World Cinema tends to be a little hesitant about showing older titles (and with good reason), so a screening of Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) is out of the ordinary. Make the most of it, because this is not only the most modern-looking film of 1932, it still looks modern today. This final chapter (for then anyway) in the saga of archcriminal Dr. Mabuse is a unique work. It’s easily the most cinematically ambitious and creative work Lang ever made. Lang enthusiasts may take issue with that claim, but I think this amazing film bears it out. However, do not anticipate an especially heavy drama. This is a fairly simple thriller, with a plot and structure that often recalls the serial film, complete with hairbreadth escapes and even the romantic leads trapped in a flooding room. What counts, though, is the way Lang handles the material.
The story has Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) committed to an insane asylum where he has penned his master plan for world domination—a plan grounded in plunging the world into chaos. Upon Mabuse’s death, his spirit enters the mind and body of the asylum director, who sets out to put his plans into action. Fantastic stuff that couldn’t be taken seriously? Well, maybe. But the film terrified Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Goebbels, who wasn’t about to let a film about a madman writing his plan for world domination while imprisoned (too close to Hitler and Mein Kampf) see the light of day. Instead Goebbels, while explaining why the movie wouldn’t be released, offered Lang the position of heading up the Nazi film industry. The half-Jewish Lang chose to leave Germany at once (under the guise of considering the offer). Today, the film can be seen for its political import or simply as a stunning thriller, but seen it definitely should be!