Fritz Lang 1890–1976
Austrian-born director, screenwriter, producer, and actor.
Lang's work is among the most influential in cinema. His silent films are monuments of narrative technique and architectural brilliance, while his later films explore the psychology of human desire and motivation. Lang concentrated on movement in his films. Yet he explored the theme of human beings in relation to society in depth, creating works (particularly M and Fury) which have become classic pieces of cinema.
Lang's first screenplays were filmed by Joe May, and Lang acted in some of them. His first directorial effort, Halbblut (The Half-Breed), was not a great success, but it was soon followed by two successes, Die Spinnen (The Spiders) and Der müde Tod (Destiny). The first film in which Lang revealed his social and political concerns was Dr Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler). The film was coscripted by Thea von Harbou, who later became Lang's wife, and who worked with Lang on all of his films until 1932.
Lang's next important film, Die Nibelungen, combines a medieval poem and Norse tale. In contrast, Metropolis, which followed, is a futuristic look at contemporary social systems that is among Lang's more influential films. M was Lang's first sound film, and his use of the new medium heightens the tension required for his depiction of a psychopathic child killer. Lang's last German film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, a sequel to his earlier film, contains such serious anti-Nazi overtones that it was banned by the government.
However, based on the appeal of his other films, Lang was asked to be the head of the Nazi film industry. Instead, Lang left Thea von Harbou, a member of the Communist party, and fled to France, where he made Liliom in 1935. Lang then settled in the United States. The psychological themes Lang had begun to develop in his last German films are examined fully in Fury, his first American film, and in later films, including You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street (a remake of Jean Renoir's La chienne), and The Big Heat.
Lang showed his versatility by making a number of successful Westerns, including The Return of Frank James and Rancho Notorious. His work also includes a war story, An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, and a political thriller, Hangmen Also Die!, written with Bertolt Brecht. In 1959 Lang returned to Germany to make The Tiger of Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were condensed ("mutilated," according to Lang) into one film, entitled Journey to the Lost City in the United States and Tiger of Bengal in Britain. Lang's last film was Die tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), in which a Mabuse-like criminal is at work in a sophisticated modern environment.
Lang was generally most interested in what action he could depict on screen, yet his films are felt to be consistently intriguing in plot, characterization, and the theme of the individual attempting to come to grips with society, law, and crime. Some critics feel that his German films are his best, citing their swift narrative and sweeping visuals. Others believe that his American films, with their stronger focus on plot and psychological drama, are more important. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
Anyone who is indifferent or hostile to the Cinema should make a point of seeing Destiny…. [It is a very remarkable German production that is] bound, sooner or later, to effect radical changes in the standards of film-making….
[It] is necessary to give as much publicity as possible to the new forms of psychological fantasy of which Destiny, for all its faults, is such an admirable example. (p. 284)
The narrative loses most of its attractiveness in [a] condensed synopsis; one has to see the film to realize how beautifully it has been treated by Fritz Lang, the scenario-writer and producer…. There are two strange blemishes in the technique of the production: the lines dividing the real from the symbolical story are not preserved with sufficient distinctness; and even if we allow for recent changes in the metaphysical conception of Time, "The stories of the three lights" are full of disturbing contradictions. But there can be no question that, despite its constructional faults, and the inadequacy of the subtitles in translation, Destiny is one of the most original and impressive films that have ever been made. (pp. 284-85)
Bertram Higgins, "The Cinema: 'Destiny' at the Polytechnic Hall," in The Spectator (© 1924 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 132, No. 4991, February 23, 1924, pp. 284-85.
The producer [of The Niebelungs], Fritz Lang, already famous in this country as the begetter of Destiny and Sumurun, was once a painter, which probably explains why, in utilizing, not the opera-glass but the field-glass method, he has seemed to insist, quite rightly, that the visual beauty of a film is just as important as its dramatic economy and effectiveness. Actually he has completely subdued the dramatic element to the visual one. The human beings in this epic of Siegfried remain legendary characters: these kings and queens in their bleak inaccessible castles on mountain-tops behave with the passion-lessness and dignity of actors in a pageant. Architecture and trees, dragons, dwarfs and the elementals in the heavy mist-shrouded forests are the real protagonists, and the emotional situations in the tangled and sinister love-affairs of Siegfried and his brother-in-law Gunther are keyed down to give them their proper value in the producer's conception…. The camera's divorce from reality … is one of the most effective achievements of moving photography: no real white dove, no real ravens even photographed with the subtlest lighting and distortion could equal the intensity and meaning of those formal bird-shapes in the Dream. The use of tone, of sharp black and clear white and clean silver, here and throughout, is very accomplished and lovely….
