Fritz Lang Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fritz Lang 1890–1976

Austrian-born director, screenwriter, producer, and actor.

The followingentry presents criticism of Lang's work through 1994. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volume 20.

Lang is considered by many critics to be one of the cinema's finest directors. From his technical accomplishments in the films from his German period to his experimentation with genre in Hollywood, Lang has influenced many directors. He is best known for the suspense, conflict, and violence inherent in his work.

Biographical Information

Lang was born in Vienna on December 5, 1890. His father was an architect and wanted Lang to pursue the same career. Lang studied engineering at the College of Technical Science in Vienna from 1908 to 1911 and then studied architecture at the Academy of Graphic Arts in Munich. However, his interest was in other artistic pursuits. Lang spent some time in Paris working as a cartoonist, fashion designer, and painter. At the outbreak of World War I Lang was forced to flee France, which was then at war with Austria. He returned to Vienna and served in the army from 1914–16. After his discharge from the army, he worked as a scriptwriter and an actor, and then moved to Berlin where he worked for Decla as a reader and story editor. Lang wrote and directed his first film, Halbblut (Half Caste, 1919), in 1919. In 1920, he married Thea von Harbou, a writer and former actress who collaborated with him on the films of his German period. One of these films was Metropolis (1927), which brought Lang to the attention of Adolf Hitler. After the Nazis took power in Germany, Joseph Goebbels offered Lang the position of supervisor of German film production; both Goebbels and Hitler admired his work and were willing to overlook the fact that Lang's mother was Jewish. Lang fled Germany in 1933 soon after the offer was made. When he left Germany, von Harbou remained and made movies for the Nazis. Lang spent a short time in Paris and London, then relocated to Hollywood. He became a U.S. citizen in 1939. In 1945 he became the co-founder and president of Diana Productions, which subsequently folded. He finally left Hollywood in 1956, citing continuing disputes with producers. He made several more films in Germany and then retired in California. Lang died in Beverly Hills on August 2, 1976.

Major Works

The silent films of Lang's German period are monuments of narrative technique. Lang's main theme is the link between the decline in morality to the technological advances of capitalism. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1921) follows the activity of a master criminal, but also shows the depravity of the society around him. In the film Lang criticized post-war Germany, which he depicted as plagued by economic chaos, political extremism, and a loss of values. Next, Lang made Die Nibelungen, Part I: Siegfrieds Tod and Part II: Kriemhilds Rache (Death of Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, 1924) which focused on the heroic past of German mythology. The film relates the exploits of German mythological figures such as Siegfried, Brunhild, and Kriemhild. Lang went from contemporary Germany to Germany's mythic past, then to the future in Metropolis. Metropolis is a science fiction vision of a future in which technology is used to oppress, instead of liberate, the masses. In Lang's version of the future, men have built a glittering city, but it is built upon a subterranean factory and city of workers. The workers become part of the dehumanized technology of the factory and are not allowed to enter the city. The film showed Lang's continued interest in architecture, even though he had not pursued it as a profession. The studio spent $2 million on the film and the architectural design and scope of the picture was unprecedented. Die Frau im Mond (The Girl in the Moon, 1929) was the culmination of Lang's German work. It combined elements of mysticism, architectural motifs, and melodrama in a story about a flight to the moon to search for gold on the moon's crust. M, Morder unter Uns (M, 1931) was the first film Lang made with sound, enabling him to turn his attention to more psychological themes. The film is the study of a child killer and uses a changing point of view, with the killer at different times portrayed as horrifying or pitiful. Lang's last German film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933) was banned in Germany because of its anti-Nazi overtones. Lang experimented with different genres while in Hollywood, including a few successful westerns and war movies, but most of his work from this time consisted of crime thrillers. His first American film was Fury (1936), an anti-lynching drama. His You Only Live Once (1937) is a drama about the consequences of wrongful conviction. In the 1940s he directed several pictures in the film noir style. These films dealt with such themes as guilt and innocence, and the role of the femme fatale. One of Lang's common concerns in both his German and American work was the impact of the decline in patriarchal authority on both the individual and society. In Lang's films the lack of a strong male figure creates feminized men, such as the killer in M and the characters of Manners and Walter Kyne in While the City Sleeps (1956). In Scarlet Street (1945) Lang also shows how the family and the corporation depend on a certain form of masculinity, and the disaster that follows from its absence.

