Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Cathy Brennan

Produced 90 years apart, Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) have a lot in common. Both Fritz Lang and Martin Scorsese utilise a central character in their respective works to castigate the corruption of society. For Lang, this character is Mabuse, a psychoanalyst who moonlights as a criminal mastermind in the seedy heart of Weimar Germany. Scorsese meanwhile tells the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life figure who, in the 80s and 90s, used his company Stratton Oakmont to make millions off the US stock market through massively corrupt practices that led many of his victims to financial ruin. Both men in these films profit from the misery of others and both are pursued by men of the law who function as charisma vacuums in contrast to the theatrical splendour of their targets.

According to German critic Siegfried Kracauer, “Lang himself called the film a document about the current world and attributed its international success to its documentary virtues rather than to the many thrills it offered”. The first part of the film is titled “an image of the time” which would not be out of place in a pull quote from a film critic straining for profundity. In his book, The Film Till Now, Lang’s contemporary, British critic and film-maker Paul Rotha attributes Mabuse’s appeal more to its “thrilling, and melodramatic” qualities.

The fiendish doctor is undeniably grotesque, but it is his cunning that produces the thrills. As a psychoanalyst in a time when Freud’s theories held much fascination among the public, Mabuse is infused with a certain intrigue. His cunning schemes provide the thrills which make the film a success. Meanwhile, state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who hunts the criminal mastermind throughout the film, is a stern man utterly devoid of humour. To quote The Simpsons’ Superintendent Chalmers, “The rod up that man’s butt must have a rod up its butt.”

FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who fills the von Wenk role in The Wolf of Wall Street, has a bit more personality, particularly during his first encounter with Belfort in which the two men engage in a bit of banter. Even so, his role as Belfort’s foil only serves to make the villain more interesting. In the end of both films, von Wenk and Denham are granted pyrrhic victories that reinforce their own impotence in contrast to their magnetic foes. For von Wenk, his victory over Mabuse and rescue of Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker) is undercut by her own disillusionment with the state prosecutor’s methods, most notably his cruelty towards the mabuse-obsessed criminal Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). There were hints of romantic tension between von Wenk and Told but upon rescuing her from Mabuse’s clutches, she cannot bear to look at him. Meanwhile, Denham, despite his work in bringing Belfort down, receives no real recognition or reward for his efforts. Last seen taking the subway, Denham’s situation stands in marked contrast to Belfort’s punishment in a prison that more closely resembles a country club with its tennis court. This reinforces the notion that it is ultimately the cheaters who prosper in society.

This uneasy relationship in Mabuse the Gambler between certain social realities and the visceral pleasure of watching a film can also be attributed to The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s study of Jordan Belfort is far from an endorsement of his actions. Scorsese has made his career by forcing audiences to rub up against the lives of men who act well outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour; the amoral vulgarity of Belfort and his cronies are no different. Yet the way in which the film presents the unrestrained hedonism enjoyed by Belfort and his colleagues at Stratton Oakmont make the fruits of their labour enticing to audiences. This discrepancy has always been at the heart of debates about the film since its release in 2013.

The People Magazine critic Alynda Wheat wrote at the time that The Wolf of Wall Street is a “self-indulgent glorification of excess that treats women like blow-up dolls and doesn’t even stop to consider Belfort’s working-class victims. In other words, it’s a party – but we’re not invited.” The most revealing aspect of this condemnation is the final phrase, which implicitly suggests that the excess and demeaning of women is permissible so long as some nebulous “we” can partake as well. That it is the exclusion from indulging in this excess that makes the film morally reprehensible rather than the consequences of that excess in and of itself. This suggests that even among those critical of the film, there lies a deeper desire behind the spectacle of criminality and the rewards it grants.

The German title Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler can be translated literally as Dr. Mabuse The Player, as opposed to Gambler. Although the title refers to how Mabuse defrauds wealthy victims in gambling dens, the idea of Mabuse as a player offers a broader definition of his actions. He plays dress-up through his disguises; he toys with the lives of others. It would not be a stretch to say that he treats Countess Told as a doll in the way he tries to possess her by locking the woman in a room that has the superficial trappings of comfort. Viewed in this way, Mabuse’s exploits are stripped of any seductive mystery that the gambler title holds, and instead he is reduced to the status of a petulant child. Sex and drugs are considered adult activities, yet in The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort and his cronies indulge with the unrestrained gluttony of spoilt children. This regression to a child-like state is at the heart of why the scenes of excess hold such attraction in Wolf of Wall Street. It represents the ultimate liberation from adult responsibility, a type of liberation that only money can buy.

