Friday, January 18, 2008

Ever met Dr. Mabuse?

I should hope not.

I'm not completely sure if this super villain is known outside Germany, to be honest. Even inside Germany, many young people probably have no idea who he is - or rather was.

It all started in the 1920s when a man named Norbert Jacques invented a character named Dr. Mabuse, a man who could control people with the help of his hypnotic abilities - and who, naturally, used this power to gain wealth and influence, even becoming the head of a crime syndicate. Two movies were produced at that time, loosely based on the novels, by one of the most renown directors of German movie history, Fritz Lang.

Afterwards, nothing happened for a long time. The novels (which aren't very good) were forgotten and the movies (without sound, as usual during the 1920s) shared their fate. Then, in the 1960s, German movie companies were searching for new movies to produce and stumbled over the original Dr. Mabuse movies. While the originals are very much rooted in the time they were written in, the main character was not. So Dr. Mabuse was transported into modern times (something which also happened in the 1940s to Sherlock Holmes, nothing new there) and appeared in another six movies. Three more were planned, but never produced after the last two movies to appear weren't the success they were supposed to be (rightfully, they're not very good).

Dr. Mabuse became not only a master of hypnosis, but also a master of masquerade, appearing in various masks (meaning various actors played him - it's the same with "Fantomas" in the three movies named after that villain). He always had new methods to endanger the world, from simple weapons to drugs to invisible villains to mind control to death rays. Some of those ideas - while outdated today - were quite modern and even bordering on science fiction at the time of the movies. In the fourth movie, Mabuse died - inside an asylum, after he had lost his mind -, but that did not keep him from causing more mayhem, controlling the minds of first his psychiatrist and later on another man. With that little twist, the stories even took a turn towards the occult.

Unlike the many Edgar Wallace movies produced around that time, too (there are probably more Edgar Wallace movies than there are Edgar Wallace novels...), the Dr. Mabuse movies had little to no humour (although some of the ideas are quite amusing today, but then, I've never laughed louder during a horror movie than the first time I watched the 1932 version of "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi ... that bat! ... and that spider!). Because of that, they still work quite well today. Okay, computers do no longer need a whole workbench to work. Okay, today a police inspector would use a mobile phone to call for help, if he found himself in a tight corner. But apart from the necessarily outdated things (no wonder after almost 50 years...), the movies still work today. With a little modernizing, you could still make them work today, the basic stories aren't outdated.

So, on the whole, I wouldn't want to meet Dr. Mabuse.

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