Critical Reception

Critics praise the silent films of Lang's German era for breaking new ground and setting new standards for the industry. Lang was on the edge of technological accomplishment, using the most skilled artists in the German film industry. The films from his Hollywood period are generally less well-regarded because they are more conventional, typical of films made in the Hollywood studio system. However, some reviewers find the Hollywood films more important because of their emphasis on plot and psychological drama. Another important difference noted by critics is that in his German silent films, Lang wrote, or cowrote with von Harbou, his own scripts. Therefore the films were singular in vision from the start. In Hollywood Lang directed the scripts of studio writers. Even with this difference, however, some critics see a consistent vision in all of his work. Reviewers comment that Lang is concerned with character and how it affects human fate, and that he is preoccupied with the dark side of human nature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Halbblut [Half Caste] (film) 1919
Die Spinnen [The Spiders] (film) 1920
Der mude Tod: Ein Deutsches Volkslied in Sechs Versen [Between Two Worlds] (film) 1921
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler] (film) 1921
Die Nibelungen: Part I, Siegfrieds Tod [Death of Siegfried]; Part II, Kriemhilds Rache [Kriemhild's Revenge] (film) 1924
Metropolis (film) 1927
Spione [Spies] (film) 1928
Die Frau im Mond [The Girl in the Moon] (film) 1929
M, Morder unter Uns [M] (film) 1931
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse] (film) 1933
Liliom (film) 1934

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Alan Williams (essay date Summer 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Structures of Narrativity in Fritz Lang's Metropolis," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 17-24.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the narrative structure of Lang's Metropolis using A.G. Greimas's system of analysis.]

This study will attempt a narrative analysis of Fritz Lang's Metropolis using concepts developed by A.-G. Greimas, particularly those of his "Eléments d'une grammaire narrative." Greimas's system analysis posits three fundamentally distinct levels in any text: a "deep" structure of meaning (similar to Levi-Strauss's notion in myth analysis but based on a dynamic model of generation rather than...

(The entire section is 3264 words.)

Raymond Bellour (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Fritz Lang," in Substance, No. 9, 1974, pp. 25-34.

[In the following essay, Bellour provides an analysis of Lang's common cinematic techniques used throughout his career.]

An amazing fate, Fritz Lang's, and fraught with paradox.

Like Stroheim, he was one of the foremost directors, yet not an actor embellished by the surprising prestige accorded every wretched performance; he was like Sternberg, yet without a woman like Marlene at his side; like Murnau, dying (forty years ago) a death wrapped in mystery; in a sense, Fritz Lang was the first in his day, solely for his work as a filmmaker, to have become cinematic legend. There is Welles, of...

(The entire section is 4682 words.)

Joseph S. M. J. Chang (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "M: A Reconsideration," in Literature/Film Quarterly, No. 4, 1979, pp. 300-08.

[In the following essay, Chang discusses the role that Schranker plays in the narrative of Lang's M, and questions the character's purpose in the film.]

In the almost fifty years since its release, Fritz Lang's M has attained deserved status as a classic, and on a number of points a consensus of critical opinion has emerged. Observers have commented on the similarities which exist between society, as exemplified by Inspector Lohmann and the forces he marshalls and directs, and the underworld, no less efficient under Schranker. At a more general level, the film's...

(The entire section is 4468 words.)

Ann Kaplan (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Patterns of Violence Toward Women in Fritz Lang's White the City Sleeps," in Wide Angle, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1980, pp. 55-9.