The major fault of The Niebelungs …, however, is the horrible sub-titling. One hears that the German titles were simple and direct, as they ought to be, but the English captions, if one can call them English, are a horrible medley of mock-Saxon, inverted phrase and sheer nonsense….
The need of constant experiments to discover the methods of story-telling best adapted to the many types of films, to fix the dramatic conventions of cinematography, has been recognized. Too little attention has been given up to the present to the fact that, besides telling a story well, a film should also be agreeable to look at, a harmonious succession of pictorial compositions. The Niebelungs is a very important picture indeed, because though not wholly successful it brings to the notice of the public, and, one hopes to the notice of the producers, this crying necessity for conscious pictorial as well as dramatic organization.
Iris Barry, "The Cinema: 'The Niebelungs'," in The Spectator (© 1924 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 132, No. 5007, June 14, 1924, p. 955.
["Metropolis"], for all its thesis and its subtitular dialectic …, is much more akin to the romantic vagaries of "Siegfried" than to the realities of [F. W. Murnau's] "The Last Laugh." For Fritz Lang, who directed both "Siegfried" and "Metropolis," is not a cinema radical…. [He] thinks in terms of sheer visual beauty, composition, and group rhythms rather than of dynamics. He is still of the theater of [Max] Reinhardt in the fluency of his groups and the rhythmic progression of his pageant…. "Metropolis" lacks cinematic subtlety. It is only in the "shots" of machinery in motion and in the surge of the revolutionists that it is dynamic. The camera is too often immobile, the technique that of the stylized theater.
Yet here for the first time the chill mechanized world of the future … has been given reality. Here is the city, that tormented circus of buildings which touch the sky, of tunnels that disrupt the places under the earth. Through the air man has hurled his obstructions, his bridges and traffic ways. Yet only the machines seem real; gigantic purring gods grinding down life. Machines, machines, machines, sliding through the earth, challenging the cosmos, pounding out human resistance as they set the awful tempo of life.
There is no loveliness here, except in the gardens of the rich, high above the levels of the city, where space and light are not mortified for efficiency. Below the surface of the earth the workers and their children...
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If "Metropolis" fails to be quite a great film, the fault lies, not with its brilliant German producers, nor with its subject matter, nor with the actual treatment of this picture-parable of life next century. It fails because the cinema as yet fails to be quite adequate as a means of expression.
Here on the screen is a concrete picture of a great city of the future…. The imagination of Fritz Lang, the director, and of the studio-architects and designers who have brought this vision to "life" proved adequate enough here. The film shows us the making of an artificial human being: shows us television. We can accept these miracles….
But I fear that the intelligent part of the audiences that see "Metropolis" will find it very difficult to admire the peacock-strewn pleasure gardens of the future, in which the free and gilded inhabitants of the skyscrapers of the future disport themselves, heedless of the tragic workmen deep below. It is sad, too, to find that men of the future dress just as hideously as do those of to-day. But the costume is not very convincing, anyhow, in "Metropolis": and though part of the film is conceived in an expressionist mood, and part of it quite naturalistically, some of it is mere picture-postcard. The expressionist parts are far and away the best, and the workmen turn out better than their masters.
The weaknesses of the cinema are most apparent in the story. It is pure melodrama …, and frankly treated as such. So grandiose a theme as that which "Metropolis" attempts to develop demanded, of course, something on the epic scale….
Yet "Metropolis" is by far the most nearly adult picture we have seen. There are moments when it touches real greatness: in its handling of crowds, not for the sake only of the spectacle, but for what emotion the movement of the crowd can express. Its architecture is beautiful, its pictorial composition frequently superb.
Iris Barry, "The Cinema: 'Metropolis'," in The Spectator (© 1927 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 138, No. 5152, March 26, 1927, p. 540.
