At the beginning of my film career (if you want to use this word), I believed in fate. Slowly, with the years, I didn’t believe in fate anymore. Fate is not the thing that comes to you and you cannot escape. Fate is something that you make out of your life.
—Fritz Lang in a February 1975 interview, conducted the year prior to his death
Film history frequently offers two versions of Fritz Lang: A maker of epic German tragedies and melodramas prior to Nazism’s rise, and a creator of lean, tight Hollywood noir films after leaving Germany in 1933. Yet this division placed within the great Austrian director’s half-century-long film career should be challenged. One reason why is that it overlooks the outliers, such as Lang’s lone film made in France, the splendidly gentle and sad supernatural romance Liliom (1934); his nineteenth-century adventure tale Moonfleet (1955), a CinemaScope work shot on the MGM backlot with an almost entirely British cast; and his final films, realized after he left Hollywood and returned to Germany. Another is that it ignores other major binaries and shifts in Lang’s practice.
For instance, major differences could easily be seen between silent Lang and sound Lang. The filmmaker was born in 1890, saw his first film when he was nearly thirty years old and worked at the forefront of the late silent period. He stated in interviews that, as sound films first arrived, he believed that they should utilize all kinds of noise, and not simply dialogue. Accordingly, we can balance the meticulously detailed and opulent visuals of silent films as diverse as 1919’s Harakiri (an adaptation of the Japan-set play Madame Butterfly that used period structures and costumes made with materials from the Hamburg Anthropological Museum) and 1929’s Woman in the Moon (a journey into the stratosphere that includes full, imaginative renderings both of a large spaceship and of a lunar landscape) with the plainer, barer settings of sound films ranging from M (1931) to his final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), in which characters walk along city streets while sounds point to possible offscreen dangers that fill both their imaginations and ours.
We could also attribute differences between Lang’s films to differences between his collaborators. He once told an interviewer, for example, that he felt that a film’s director “has to be the servant to the script.” The distinct visions of Lang’s surrealistic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)—with a disguise-wearing supervillain (played by frequent Lang actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge) laying traps for would-be victims and witnessing their heroic escapes—and of Lang’s far more cynical, fatalistic, and stripped-down later crime drama Scarlet Street (1945) have much to do with the distinct sensibilities of those two films’ screenwriters, Thea von Harbou and Dudley Nichols.
Both the differences and similarities between Lang’s films have been on ample display recently in two simultaneously running complete Lang retrospectives, one in the United States at the Harvard Film Archive and the other in Brazil at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Both series have had the great fortune of being able to present nearly all of Lang’s extant film works on celluloid rather than digitally, with many of the films screening in recently restored 35mm prints. We are lucky to have some of Lang’s films at all, since several of his earliest works, including his directorial debut Half-Blood (1919), are considered lost today. Lang’s spiritual melodrama The Wandering Shadow (1920), about a woman (played by Mia May) who leaves human society to find herself among mountains, was believed lost for years until a print was discovered in 1986 at the Cinemateca Brasileira. Furthermore, only recently has long-missing footage from some incomplete films been discovered, including the 2008 uncovering in Buenos Aires of 16mm canisters containing over twenty-five minutes from Metropolis (1927), Lang’s visionary rendering of a future, machine-based society in which humans risk being overtaken by the monsters they’ve built.
The chance to watch even some of Lang’s films in dialogue with each other—as one can here, with the viewing availability of twelve Lang films, including two different versions of Metropolis—also gives ample chance to appreciate things that the films have in common. In many ways, Lang never stopped being the filmmaker he was at his work’s outset.
This quickly becomes evident at the level of form, as noted by the critic Glenn Heath, Jr. in a Keyframe essay on Lang’s late House by the River (1950). In the film, a secretly psychopathic novelist (played by Louis Hayward) writes a bestseller fictionalizing his real-life act of murdering his maid, tries to frame his crippled brother (played by Lee Bowman) for the crime, and falls into his own net. As Heath shows, Lang used the same strong techniques and devices in House and in many other works to render moments at which characters find themselves entrapped: The photographing of actors from a sharply angled God’s-eye view; the fixing of slants of Expressionistic spotlights upon people as though allowing them no room to hide or to escape; the distorting and exaggerating of ugliness in the features of others gathered in long lines and in large circular formations, rendering our leads as the prey of grotesque hunters; and in turn, some of the most startling capturing of close-ups that has ever occurred in films, as persecuted peoples’ enormous faces fill the screen with panic and disbelief.
