The term “Weimar Germany” refers to the state of Germany as it existed from 1918 to 1933. Being situated between the two world wars, the period is also known as the “interwar” period. Weimar arose from the ashes of Imperial Germany and was cut down short by the evils of Nazi Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler being sworn in as Chancellor. Many who are unfamiliar with this era of German history may regard Weimar as simply the prelude to the Nazi state, but to do so would be to equate the victim with its murderer. In reality, whilst Weimar was often strife with instability and depression, the fledgeling democracy was also a short and intense blooming of artistic talent and personal freedoms which most in the world, let alone Germany, had never experienced before.
Some prominent names to come out of the Weimar Republic’s artistic prosperity include the film director Fritz Lang, screenwriter Billy Wilder, and actors such as Conrad Veidt, Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre. Aside from filmmakers, there is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the artist Max Beckmann and the architect Walter Gropius. In theatre, there is also the legendary director Max Reinhardt, a name that theatre students around the world will be all too familiar with.
These immensely talented Germans and Europeans would influence the world in their chosen profession. The works of Lang, Wilder, Veidt, as well as the other aforementioned actors, have been cemented into Hollywood legend and cinematic history. Likewise, Walter Gropius’s school of Bauhaus architecture has become one of the most influential architectural styles in the world. And even in the scientific world, there is also Albert Einstein, the world-renowned theoretical physicist who needs no further introduction for you to know his accomplishments.
It is a lesser-known fact that before the advent of the “talkie” in cinema, Berlin was one of the primary locations for films and filmmaking. Today, we are so used to the dominance of Hollywood that it may be difficult to imagine any other place holding a candle to that famous west coast American movie town. And yet, cast your mind back to the 1920s and the chaotic, hedonistic metropolis of Berlin was at least on par with, if not perhaps more prolific than Hollywood.
This can be seen through the wide variety of nationalities who lived and worked in the German capital. Of the aforementioned names above, Billy Wilder was Polish-Austrian and Peter Lorre was Hungarian. There are even quite a few American actresses who moved to the concrete jungle of Berlin, among such women was Fern Andra, one of the largest stars of the Weimar screen.
Of course, following the rise of Nazism in Germany, many of these talents fled the country. Some, such as Conrad Veidt, chose the United Kingdom. Whilst others (in fact, the majority), chose the United States. This was likely due to the fact that they could transfer their Berlin-honed skills over to Hollywood where they would then go on to shape American cinema throughout the 20th century. The names I have mentioned are only a handful of the most famous, there are countless others who lived and worked in Weimar Berlin before joining the mass exodus overseas.
In this Film Browse, I shall be introducing and exploring a selection of ten of the very best films to come out of Weimar Germany. Some of these films are monolithically important to the foundation of film as a medium as we know it today. in fact, many of these entries can arguably be called the first of their respective genres. Some genres which owe tremendous debts to Weimar cinema include horror, sci-fi, noir, crime-thrillers and more. These films are chronologically listed according to their release dates so you can take a cinematic journey from the birth of Weimar to its cruel demise.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Dir. Robert Weine, 1920)
The first film that most people think of when they remember the German Expressionist movement is Robert Weine’s masterpiece Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,1920). The film is regarded by many as the “first true horror film”, with many of its ideas being repurposed by later films and directors worldwide in the horror genre and beyond. Notably, it is very easy to see that Caligari has had a career-defining influence on the films and style of Tim Burton, director of Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) amongst others.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari takes place mostly in a small town portrayed with expressionistic distortions: street lamps are warped in unnatural positions; rooftops spike into the brooding sky; the streets are twisted and nothing ever feels “right”. An old man named Dr Caligari creeps into this disturbing town one day, to put on a spectacle at the local fair. Here, he reveals a somnambulist, a sleepwalker, named Cesare, who spends his life sleeping; waking only to foretell the future. Before long, various people are found murdered and the town sets about finding the murderer and unravelling the mystery of the nefarious Caligari and the sleepwalking Cesare.
Caligari was perhaps one of the first films to properly utilise the “twist-ending”. The various twists are shocking to this day and without Caligari, who knows if the narrative technique would be anywhere near as popular in fiction as it is today.
With a set design that looks and feels like a waking nightmare, and expressionist shadows that oppress the world they loom over, the world of Caligari has become one of its most memorable and iconic features. This misshapen world is likely a reflection of the mental and societal instability suffered by the German people following their disastrous defeat in World War I. Germany, once an imperial superpower, had been all but destroyed in WW1; with its monarchy in exile, its military destroyed, its people starving, its institutions destabilised and most of its land divided between the allied nations; the Germany that many Germans now lived in must have been extremely different, and far more terrifying than the one they were born into. Riots, violence and even assassinations were commonplace in the early days of Weimar. The newborn society had to grow up quickly whilst bearing the trauma, scars and damage of defeat in one of the most horrific wars in human history. As such, Caligari reflects a mental image of how the German people must have felt about their own world. A world unlike the one they once knew, a world of unbridled chaos and tumult. A world where it must have seemed like the sky was always dark, the rooftops were always twisted, a world of shadows and broken angles. A world where nothing is “right” anymore. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has become a deservedly immortal masterpiece of horror and film. A terrifying experience still, 101 years after its initial release.
Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Dir. Paul Wegener & Carl Boese, 1920)
Der Golem is a film that will be instantly recognisable to anybody who grew up watching re-runs of classic The Simpsons episodes. The episode “Treehouse of Horror XVII” featured a short in which Bart Simpson discovers the Golem and takes it under his control, mirroring the premise of this original Weimar German film in which the Golem is created by a Rabbi in 16th century Prague to protect his ostracised Jewish community.
A terrifying trend that can be found in many Weimar films, especially the expressionist ones, is the tendency to almost foretell what was to come for Germany after Weimar. Caligari is known for this, as do the other films which I shall be discussing in this list. But where it can be seen in Der Golem is in the segregation of the Jewish population of Prague into ghettoes. Separated and oppressed from the rest of society, this plot point of the film was a prophecy of dark things to come as one of the most horrifying and evil periods of human history following the murder of the Weimar Republic unfolded.
Der Golem is the third of three Golem films by director and star Paul Wegener (who plays the titular creature), but it is the only one today that has survived and can be viewed in feature-length. Notable for its themes of autonomy, self-awareness and the abuse of power, both by the Rabbi and the society that oppresses him and his people; Der Golem has no doubt had an everlasting influence on similar properties such as the film adaptations of Frankenstein. The film can be viewed as one of the first, successful forays into this style of monster-movie which would become popular later into the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom.
Nosferatu (Dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)
Nosferatu, alongside Caligari, retains some of the most recognisable and striking images of the Weimar period in film. The image of the vampire Count Orlok (portrayed memorably by Max Schreck) skulking up a flight of stairs is one etched into the memory of film students and enthusiasts across the world. The film is an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which the production team couldn’t secure the rights to. In fact, Nosferatu was ordered by court ruling to be destroyed due to lost legal battles with Stoker’s heirs. Fortunately, a few prints of the film survived, leaving us with the chance to watch this influential piece of horror and history.
The most striking feature of Nosferatu was its use of shadow to create tension and horror. Nowadays this technique is seen everywhere, but when Nosferatu was released, it was revolutionary. We can no doubt thank this illegal Dracula adaptation for pioneering the way forwards in this regard.
The infamous Count Orlok, a rip-off of Count Dracula, received a loving reference in Taika Waititi’s 2014 horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows. This vampire in Waititi’s film is the oldest of the main cast, and his appearance is a clear reference to Orlok. Despite being called Petyr, he may as well be counted as Orlok himself. Nosferatu’s influence has been all-encompassing for not only horror but particularly the vampire sub-genre on films.
Der letze Mann (Dir. F.W. Murnau, 1924)
F.W. Murnau’s Der letze Mann is a landmark of creative storytelling in film. The film is particularly remembered for its complete lack of inter-titles (barring one necessary exception) despite being a silent film in which dialogue was not possible to be conveyed through auditory means. Do not be fooled though, the filmmakers had the usage of inter-titles at their disposal and this was certainly an intentional creative decision. The film stars Emil Jannings—an actor who shall be discussed further later in the article for reasons you shall soon find out—as an ageing doorman at a luxurious, upper-class Berlin hotel who takes great pride in his job, and particularly, his uniform. Due to the physical limitations of his advanced years, the doorman loses his job and instead, he is relegated to being a bathroom cleaner. This “fall from grace” destroys the elderly man as he has lost all the prestige that he once held dear and now must face the scorn of his family and neighbours.
Der letze Mann’s lack of inter-titles, and therefore comprehensible dialogue, forces the filmmakers to express their narrative through purely visual means; and it is no doubt that the film succeeds wildly at this. In rejecting the use of dialogue, the audience is forced to actively engage with the work through their senses and emotions. The tale is one that criticises the German obsession with rank and uniform at the time, likely a cultural holdover from Germany’s imperial past, but also of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man; a lesson we can still learn today. In a society where uniform maketh man, to lose that uniform is to lose oneself as our tragic protagonist horribly learns as he is relegated to spend the rest of his days eeking out a miserable existence doing a job that he hates. Sadly, Murnau was not wrong in his criticism of the uniform. The Nazi Party would later come to abuse this lust for uniform and rigidity in order to gain power and ultimately bring about the downfall of Weimar itself, before committing some of the most heinous crimes that the world has ever seen.
Der letze Mann has taught filmmakers all over the world today that film can be an expressive and powerful creation tool without the need for sound or dialogue. The elements of lighting, music, camera, acting and more triumphs. In fact, it is often said that the hallmark of a good film is to be able to still understand and enjoy it if you take away the dialogue. Watch any foreign-language film which is in a language that you do not understand, without subtitles, and try this for yourself. You will find that a good film does not need you to grasp any spoken words for you to understand it in its broadest context.
Der letze Mann has also been influential beyond the western world. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (狂った一頁, 1926), an important piece of film history both worldwide but particularly in Japanese horror, was directly influenced by F.W. Murnau’s film by choosing to forego the use of inter-titles in order to better emphasise its narrative through more creative and abstract means. Ultimately, this choice has helped cement the film’s legacy and lasting style.
Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)
The grandfather of the modern science-fiction genre on film, there is very little that Metropolis does which hasn’t been replicated endlessly in the countless films that have come after it. It’s all here, the flying cars, the mad scientist, the android/robot, the futuristic city and the wealth disparity which comes with it. Metropolis’ fingerprints can be seen in everything from Blade Runner and Star Wars (The appearance of Star Wars’ C-3PO was clearly influenced by the film’s famous robot, the Maschinenmensch), to the name of Superman’s main city (creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster loved the film) and the visuals of Tim Burton’s Batman (the climax even takes place on a cathedral rooftop; a clear homage to the climax of Metropolis which does the same).
When we think of the most popular genres in film today, sci-fi is surely one to make the list. However, it might never have been this way if not for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Metropolis does something quite remarkable for the time, using a “childish” fantasy genre (i.e. the common perception of the genre at the time) such as Sci-Fi to tell a meaningful story that can be applied to our own world. The film contains heavy themes of wealth inequality, class boundaries and how to overcome them. Likewise, the fantastic set design and imagery has inspired countless creatives since.
Metropolis follows the story of a young privileged man, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), living in a futuristic city in which the minority rich rule the oppressed majority poor. Freder’s father is the dictator of this hierarchy. Freder realises the conditions of the working class and becomes determined to make a change. Along the way, he falls in love with a young woman, Maria, whom many of the workers idolise for her noble spirit. However, bringing about change in this deeply divided society is far from easy, as our protagonists soon learn. Personal and class conflicts abound, and Maria’s saint-like stature is soon weaponised against those who would seek to overthrow the existing hierarchy.
Nonetheless, Metropolis is not a film concerned with a total overthrow of hierarchy per se; rather it advocates that there must be a middle ground, a way forwards, a way driven by love for our fellow man, into the new world that all human beings can strive towards regardless of societal differences. This is especially relevant to Weimar society. Weimar was a democracy run by people who would have preferred a monarchy, with a citizenry who likely would have preferred it too, at least at first. In the midst of this conflict were extremist groups, both fascists and communists, opportunistically stirring up hatred and conflict, dividing the populous even further. Weimar was intensely fragmented and devastatingly fragile. We all know which faction rose to power in the end. However, in 1927, Metropolis proclaimed for something else entirely, something much better. The film makes a passionate plea for a society driven by love, and for human beings to work together rather than devolve into tribalistic conflict. As the film proclaims repeatedly “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND THE HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”.
The Man Who Laughs (Dir. Paul Leni, 1928)
Including this film here might be a bit dubious, as the film is an American production. However, the director Paul Leni and its star Conrad Veidt were both major Weimar German talents, and they bring with them to the film a heavy Weimar and German expressionist spirit, style and tone. The Man Who Laughs follows the life of a young man, Gwynplaine, living in England in the 1600s-1700s. Gwynplaine was disfigured as a young man, his face carved into a permanent carnival-like smile. In the film, we follow his life; from his disfigurement in his youth to his adult years in which he’s part of a carnival troupe as the titular Man Who Laughs. We see Gwynplaine’s scorn from the society around him and we see him fall in love and his insecurities about doing so.