The most addictive drug that Belfort and his cronies consume in The Wolf of Wall Street is power, specifically a power derived from fucking people over. It doesn’t matter who they are, rich or poor, so long as they can put themselves above others. Scorsese shows through his film that this is capitalism in its unmasked form. He does this most spectacularly by having Belfort addressing the audience directly to the camera, flaunting his naked amorality in our faces through both his words and his physicality: “Was any of this legal?” he poses with a cheeky grin. “Absolutely fucking not”. The issue here is that for many who watch the film, they don’t see the problem with a corrupt capitalist system that Belfort (or Mabuse for that matter) can take advantage of, it’s that they aren’t the ones doing the fucking. Critic KA Bradeley, in her review of the immersive London theatre adaptation of The Wolf of Wall Street in 2019, observed that audience members were “suspiciously enthusiastic about racist slurs and misogyny.”

In the years following the release of Scorsese’s film, there has been a proliferation of online personalities whose imagery of excess is inspired by The Wolf of Wall Street. More often than not these are fake online business gurus. Perhaps there is no clearer example of this than Belfort himself, who now has his own podcast where he interviews a variety of public figures ranging from Youtuber Logan Paul to conservative commentator Tomi Lahren. Paul, whose on-screen antics mirror that of Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, and Lahren, whose racist rhetoric keeps her rich, both embody the continuation of amoral exploitation as depicted in Scorsese’s film. Belfort, along with other wannabe social media capitalists, like business mentor Max Tornow, utilise images that are inspired by the scenes of excess in The Wolf of Wall Street: young, beautiful women, luxury cars, swimming pools. These images are sanded down from an R rating to a more marketable PG. For instance, hard drug use goes unseen and the sex is merely implied by the presence of women rather than grotesquely depicted in Scorcese’s film.

Belfort goes even further with his promotional material by using actual screenshots from a film that shows him (as played by former teen heartthrob DiCaprio) hitting his wife and sexually assaulting female airplane staff. He also borrows the visual design of the film’s marketing material: the use of yellow, and a similar font to the film’s title card both feature prominently. Despite some superficial statements of regret over his past life, Belfort still uses the notoriety from that film to promote his personal brand and profit from it to this day. Far from ignorance or stupidity, Belfort utilises this because he knows that many people (mostly men) who watch the film long for the lifestyle it depicts despite Scorsese’s implicit critique of it.

For years, it’s been a popular talking point that Gordon Gecko’s famous “greed is good” speech in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street was embraced by brokers on Wall Street, despite the film unambiguously condemning the character’s philosophy of unregulated capitalism. In this speech, Gecko, played by 1980s yuppy incarnate Michael Douglass says greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” This invocation of Darwinism is unsurprising given that Darwin’s theories, even in his own lifetime, were used by numerous groups, both right and left, to lend legitimacy to their ideologies. Take what works and omit the rest that doesn’t.

The way ideologies adapt themselves to maintain a hold on the minds of the people was as true then as it is today in the age of neoliberal capitalism. It can also be seen in the Weimar Republic, through the fictional character of Mabuse and an all-too real Austrian corporal. When one of his henchmen is apprehended by the police, the doctor disguises himself as a proletariat agitator, enters a pub and rouses the working-class patrons to halt a police van carrying his colleague. He achieves this under the false pretence that the van contains a local activist. This forces the police to remove the man from the van so that Mabuse can have him assassinated before this accomplice has the chance to tell the police anything about Mabuse’s criminal organisation. In this section of the film, Lang illustrates how people’s politically informed passions can be utilised by unscrupulous figures for their own individual ends at a time when that Austrian corporal was learning to do the same. This chimes with the way Belfort’s representation in The Wolf of Wall Street and his real-life counterpart take advantage of their audience’s desire for wealth to line their own pockets.

Through Jordan Belfort, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has effectively updated Lang’s Mabuse figure for a contemporary audience. Yet despite his formal sophistication as a storyteller, the years since the film’s release have highlighted Scorsese’s failure to construct a meaningful critique of the socio-economic system that allows men like Belfort to thrive. Under capitalism, we all crave the mabussy.