Calling The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse "the Citizen Kane of super-criminal thrillers" isn't too outrageous, though Fritz Lang's 1933 proto-noir predates Orson Welles' rip-roaring American tableau. Both films combine style, exuberance, and thematic complexity, with Lang's work in particular presenting nightmarish scenarios with clever sound design and ingenious rhyming compositions, and both films are sophisticated in their unconventional conception of good and evil. In Testament, the title character (a genius gang lord played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) dies early in the film, leaving his written thoughts behind to corrupt those who consider them seriously.
Lang claimed that this genre piece was a comment on Nazism, but Testament speaks more directly to how human frailty gives fascism room to grow. The film's villains act out of raw need or reckless curiosity, following the orders of a man behind a curtain, in a featureless room, in a part of the city where people prefer to remain anonymous. In his frank, insightful commentary track on the Criterion DVD, historian David Kalat debunks a lot of Lang's statements as symptomatic of the director's penchant for self-mythologizing. Kalat is a Lang devotee, but he's also an expert on the rich Mabuse mythology, which extends beyond Lang's three films about the character (Testament is the second) into further sequels and novels, all of which are to some degree about how people are naturally inclined to follow orders.
The DVD also includes the shorter French version of the film, which Lang shot at the same time, as well as archival interviews with the director and his crew. The French version is more plot-oriented, but the original provides a better document of its era, as Lang staggers suspense sequences with a handful of relaxed conversations. Though Testament is a single two-hour film, Kalat compares Lang's work in general—especially the long two-parters of his pre-Hollywood era—to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Mabuse parallels Tarantino in other ways, as well, from the strikingly detailed locations to the fact that actor Otto Wernicke reprises a character in the pulpy Testament that he first played in Lang's more horrific M.
The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse extends off the edge of the screen to such a degree that it even begins in the middle of a tense action scene, like, as Kalat puts it, "the middle chapter of an ongoing serial." Its real-world implications are transportable, as well. Kalat aggressively resists a "Mabuse equals Hitler" reading of the film, because the morally compromised world it depicts fits any era where men do evil in the name of ideas.