Such moments arise throughout Lang’s films, regardless of whether they were made at UFA or at RKO, and no matter if they took place in an environment resembling his everyday world or something closer to the realm of dreams. His style grew out of a conception of humanity as a series of Job figures battling hardships and rebuking fate, with the human race’s capacity to do so memorably embodied by the rural young woman (played by Lil Dagover) at the heart of his early, resonant Destiny (1921), who fights with Death (Bernhard Goetzke) in order to stay with her beloved. Lang was most interested in moments when his films’ main characters shifted from being classical heroes to modern ones—when they were revealed to be weak and vulnerable people whose personal desires led them to fight ruling forces that demanded that they stay in their place, and who even proved willing to go to their deaths declaring that they had been right.
This occurs in Lang’s lone collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, the underrated Hangmen Also Die! (1943), with numerous members of a Slovak town choosing to die by Nazi firing squads over giving up one of their own. Hangmen was directly informed by Lang’s experiences of watching the Third Reich rise to power, as was the earlier resistance to the “reign of crime” sought by the seemingly immortal German madman in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and even the outrage expressed at an American town’s residents that have transformed into a lynch mob to hunt an innocent man presumed guilty of a crime in Fury (1936).
Lang believed it essential that cinema address social ills, regardless of whether they were based on class, gender, race, or another excuse for iniquity. He detested physical violence and hated showing it in films, preferring to leave the audience’s imagination to generate shock and trauma. When he did depict brute force, he often did so in a way that showed its wastefulness. His two-part epic Die Nibelungen (1924), based on the same collection of German myths that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle, offers an extreme example. In the first part, Siegfried, the titular warrior (played by Paul Richter) destroys and conquers his surroundings until he is betrayed by friends who attack his lone weak spot; in the second part, Kriemheld’s Revenge, his widow (Margarete Schoen) lays waste to an entire race of people to catch his murderer, generating tall piles of bodies as she demands vengeance against one man.
In a Lang film, nearly every death registers as a loss and, at some level, a crime. His vision fell firmly in defense of human life. The popular image of Lang as a clinician condemning his characters is disproved in several aspects of his work, such as the warmth and sympathy of his leading actresses. The diverse group, whose multi-film members included Gerda Maurus, Sylvia Sidney, and Joan Bennett, consistently do work of such rich feeling and tonal precision that they complicate Lang’s reputation as a harsh taskmaster with his casts. They stay in mind as the strident Maurus enacts and defies the age-old position of a woman held captive by male lust as the crime boss and bank head Haghi (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) lords over her in Spies (1928); as Sidney plays a woman convincing her ex-convict husband not to return to a life of crime in You and Me (1938) with such sweetness and charm that the film’s social drama knowingly leaves reality and enters fairy-tale land; and as Bennett brings so much hope and appeal to her performance as a working-class wartime London girl in Man Hunt (1941) that the fate she meets at Nazi hands enforces the Third Reich’s terrible power.
These strong women’s presences help convey a sense of a world containing clear problems without long-term solutions, perhaps due to their species’ nature. Lang’s demons are often more internal than external, with the large webs of crime networks woven over cities in films like The Spiders (1919) and The Big Heat (1953) forming as natural extensions of a human drive to possess power and property. Within such systems, one can only fight evil through evil. The gangster’s moll played by Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat is able to take pride in something for one of the first times in her life by scalding people who have hurt her. The wealthy woman played by Carola Toelle in Four Around the Woman (1921) carefully negotiates within a group of ill-intentioned people, choosing who to attack and how, in order for them not to expose her secrets to her husband and make her lose her place in high society. The middle-aged working-class divorcee played by Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952) is a person vulnerable at all levels that plans how to take advantage of men who would dominate her.