The reasons I have included this film in this article are two-fold, partially because Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine was the primary inspiration for the appearance of DC Comics’ the Joker and we all know how dominant that character has become in today’s popular culture. But primarily because The Man Who Laughs is an early example of a film character who makes a heart-wrenching plea for acceptance and understanding. Throughout the film, we witness Gwynplaine’s anguish and his sadness. We witness how other’s view him as a freak, or as an object purely to be gawked at. Yet we also witness his kindness, his compassion and his good nature.
Gwynplaine is ostracized purely for the way he looks, yet he is no less deserving of respect than any other human being. Whilst a person with a physically permanent grin may be extremely rare today, we can still learn the lessons which the film teaches. There are many in this world today who are still outcast simply for who they are, how they look, what they can and can’t do. They are no different to Gwynplaine, human beings who deserve to be treated as such, regardless of differences.
For a film to make this plea in 1928 is astounding, and shows that love and kindness is timeless, whilst societies and status quos may change. There are many more films today that highlight the injustices suffered by minorities; we can thank The Man Who Laughs for paving the way in that regard.
Der blaue Engel (Dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
It would be remiss of me to write an introduction to Weimar films and not include an entry featuring the timeless, ever-sophisticated Marlene Dietrich. The German-born American actress stars in Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel as the sultry cabaret actress Lola Lola, whose irresistible sex appeal draws crowds of men, young and old, to see her sing and perform at the local cabaret “The Blue Angel”.
Starring alongside Dietrich is Emil Jannings as Immanuel Rath, the rigid educator and teacher at the local gymnasium. Some of Rath’s students regularly visit The Blue Angel, and distribute racy pictures of Lola Lola herself. Upon catching wind of these pictures, Rath visits the cabaret one evening, hoping to catch his delinquent students. However, rather than catching the boys and sending them back home to study, Rath finds himself falling head and shoulders for Lola Lola. Thus begins a personal downfall for the esteemed professor, as he loses grip of his career and position; spending more and more time with Lola Lola, and eventually marrying her. However, his marriage to a woman whose job it is to entice lust-filled men soon begins to crack. As his relationship with Lola Lola unravels, so does his personal life, character, pride and self-esteem.
Before writing any further about the film, I feel it is important to make one thing clear to the reader. Emil Jannings, one of the biggest stars of the Weimar period, would later go on to become a key figure in Nazi film propaganda. Whether this was due to Jannings’ true colours revealing themselves, or due to a desperate attempt to save his own skin, has been heavily debated. However, many Weimar talents faced this same dilemma and chose to flee the new Nazi Germany for allied and/or neutral nations. Conrad Veidt chose to flee to the United Kingdom, where he then spent almost the entire rest of his life creating films that oppose the Nazis and attempting to persuade the United States to join the war effort. Marlene Dietrich fled to the United States, putting in similar anti-Nazi efforts. The legendary director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Billy Wilder likewise chose the United States. If Jannings did not hold Nazi sympathies, we can only wonder why he did not flee like his fellow Weimar colleagues. In one of the more depressing pieces of film trivia, Jannings is the first actor to have ever won the Academy Awards’ Best Actor award, for his roles in Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh (1927) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928).
Returning to the film at hand, Der blaue Engel can perhaps be seen as a microcosm for feelings that some held about Weimar. It’s important to remember that the later years of Imperial Germany, the short life of Weimar Germany, and the evil of Nazi Germany were all within the span of around 40 years, so there were many Germans who had lived through all three periods, a chaotic existence indeed. Following the collapse of Imperial Germany, Weimar was a complete overhaul of the old ways. Berlin particularly was noted for its thriving nightlife, gay scene and overall laissez-faire attitude to things that would have previously been looked down upon. However, whilst this would have been wonderful to some, to others it would have been regarded as terrifying moral decadence. This is exhibited by the downfall of Rath in this film, a stand-in for the old, rigid ways, spiralling into complete destruction under the spell of Lola Lola, the representation of the seductive power of the new, more liberal Germany.