[What] is this "bigness of outlook" that distinguishes Metropolis? The architectural sets and the photography are extremely competent craftsmanship. After that, what? It is a vision of the future…. The idea of the machine city of the future, of robots, etc., is the common property of all up-to-date journalists. No one in the cinema to-day could conceive and transmit the future as it will probably be. A subject which occupies some of the best minds of Europe, which has such unplumbed depths, and which is certainly too dark and complex for such a glib and facile solution as Metropolis offers, is unlikely to be translated into terms of images. It is necessary to drug one's sensibilities, to stop asking...
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["M"] is based on the crimes and the final apprehension by the police of the famous child murderer of Düsseldorf. Certainly no subject could be more inherently horrible, more dangerously open to a facile sensationalism of treatment. Yet such are the tact and the genius with which Fritz Lang has handled it that the result is something at once more significant than either the horror story, pure and simple …, or the so-called psychological "document" of the type which Germany has sent us so often in the past. The result is, in fact, a film which answers to most of the demands of classical tragedy. In the first place, Lang has concentrated his interest not on the circumstances but on the social and human consequences...
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Owing to its two parts, [Dr. Mabuse the Gambler] is of an extraordinary length—a dollar-dreadful rather than a penny-dreadful. Trash need not be untrue to life; on the contrary, life may culminate in heaps of trash, such as no writer could ever amass. However, instead of making Dr. Mabuse reflect familiar surroundings, Lang frequently stages the action in settings of pronounced artificiality. Now the scene is an expressionist clubroom with painted shadows on the wall, now a dark back street through which Cesare might have slipped with Jane in his arms. Other decorative forms help these expressionist ones to mark the whole as an emotional vision. Dr. Mabuse belongs in the Caligari...
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Looking at Siegfried in 1950, a quarter of a century after it was made, one is aware of the outstandingly good and bad elements in it after as little as twenty minutes' screening…. The so-called "expressionist" style in German silent cinema, which encouraged directors and designers to stylise both décor and acting, rapidly passed out of fashion. Siegfried seems farther away from present day film-making than the silent films of [D. W.] Griffith or [Sergei] Eisenstein because of this excessive stylisation.
First of all the action of Lang's film is taken at a pace which is much too slow for the modern viewer, so that in almost every shot one accepts the implications of the scene long...
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It seems a long time since Fritz Lang gave us a good film: in fact, the sense of strain and stylistic pretentiousness in his recent work—when it has not been mere commercial hokum—had almost made one abandon hope. This makes it the more unfortunate that his latest film [The Big Heat] should have passed almost unnoticed. For it is an extremely good thriller, distinguished by precisely those virtues which Lang's pictures have in the past few years so painfully lacked: tautness and speed; modesty of intention; intelligent, craftsman-like writing. Above all, it is directed with a dramatic incisiveness, a sharp-edged observation that keeps the pitch of interest and excitement continuously high….
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Human Desire is an odd film, more persuasively transplanted than Lang's previous attempt at a Zola-Renoir story (Scarlet Street), even if ultimately the proper conclusions of the story are shirked.
The American railroad setting is quite acceptable …; and some of the script changes are even welcome. In relieving the engine-driving hero of his congenital sadistic mania, Alfred Hayes has given the story a sharper focus. The design is now clearer and simpler: the seduction and destruction of the honest driver, homme moyen sensuel, by the feline tramp who has become the unwilling accomplice of her husband in the murder of her wealthy lover. There is something old-fashioned in the...
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[One can see] that Lang's career in the classic German cinema, embracing as it did most of its tendencies, serves in itself as a kind of allegory. In a variety of stylistic disguises the same obsessions appear and recur—in the Nibelungen saga, which added to expressionism an architectural solidity and massive fresco-like sweep, fatality of legend; in the contemporary melodramas, The Spiders, the two Mabuse films, The Spy, fatality of power and violence; in M, fatality of the sadistic inner self; in the early scripts for Joe May and Otto Rippert (Plague in Florence, Woman with the Orchid) and in The Half-Caste and The Master of Love, fatality of sexual...
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Fritz Lang seems to be constantly settling his accounts with society. His main characters are always outsiders, marginal people. The hero of M was portrayed as a victim. In 1933, Lang had to get out of Germany quickly in the face of Nazism. From then on, all of his work, even the Westerns and the thrillers, will reflect this violent break and very soon afterward we see the theme of revenge grafted on to the experiences of persecution. Several of Lang's Hollywood films are painted on this canvas: a man becomes involved in a struggle that is larger than any one person; perhaps he is a policeman, a scientist, a soldier, a resister. Then someone close to him, a woman or a...