[In the following essay, Kaplan asserts that while Lang correctly assessed the decline in male authority in the public and private spheres, he puts forth only one solution: a return to the old-style patriarchal authority, instead of a move toward something new and positive.]

Several feminist theorists have recently argued that, viewed historically, violence against women changes according to transformations in the traditional bourgeois family. Oppressive as it was, the cult of womanhood, entailing the protection of bourgeois women by...

(The entire section is 3850 words.)

E. Ann Kaplan (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Place of Women in Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia," in Women in Film Noir, BFI Publishing, 1980, pp. 83-90.

[In the following essay, Kaplan presents three ways in which the male discourse in Lang's The Blue Gardenia is undercut by Norah, the female protagonist, even though Lang restores the order of the film noir at the end of the film.]

In the typical film noir, the world is presented from the point of view of the male investigator, who often recounts something that happened in the past. The investigator, functioning in a nightmare world where all the clues to meaning are deliberately hidden, seeks to unravel a mystery with which he has been...

(The entire section is 3258 words.)

E. Ann Kaplan (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ideology and Cinematic Practice in Lang's Scarlet Street and Renoir's La Chienne," in Wide Angle, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, pp. 32-43.

[In the following essay, Kaplan compares how different cultural contexts affect Lang's Scarlet Street and Renoir's La Chienne, two films made from the same literary original.]

A comparison of La Chienne and Scarlet Street—two films made from the same literary original but in different nations, periods and institutional settings—allows us more easily than usual to isolate the effects of political, historical and economic context as these can be read off from each work. The cinematic...

(The entire section is 6665 words.)

Roger Dadoun (essay date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Metroplis Mother-City—'Mittler'—Hitler," in Camera Obscura, Nos. 11-15, Fall, 1986, pp. 137-63.

[In the following essay, Dadoun discusses Lang's Metropolis in terms of its moral ideology and presents possible reasons why Hitler admired the film.]

Metropolis is a German film made by Fritz Lang in 1926. It is commonly held to be a "classic" of cinema; some even call it a "masterpiece." Apart from the stylistic qualities that make it, for many viewers, one of the masterworks of expressionism, it is chiefly the film's moral, or ideology, that has been singled out for praise. The final sequence, a model of the "happy ending," depicts the...

(The entire section is 12238 words.)

Gosta Werner (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fritz Lang and Goebbels," in Film Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 24-7.

[In the following essay, Werner traces the facts surrounding Lang's departure from Germany and the banning of his The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.]

Myths are born and grow and flourish. Those who unthinkingly pass them on end up believing that they are facts. Repetition creates a cloak of seeming veracity which confuses gullible minds so that they cannot detect the truth underneath.

Thus every knowledgeable member of the film trade believes in the story of film director Fritz Lang's precipitate flight from Germany following on the banning of his film The...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)

Dietrich Neumann (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Urbanistic Vision in Fritz Lang's Metropolis," in Dancing in the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic, Camden House, 1994, pp. 143-54.

[In the following essay, Neumann discusses the urban architecture of Lang's Metropolis in light of contemporary thought about monumentalism, technological progress, and skyscrapers.]

Fritz Lang's Metropolis is widely considered one of the great classics of the cinema, celebrated and described in every anthology on the history of the motion picture. It was the first feature length science fiction film ever and had an enormous influence on later productions. It has rightly been regarded...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bernstein, Matthew. "Fritz Lang, Incorporated." Velvet Light Trap, No. 22 (1986): 33-52.

Provides an overview of the development and downfall of Lang's independent production company Diana Productions, Inc.

Rolfe, Hilda. "The Perfectionist." Film Comment 28, No. 6 (November-December 1992): 2-4.

Provides a personal view of Lang as the perfectionist behind the camera.


Anstey, Edgar. A review of Scarlet Street. The Spectator 176, No. 6140 (1 March 1946): 219.


(The entire section is 664 words.)