How are the Dark Knight and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse similar? Their villains: the Joker and Dr. Mabuse are eerily similar characters. Both live in an insane asylum, toe the line between of genius/madman, infect the minds of those around them, and, most importantly, are devoted to using a reign of terror and crime to yank away the thin lid of civilization and revealing the beast of Darwinian flexing its roiling beneath.
The list goes on from there, but aside from noting Dr. Mabuse as a likely model for the D.C. villain, it is their differences that make the Fritz Lang film so haunting. While the Joker eagerly casts himself as the protagonist in his play of destruction, Lang’s Dr. Mabuse begins the film sidelined: He sits immobile in his bed in the insane asylum, talking to no one and scribbling out ingenious criminal plans for no one in particular. He’s a genius, still, but an ineffective one. It takes a dedicated servant to first recognize his genius, and second choose to implement it.
The Joker is somewhat unique in that he doesn’t have a backstory, an identity. It is the source of his anarchic power: He is both no one and everyone–his gleeful, nihilistic criminality is something that ghosts in all of us. His identity is only the manifestation of that impulse to amoral chaos. In the Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the idea of this ephemeral identity is even more obvious. We know who Dr. Mabuse is, but who recruits his gang? Who puts his plan in to action? Fittingly, the middleman only appears to the gangs as a silhouette behind a curtain, and (without revealing who is helping him) at one point the spirit of Dr. Mabuse is actually seen entering the body of his henchman. Dr. Mabuse goes one step further than the Joker: He can actually infuse himself into others, become them, while the Joker, though he is without a non-villain identity, is content to merely recruit sidekicks.
This subtle difference becomes clearer in a historical context: Hitler was firmly in power in 1933, and Lang–though raised Catholic by his mother, a convert from Judaism–would have qualify as Jewish. Hitler, like any movie villain had his henchman, but he also had the support of the people. Dr. Mabuse had no power of his own: he needed his Goering, his Goebbels (who famously censored the film while simultaneously offering Lang the chance to lead the Nazi film industry). Dr. Mabuse is not does not have the self-starting entrepreneurial spirit of the Joker, he is merely the writer of his testament, his Mein Kampf, which is disseminated by his man-behind-the-curtain via loud speakers. Hitler, too, found most of his early power through his dynamic public speaking, first at his trial, and later through his massive public parades.
It would be silly to diminish Hitler’s own power as a person to simply a wooden silhouette with a loudspeaker, or a propped-up invalid. But Hitler, like Mabuse, needed his propaganda machine, he needed the criminals driven to him by economic desperation, he needed his organized reign of violence–his krsyallnacht–to pull back the lid and let that bubbling violence out.