"Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" is one of the greatest classics of silent film ever. The film was directed by the eminent Fritz Lang. The fact that he brought Mabuse to the screen a total of three times during his long career as a film director is undoubtedly one of Lang's greatest achievements. The script for the first film was written by his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou. Lang also participated in the script development, but is not named as a co-author in the film titles. The Luxembourg-born Norbert Jacques created the novel shortly after the end of the First World War. The character of the supervillain Dr. Mabuse - a kind of proto-Blofeld with a strong inclination towards the occult - is Jacques' most famous literary creation.
The film "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" has two parts, each with six acts. This was not unusual for the time; the idea behind it was to present such epically long films on two consecutive evenings. Lang presented several films based on this concept, the last in 1959 with "The Tiger of Eschnapur" and "The Indian Tomb".
"Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" was shot mainly in the Jofa studios in Berlin-Johannisthal in 1921/1922, with Rudolf Klein-Rogge playing the leading role of Mabuse.
Interestingly, "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" does not have an original film score from the time of its premiere in 1922, or there is no evidence of one. But in the course of later decades, various composers set about composing new music for this classic film:
- Konrad Elfers (newly scored in 1964) - Osmán Pérez Freire (no scoring date available) - Michael Obst (newly scored in 1991) - Aljoscha Zimmermann (newly scored in 2004)
I know Obst's score. It was aired by Arte when they showed the film in the 1990s. I had that version on VHS but today, I don't remember a single note of it, and I have thrown away that tape a long time ago.
Of course, I have heard Zimmermann's version which you can easily find on the internet (see the embedded videos below - these are the best versions - picture quality-wise - you can find for free). I have to say that I'm not fond of Zimmermann's music. I don't think it's bad music but it's just not interesting to listen to this kind of sound for four hours and thirty minutes. It becomes grating and uninspired.
On the other hand, I have never heard a single note of Elfers' effort. I'm sure that one would be interesting to discover anew. I can't comment on Pérez Freire's work at all.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. Erster Teil - Der große Spieler. Ein Bild der Zeit. (1922 - Fritz Lang - Rudolf Klein Rogge as Dr. Mabuse)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Part One - The Great Gambler. A Picture of the Times.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. Zweiter Teil - Inferno. Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit. (1922 - Fritz Lang - Rudolf Klein Rogge as Dr. Mabuse)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Part Two - Inferno. A Game by People of Our Time.
Hopefully, someday a really gifted composer with the necessary means to use a full orchestra gets the chance to compose a new, hard hitting score that does this great film justice.
Personally, I think, this film would be greatly served with a score in the style of Ennio Morricone's writing à la "Richard III".
I agree with you that this movie is among cinema's greatest achievements. It sets up so many things that would become cliches later on but were done here for the first time. It is a pretty faithful adaptation of the Norbert Jacques novel which while having a good story is one of the worst books I have ever read. Jacques' general rule of writing seems to be that you should not use a single adjective when you can use ten and a sentence that doesn't contain (at least) two metaphors is simply not worth writing. The language of the novel is so ludicrous that it feels like a parody.
I never cared for the Zimmermann score. It's better than no score at all (the way I saw part one for the first time at the local arthouse cinema) but doesn't do justice to this great film. As much as I love the Konrad Elfers score for Funeral in Berlin I don't have very high expectations for his score. I have seen Buster Keaton's The General with a score of his but that was an utterly bland affair. Thankfully Carl Davis later provided the score the film deserved.
Dr. Mabuse certainly deserves a new score. But I fear that with its running time of 4 and a half hours this is not a project that will be tackled as a labor of love by a major composer.
Zimmermann has set some silent films to music. Mostly not to the benefit of the films. He is one such case where the music (the ones I have heard so far) sound very much the same, partly, of course, due to the fact that he regularly uses a small ensemble of musicians and, as a result, the arrangements are tailored to these instrumentalists. But that is no excuse. He is simply not an inventive composer but rather a routine sound filler. Of course, I don't know everything Zimmermann has done, however, I find his music for "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" in particular sounds monotonously agitating after 15 minutes at the latest. We definitely need someone of the compositional calibre of the greatest film music composers in history (Goldsmith, Morricone, Lavagnino, Grothe or Delerue - to name just a handful of names).
I can imagine, if these silent films survive the next decades and there is an interest in showing them to a larger audience, that one day a new generation of composers will emerge who will discover silent films as a rewarding field of activity for creating inspired programme music. You mentioned Car Davis in this context. I'm not a big fan of his silent film scores, and I haven't found the scores he composed for contemporary films particularly appealing either. For me, therefore, he is more of a mediocrity of what I expect from a good silent film score.
Furthermore, it would be important for composers like Zimmermann to finally move away from the stereotypical sound of silent film music. I already know that I'm watching a silent film, so I don't need to be told that with a corresponding 'funny' silent film score.
One more thing, people like Zimmermann - and he really is just one example here in this context - get their money from state funded entities (i.e. tax payer's money). That may explain why such uninspired work gets turned out on a regular basis by, dare I say it, mediocre musicians.
This mechanism, of course, would have to be changed to get the best results by those who really care and love composing new music for silent films. It's a real luxury problem, isn't it?