They’re both silent, black-and-white films, but beyond those similarities, they are quite different from each other.
Fritz Lang is well known in the United States for his film noirs such as Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953), for his crime drama M (1931), and for the futuristic classic Metropolis (1927). But he did much more in a career spanning 46 years, writing, producing, and directing many other outstanding films. Two of his directorial efforts were recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber: Destiny (Der müde Tod, or “Weary Death,” 1921) and Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (“Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler”; 1922). They’re both silent, black-and-white films, but beyond those similarities, they are quite different from each other, showing off different aspects of Lang’s immense talents.
Destiny is an extended parable consisting of a frame story plus three self-contained stories, each in a different setting but featuring the same actors in similar roles, creating the feeling that each story is a different version of the same experience. In the frame story, the husband (Walter Janssen) of a young married couple has been claimed by Death (Bernhard Goetzke), who truly does look weary; the wife (Lil Dagover) is told that her husband will be spared if she can defeat Death in any of three scenarios he will put before her.
Each of these scenarios is a self-contained story involving someone who is doomed to die. The first story is set in 9th century Baghdad and involves a forbidden romance between the sister of a caliph and an incident. The second is set in 14th century Venice, during Carnival and involves a series of love letters that backfire. The third, set in ancient China, involves a young woman whom the emperor wants to add to his stable of concubines. The acting is melodramatic throughout, in line with studio practice of the day, but the special effects are remarkable. In addition, the recurring image of Death surrounded by candles, representative of a person’s remaining life span, is unforgettable.
Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler could not be more different in tone from Destiny. It’s an action-packed crime film which also serves as a satire of contemporary German social conditions (which were pretty grim in 1922). Made up of two parts spanning about four and a half hours, it details the exploits of Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind in the mold of the French villain Fantomas. Mabuse is a master of disguise and a hypnotist (thanks to his qualification as a psychologist, which explains why he gets the title “Dr.”). He uses these skills to accomplish a variety of crimes, from counterfeiting to manipulating the stock market to abducting a woman. He’s the perfect embodiment for the corruption of Weimar Germany at a time when ordinary civil society has largely been destroyed by World War I and the subsequent inflation, and the old rules of morality no longer seemed to apply.
Dr. Mabuse employs an episodic structure that may be frustrating to viewers accustomed to the more orderly, dramatic structures commonly used in films today. However, it can be a lot of fun if you are willing to accept a different form and appreciate the film’s energy and satirical bite. Carl Hoffman’s cinematography is outstanding, and a scene near the end, in which Mabuse imagines that he is surrounded by the ghosts of his many victims, is particularly impressive. | Sarah Boslaugh
Destiny and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler are distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Both films have been restored and come with a variety of extras. For Destiny this includes an audio commentary by Tim Lucas, restoration demonstration footage, and the 2016 re-release trailer. For Dr. Mabuse, extras include the original German intertitles (with optional English subtitles), a 52-minute documentary analyzing the film, its musical score, and the career of novelist Norbert Jacques, who created the Mabuse character.