Now that Hannibal is rising again and even The Shadow is being cast anew in another attempt at translating radio’s invisible terrors to the big screen, I wonder how long it will take for Hollywood to rediscover Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, a pulp character combining the ruthlessness and intelligence of the former with the mental powers and omnipresence of the latter. In this age of urban terrorism and surveillance, of cynicism and weaponized paranoia, Mabuse would be just the figure to capture the Zeitgeist. A few days ago, I re-encountered him in the 4 ½ hour, two-part silent thriller Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) and its masterful talkie sequel Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933).
His genre-defying Testament having been banned by the Nazis, who read it as a comment on their hate-mongering and fear-founded regime, Lang later returned to West Germany to direct an Orwellean update titled Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960), which then metastasized into a spy and crime movie franchise akin to the lurid and hugely popular Edgar Wallace chillers that lured German teenagers, my father among them, to the movie houses.
I was about five years old when I first heard his name, by which time Mabuse had long ended his box-office reign of terror (sporadic resurfacings in movies and audio books notwithstanding). It was during a walk around the neighborhood of the bleak industrial satellite of a town I was obliged to call home, when my father pointed out a walled-in plot of ground and told me, with an air of mystery escaping his breath (which in later years would merely reek of distilled disillusionment), that that was the garden of Dr. Mabuse. Ma-boo-ze. Now, there was no ready image of this figure in the inventory of my mind; but those three syllables alone were so rich in romance and intrigue that I could not wait to be lifted up to see just what was lurking behind that unassuming row of bricks and mortar.
Gnomes. A whole colony of them. Common enough in the horticulture of the petit bourgeois, these forms took on a magical, even sinister aspect. Had they been ordinary folks—small children, perhaps—petrified into subhumanity, the playthings of a scientist or some such latter-day sorcerer? Later, it occurred to me that my father might have confused the place with the Island of Dr. Moreau or the secluded playground of Dr. Cyclops, whose very different experiments I still associate with the mobsterism of Mabuse. At any rate, I don’t even recall the story Papa had made up in an effort to make a dull walk in dispiriting surroundings seem like an adventure (eventually fading superheroic powers for which I loved him). All I remember is that, from that day on—until we finally moved to the alternate dread of middle-class suburbia—I always insisted on seeing those garden features whenever we passed that wall; and long before I spotted him on television, Mabuse was a prominent if indistinct figure in the imaginary landscape of the mind—which is precisely where he roamed after losing his own.
Based on a serialized magazine story by Norbert Jacques—as the documentary extras on the DVD release of the 1922 film will tell you—Mabuse continued to terrorize the world long after he had been locked up as a seemingly harmless imbecile. In the silent film, he is a man of many disguises; in the sequel, he inhabits the bodies of whomever he chooses as executors of his will. He was modernity’s first indiscriminal, a proto-fascist who sought to force the multitude into submission or blow them to bits, if necessary.
Operating his ministry of fear by giving orders both telephonically and telepathically, the all-seeing, all-knowing Mabuse was a shape-shifting Big Brother, The Thing with a method and a masterplan. His terrorist network is an ideal setup for an open-ended series of thrillers that can withstand the death of its central characters and the departure of its leads. Will Mabuse return? Or has he altogether demolished our shelters of fiction, free now to menace the streets of metropolis, the hallways of big business, and the corridors of political power? Perhaps, we all are gnomes in the penal complex of his walled-in garden.