Dr. Mabuse is outstanding as a criminal character. There’s nothing quite like him: Professor Moriority? The Joker? Not really. Mabuse isn’t just cunning, he’s nuts, and sometimes he’s dead, or, maybe not…That’s just it. We just never know exactly what we’re dealing with–Rudolf Klein-Rogge, anyway, is Dr. Mabuse here, and as his very capable counterpart, there’s Inspector Lohmann (Oscar Weirnicke). The asylum director is Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi), Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) is a former criminal caught in Mabuse’s web, as is Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl). Thomas’s girfriend Lilli (Wera Liessem) stays glued to him through thick and thin.
There’s nothing like an asylum inmate compulsively shooting out cryptic notes and diagrams on crimes. You would think ye olde criminal mastermind would be a little more subtle; well, what’s he going to do from a cell, anyway? Quite a bit, as we see.
A desperate-looking, gun-toting Hofmeister is skulking about in a factory storeroom. He tries to hide when two others come to get some stuff; they see him, but choose to pretend he isn’t there. Just outside they ambush him him, though–rolling a barrel toward him that explodes.
Meanwhile, at Police Headquarters, the Inspector refuses to take a call from the tiresome Hofmeister. The former criminal had been on the trail of counterfeiters, and, before he can give the Inspector detailed information, the call is cut off. Something happened, presumably Hofmeister’s ambushed again.
Next thing, Baum gives a lecture on the case of Dr. Mabuse, and his attempt to ruin Germany’s currency by a run of counterfeiting. Dr. Baum describes Mabuse’s asylum scribbling, and what it might mean. The counterfeiters celebrate Hofmeister’s apparent death. Back at the scene of the crime, the police discover some obscure writing scratched into a window pane. Now we get to see Mabuse in the asylum, scribbling away of course. Observing him, the Baum hallucinates Mabuse appearing on the other side of the room, watching him.
The happy couple, Lilli and Thomas, are in a cafe, celebrating the anniversary of their meeting. Back at the professor’s office, Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos) discovers that Mabuse’s writings predict the string of recent jewelry heists, in every detail. Kramm volunteers to go to the police, but he’s tailed by Section 2-B guys (one of several underworld cells) who shoot him at a convenient moment.
Meanwhile, the criminals are discussing drug profits and blackmail, another inspects stolen jewelry. More importantly, they discuss “the boss” that is, Mabuse, whom they’ve never seen. They think it’s weird that he doesn’t seem to personally profit from the criminal enterprises.
Back to Hofmeister: he’s not dead, but just nuts. Brilliant scene of the Inspector entering his cell–Hofmeister hallucinates that a huge room opens up when the Inspector enters, with transparent walls and fixtures at odd angles, including the ghostly figures of his two tormentors.
Back at the aslyum we get a freaky close-up of Mabuse, who looks something like the cadaverous Max Shreck in Nosferatu. We learn that “he can compel people to do his will right from his cell.” As if on cue, the criminal guys go to ‘meet’ with Mabuse, who seemingly is behind a curtain in an obscure upstairs room. Thomas’s loyalty is called into question; he’s given a ‘special’ assignment. He writes to Lilli, saying that she should “forget him” without exactly letting on about his predicament.
A police technician discovers that what Hofmeister scribbled on the window during the attack was Mabuse’s name. Just then, the Inspector hears that Mabuse has died. Weirdly, Dr. Baum insists that Mabuse was “a genius;” Lohman scournfully retorts that he’s instead “the criminal.” In his office, Baum looks though Mabuse’s writings/drawings. Mabuse’s ghost appears in a chair, basically reciting what’s written. Not only does he look extremely freaky, he has a double standing behind Baum. Luckily, Baum snaps out of it.
Back at the mysterious curtained room, Mabuse gives a bunch of orders on upcoming criminal operations. So, either he’s not really dead, he’s dead, but his ghost is ‘filling in’ for him, or someone’s impersonating him. Thomas sees Lilli; he comes clean, shows her his prison papers, admits to a couple of murders, etc. She still doesn’t care: so he tells her about the counterfeiting deal. She’s still loyal! She advises him to go to the Inspector; that is, give himself up. The Mabuse cabal fink on him for no-showing at the meeting.
Mabuse really has a terror campaign in the works: fires, gas explosions, poisoning the water supply, etc. Thomas and Lilli get abducted by the ‘bad’ bad guys. At Mabuse’s hideout, The two of them are condemned to death. Thomas shoots up the place, but behind the curtain is just a victrola device–that is, not Mabuse, only his voice.
The police show up at the gangster’s hideout–a long shoot-out develops; meanwhile the unhappy couple are locked into the isolated Mabuse room. The gangsters eventually surrender. Lohmann gets one of the survivors to confess to Kramm’s murder, who, naturally, is sketchy on Mabuse’s identity. Back in the isolated room, Thomas tries flooding it to force an opening, the danger of course is that they’ll drown first.
But it works, as a hole opens up in the floor. So, they show up at the police station. Baum seems to recognize Thomas. In the Inspector’s office, Lohmann admits “perhaps you’re right, Mabuse is still alive”. They go to Baum’s office, burst in, and find the Victrola recording device, which has been spewing out Mabuse’s voice. Baum is Mabuse!
Now, the deadly plan, fires and explosions all over town. At a fiery site, Baum shows up, pretty long intense chase scene (it’s a bit much to expect that the ‘good guys’ can fix a flat so quickly, however). Mabuse appears in Baum’s speeding car, which zips back to the asylum. The ghost is everywhere. Baum introduces himself to Hofmeister as Mabuse.
Sure enough, Baum has become Mabuse, the asylum patient version, huddled on the cell’s bed ripping up papers, ala classic nut Mabuse. After a bit, Thomas shows up with the Inspector and sees all this, almost disbelieving. The Inspector aptly comments that there “is nothing left to do here for a mere police captain.”
What an incredible movie! A good crime mystery, as well as a good psychological horror story. The mystery is so cunning, that, although we see what Baum has become, what was going on before Mabuse died? In other words, the story ends at a convenient dramatic point, but not everything is explained. For example, were all of the hallucinations signs of Baum’s disintegrating grip on reality, or can we assume that Mabuse has a ghost? After all, Hofmeister had hallucinations too. That could just mean, though, that Baum isn’t the only one having delusions.
This puzzle is made more interesting by the fact that Klein-Rogge and Beregi look similar. Could it be that Mabuse is an alterego of Baum’s? Stuff like this keeps us thinking, not only as we watch, but long after viewing. All of this psychological complexity wouldn’t mean as much if the story wasn’t so well-constructed, paced, and acted. For a long movie there’s never a lack of tension or interest; it’s entertaining throughout.
That Mabuse (and Baum/Mabuse) are great characters goes without saying. The Lilli/Thomas romantic subplot fits in well as Thomas is obviously worked into the main plot. He’s kind of on the border between civilization and Mabuse’s world; Lilli is completely innocent. But the main anchor to normal civility is very nicely shown by the Inspector’s character.
He’s a fascinating combination of competence, integrity, courage, determination, frustration, impatience, sarcasm, and paternalism. In short, he’s very authentic. The complete opposite of the nebulous, charismatic, but freaky Mabuse, the Inspector will plod his way along as an ordinary man who strains under his responsibility, but never gives up.
This movie is not to be missed for the outstanding crime mystery, the palpable sense of horror, and the surreal, hallucinatory scenes. Farmermouse was flipped-out by the ghostly Mabuse, but he thought those ’30s fire engines were super cool. He gives this ten double mochas with hot cream. 10/10.