Menschen am Sonntag (Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer & Robert Siodmak, 1930)
Menschen am Sonntag is important for a myriad of reasons. First of all, the film is the second screenwriting effort from legendary Polish-Austrian director, screenwriter and producer Billy Wilder. As was mentioned earlier, Wilder would later go on to have a highly successful career in Hollywood where he directed and/or wrote various iconic classics including the Marilyn Monroe films The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Secondly, Menschen am Sonntag deploys a narrative technique that was groundbreaking for the time, and is used with more regularity today. The film employs “normal people”, the average man and woman, with no previous acting experience, simply going about their daily lives. Of course, the events of the film were semi-scripted, but this hybrid of reality & documentation, with fictional storytelling, is something that we’re far more accustomed to today than the people of the 1920s-1930s were. Lastly, the film breaks away from the Expressionistic shadow that often looms over most conversations surrounding Weimar cinema. Instead, the film simply shows a group of normal Germans enjoying their weekend. In this way, Menschen am Sonntag documents a record of what life was like for the average German in Weimar society.
We see a group of two men and two women finish their working shifts, organize dates and a day trip to a local bathing spot on the weekend. Then we see them enjoy their day out, relaxing, conversing, playing and flirting before the new work week ahead. Accordingly, Menschen am Sonntag has become a vital part of the Weimar film, one which allows us in the 21st century to glimpse into the lives of people who lived nearly 100 years before us. There is no expressionism here, no grand visions of the future, no moral and societal allegory or conversations regarding the political dynamics of the time. Instead, we are treated to seeing human beings live out their lives, work, go on dates, attempt to attract the person they fancy, laugh, get annoyed, take pictures and play music and enjoy their weekends.
The film reminds us of the bond between all humans, past or present. Though the people depicted in Menschen am Sonntag lived nearly a century before us, they enjoy many of the same things we do today. Likewise, one needn’t even be German, let alone Weimar German, to see our own societies and people within the film. Conversely, the film provides us with a visual record of life in Weimar Germany specifically and the things that Weimar people got up to. Upon viewing the most famous films of the Weimar period, one would be forgiven for thinking the society was one entirely devoid of hope or happiness; one shrouded in problems, conflict and depression. And in many ways it was, corruption and political and economic instability were certainly dangerously rife and insidious. Yet Weimar was also a society of newfound freedoms, of youth, new ideas, artists, poets, and of course, the average person enjoying their Sunday.
M (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1931)
If Metropolis was Lang’s instrumental shaping of the Sci-Fi genre to what we know it as today, then his 1931 effort M is the foundation for the crime-thriller and serial killer film. In fact, it is the first “serial killer movie”. Once you’ve seen M, it’s difficult to imagine how David Fincher’s Seven (1995), Zodiac (2007) or Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) would exist without it. Lang really was just this instrumental in the forming of modern genres. M was Lang’s first sound film, and his use of camera, lighting and dialogue is practically modern.
The film is a dark tale, one both simple and complex in its implications. The film depicts the manhunt for a serial killer of children in the backdrop of a paranoid Berlin, a Berlin that unbeknownst at the time, was soon to spiral into the depraved depths of Nazism. In this world, a world in which anybody could be the person murdering the innocent German youth, strangers turn on strangers, neighbour turns on neighbour, colleague turns on colleague, friend turns on friend. The manhunt for the killer becomes so desperate, in fact, that the city’s seedy criminal circles even join in, determined to do what the police cannot, and put a stop to the man who is sinking to depths that even they would not. The film’s climax is one of the most powerful I’ve seen, and although I do not wish to spoil it, it leaves the viewer pondering the morality of justice and of those who dispense it.
M was filmed and released towards the very dying embers of Weimar, a time when any dream of freedom and social liberation was beginning to fade, and when Nazism was beginning to land its final murderous blows on the near-dead democracy. It is unsurprising then that M is a film that reeks of hatred for the society it depicts, a society so devoid of goodness and integrity, a society in which man will turn on his fellow man, and a society in which even criminals might be hailed as heroes. This should come as no surprise to the modern viewer, as we know, man really was soon to turn on his fellow man in the most abhorrent of ways, and the evilest of criminals were soon to be “sieg heil’d “as the mightiest of heroes in Germany. The image of one of M’s criminals, with his black-gloved hand smothering a map of Berlin, is an eerie and foreboding shot to behold.
