The stencil for a thousand crime films to follow and even after 70-some years a sleek model of narrative excitement and paranoid construction, Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the story of a name that beckons the detective/viewer toward a source for chaos, only to dissipate to a further level of abstraction upon approach. Lang’s Mabuse series (Testament is the second, following 1922’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler; the third is his last film, 1960’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) remains one of cinema’s richest pulp metaphors of the hunt for the connecting link behind societal turmoil, the displacements of technology, and the fragmentation of identity: Mabuse might be the warden of the panopticon society, but he never answers his phone.
Criterion’s beautiful two-disc set features contributions from leading Mabusians Tom Gunning and David Kalat tracing the ongoing relevance of this literal zeitgeist to an age in which terror is color-coded. The second disc features a rough print of the French version of the film, shot concurrently with a different cast. Both sets of actors display the same intonations and perform the same movements, suggesting another stencil, one for voice and gesture, in which any particular figure is replaceable.