’s next film after the masterpiece “M” (1931), but is a great cinematic achievement in its own right. Lang painted the scenery in certain scenes to reflect the insanity of his subjects, such as showing strange shadows and reflections on the walls of Hofmeister’s jail cell. In one memorable shot early on in the movie, three men stand ominously at the end of a street, features obscured and intentions unknown, but scary nonetheless. “Testament” is one of Lang’s best films, and if you really appreciate attention to detail in movies, then you owe it to yourself to experience it at least once.