Whilst not used in the exact same way as was to happen in reality, M even features the act of visibly marking a person suspected of being at fault. Not too dissimilar to the horrid armbands used to identify a person, that oppressed peoples were forced to wear under Nazi rule. Nazism had not yet seized full power within Germany at the time of M’s release, but Lang’s foresight of what was to come is deeply unsettling. Apart from the horrid gloom of M, I would like to briefly point out the performance of Peter Lorre in the film. It is nothing short of masterful, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact it was his first starring role. It is no surprise that he went on to become a legend in Hollywood.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1922) & Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1933)
I feel a degree of sadness that I cannot close this article with a joyous film that celebrates the beautiful, youthful and artistic spirit of Weimar, something akin to Menschen am Sonntag perhaps. Alas, any journey through the life of Weimar can only end in one horrific result, the rise of Nazi Germany. As such, we come to one of the very last Weimar films, a film which was released in 1933, the terminal year of Weimar’s short life, and the year in which Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. If Fritz Lang’s M was a horrifying foretelling of what was to come in the immediate future, his Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is both the same and an outright, intentional depiction of the heinous evil that had now fully infested and wrapped its iron claw around German society.
Testament is a sequel to Lang’s earlier Mabuse film, released at the very beginning of the Weimar period: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922). Testament would be followed by a third in the trilogy, filmed and released during the Cold War and West/East Germany years: Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960).
Through his Mabuse Trilogy, Lang charted a journey of German society in his lifetime on film. Beginning with the painful birth of Weimar from the ashes of Imperial Germany, through to the horrors of Nazi Germany, and into the paranoia of the divided Cold War Germany. However, it is only the first two films which are Weimar films, and relevant for this writing. Incidentally, Lang’s Dr. Mabuse forms a fundamental foundation for the villain archetype in modern film. British director Christopher Nolan, when preparing to film The Dark Knight (2008) and create his version of The Joker, told his brother Jonathan to simply watch Lang’s Dr. Mabuse Trilogy in order to understand how to write a villain. It seems that The Joker owes more than just his appearance to Weimar cinema.
Dr. Mabuse, simply put, is a megalomaniac master criminal with mysterious powers of hypnotism which he uses to force others to carry out his evil plans for crime and terror. This is seen throughout the first film, and many have pointed out that Mabuse forms a sort of foretelling figure of Adolf Hitler even as far back as 1922 when der Spieler was released. It seems that there was always some darkness lurking within German society even since Weimar’s birth and Lang was one of the few who could see it, even if he didn’t initially realise what shape it would eventually take.
However, it is in Testament that Lang has fully realised the shape of the evil engulfing his homeland. Following his defeat in the first film, Mabuse is incarcerated in an insane asylum, where he refuses to speak, yet continuously writes gibberish on pieces of paper. Meanwhile, criminals who appear to be affiliated with Mabuse carry out crimes in the city. If this doesn’t sound like Hitler writing Mein Kampf whilst imprisoned, whilst his lackeys continue to infect German society, then I don’t know what does.
However, the scale of the crimes soon make it clear that Mabuse is somehow coordinating these attacks upon civilised society, whilst remaining under the surveillance of the asylum. Many twists follow, Mabuse’s doctor degrades into complete obsession with the madman, and those who discover the truth are driven to insanity or mysteriously killed. Ultimately, Mabuse returns to inflict terror upon all that is good in the world.
Lang had intentionally created Testament with the intention of fictitiously depicting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, drawing parallels between Mabuse and Hitler, and highlighting how the latter is a very real embodiment of the former. The allegory is so clear to see that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, banned the film. It is clear to see Lang’s horror in both M and Testament at what was happening to his homeland. And as in M, the great director continued to have a terrifying foresight for the horrors to come. Mabuse’s master plan in Testament, crafted for no reason other than terror and hatred, revolves around releasing mass amounts of gas upon unsuspecting citizens. The first Nazi gas chamber was made operational in 1942, 9 years after the release of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse.
As pointed out in Rüdiger Suchsland’s 2014 documentary From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, the film’s conclusion sees a horrifying spectre of Dr. Mabuse, commanding a bewitched man to drive faster and further into the darkness of the blackest night. The man has transfixed ahead, unable to take his hands off the wheel, unable to break Mabuse’s spell. Mabuse’s ghastly gaze pierced upon the man, he points forwards into the abyss, his sinister commands relentlessly attacking from all sides.
It is impossible to see this image and not understand what it means, it is impossible to see this image and not understand what had happened to Germany. Love, compassion, artistry, expression, friendship, hope and more had all been murdered, murdered by evil men, and these men had now plunged Germany into a darkness that the world had never seen before.