It would be hard to imagine Clash not only without Stanwyck, but also without Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan as her main pursuers, both of whom admit the pathetic depths of their solitudes with seeming helplessness. If Lang’s central women often fall victim to male impulses, his men often struggle to control their feelings. We could immediately think of Peter Lorre’s child murderer shrieking, “I can’t help it!” before a court of self-appointed judges in M, or of John Barrymore, Jr.’s media-dubbed “Lipstick Killer” beadily stalking women in While the City Sleeps (1956), but Lang repeats camera angles and lines of dialogue in his films for us to sense that our ostensible heroes and villains are looking at women in the same greedy ways. He drew on diverse physical types, such as Broderick Crawford’s heaving giant in Human Desire (1954) and Michael Redgrave’s too-quiet gentleman in Secret Beyond the Door (1948), to play men striving to fit into society without harming their fellows while constantly threatening to turn back into beasts.
Lang transformed his actors’ weaknesses into strengths, often registering stiffness as emotional distance and awkwardness as a telltale sign of hypocrisy. Among his most valued performers was Edward G. Robinson, who played small men living in fear of their own impulses in The Woman in the Window (1944) and in Scarlet Street, and who Lang once said brought to his roles a “deep and warm understanding of human frailties, and compels us to pity rather than condemnation.” Robinson’s greatest problem onscreen was his tendency to recite rather than to perform, often acting at an intellectual distance from his characters. He therefore works brilliantly in both films as a withdrawn man of limited imagination who falls under a woman’s spell, faces the possibility of her betrayal, and goes mad from an inability to reconcile his head with his heart.
In both cases, Robinson’s secular character lives plagued by the recognizably religious emotion of guilt. Lang was raised as a Roman Catholic by a lifelong observant father and by a mother who had converted from Judaism. He said late in life that although he did not consider himself religious, he felt that ethics could only be understood through religious study, which had informed his understanding of the notions of punishment and salvation. Several of Lang’s films contains scenes of characters speculating as to what their fates and those of people they know will be in the afterlife, which is often though not always a Christian one. An American outlaw (played by Henry Fonda) embraces redemption with a Catholic priest’s grace in You Only Live Once (1937); a vain Indian prince (played by Walter Reyer) comes to seek Hindu humility by casting away riches to study at a Brahmin priest’s feet in Lang’s late Indian epic, comprised of the twin films The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (both 1959).
Yet Lang also understood that the place religion held in his modern world was slipping. “You cannot live in a country which has lost the war without being influenced,” once said the First World War veteran whose combat afflictions included shell shock and a loss of vision in his right eye. Lang lived with death on a daily basis during his adult life in Germany, and the images of dancing skeletons found on street posters in postwar Berlin made their way into nightmares filled with Christian symbolism that his spiritually tortured characters dreamed in The Wandering Shadow and in Metropolis. The even greater destruction of the Second World War, however, encouraged him to shift from exploring metaphysical fears to fears of physical pain, reflecting what he considered to be the changing concerns of his era.
As time passed, Lang’s own interest diminished in some of his early films, most notably Metropolis. The technologically progressive epic—which at the time of its first release was the highest-budgeted film ever made—initially received criticism from many people for being ideologically retrograde, a charge still typically leveled at it. Lang came to dislike the film’s central message, which he credited to his second wife and frequent scriptwriter Thea von Harbou while still accepting half the blame: That the vast divide between proletariat workers and their wealthy boss could be bridged through mutual understanding, as asserted in the film’s key line of dialogue, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”
Lang said late in life that he had disbelieved the thesis, preferring the thought of defying power to that of reconciling with it, and that he had regarded Metropolis with distrust until an encounter changed his mind. In the late 1960s, a little less than a decade after Lang had directed a film for the last time, he asked a group of university students what they thought the chief problem of modern society was. The response he received had been illustrated throughout his films, including Metropolis: People suffered in a society when it was run without a heart.
Information about the Harvard Film Archive series “The Complete Fritz Lang” can be found here. Information about the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil film series “Fritz Lang: Horror is on the Horizon” can be found (in Portuguese) here.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer.