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.
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.
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.
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.