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The first thing to strike the casual observer about Fritz Lang's recent films is his apparent interest in returning to his own sources and going over his own past. His latest film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, takes up a line previously represented in his work by The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933 and Doctor Mabuse the Gambler, one of his earliest works … dating right back to 1922. (p. 43)
Certain themes run inescapably through his career from the beginning right up to date, and of them all that represented by Dr. Mabuse, which reaches its apotheosis and logical conclusion in the latest episode, is the most persistent and pervasive. It can be traced back, in a rudimentary...
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Tigress of Bengal is an incoherent amalgam of portions of [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb], weighed down by childish American dialogue and out-of-synch dubbing. Yet enough remains to prove their unmistakable authorship. To find their origins we have to go back over forty years, to a scenario written by Lang and Thea von Harbou for the silent version directed by Joe May, for whom Lang was then working. And one has only to look at Lang's own Die Spinnen of 1919 (and, to a lesser extent, Destiny and Kriemhild's Revenge) to find the connection. Lang has always had an affection for schoolboy hokum, the super serial of adventure and intrigue set in some never-never land...
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These days many passages in Metropolis seem old-fashioned and even vaguely ridiculous, especially those in which the Kolossal is overlarded with sentiment. Lang had not yet attained the simplicity of M, in which reality is made to resound quite naturally with overtones of the weird….
The deliberate symmetry of Siegfried conveys a slow, inexorable rhythm like that of the destiny brooding over the epic. But in the crowd scenes in Metropolis the rhythm becomes dynamic. In addition to having an observant mind, Lang has the gift of assimilating in a very personal manner what he has seen. (p. 223)
To describe the mass of inhabitants in the underground...
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[Even] if Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse were no better than some of the enjoyable post-Lang Mabuse sequels, one would have had to like it. In fact, The 1,000 Eyes is a superb film, dense, complex, exuberant, mysterious, fully worthy of its premiere setting, and deserving much more than the ignorant indifference that met its arrival. (p. 54)
All the world of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is cursed. In part, by a continuation of the old curse that was not really broken in 1945; in part, by a universal resignation, a willingness merely to look at so many scenes of disorder caused by the faceless terror. The ultimate shock is that the faceless terror is as cursed as...
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The dream stylization of The Woman in the Window is in part achieved by its use of fated or fateful coincidences. In our dreams and nightmares, a single face may appear and reappear in different guises…. Lang effects his Gothicism … subtly, utilizing a straw hat. The boater was a common enough sight in the Forties, but, save for the three important characters who wear them, The Woman in the Window offers a sea of fedoras. (p. 14)
The motif of the straw hat telescopes the dreamer's anxiety, his justifiable paranoia. From [Professor Wanley's] point of view, the straw hat suggests that he is being pursued by the serial selves of a single, protean nemesis. The "coincidence" of the hat,...
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The figure of the femme fatale, appearing as early as Die Spinnen, turns up again and again as a constant motif in [Lang's] work; thus the career girl [as portrayed in his unfilmed scenario Death of a Career Girl] is less an outgrowth of [a] chance encounter at Cannes than of previous portraits of women. Kriemhild, one of the earlier versions, also pursued a goal to its logical, destructive end, shedding all human emotions save that of revenge (a form, after all, of ambition), leaving more than one dead man behind her, and finally destroying herself in the process. Indeed, Kriemhild is perhaps Lang's most deadly, self-deadening and archetypally powerful female figure. She too rejects maternal...
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Lang's films are characterised by their peculiar mixture of realism and fantasy…. Even during his German period, in which so many critics find evidence of Expressionist influence—for instance the three-dimensional effects achieved in Metropolis or M by means of lighting—the films demonstrate Lang's mastery in combining documentary structures and adventure fantasy.
Again and again Lang declares that every film must evolve its own style according to the subject matter. Yet in every film we encounter the characteristic Lang elements—not only in Metropolis where the documentary element is projected into the future, or in Destiny where the fantastic elements dominate...
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In Lang's films, interiors are atmospheric geometry before they are a home for anyone. [Late] in Ministry of Fear, [Stephen Neale] and the girl come to an apartment which they realise is an unoccupied trap—but it is only as unowned as every other interior in the movie. The precious home in The Big Heat—though shaken by the bomb outside—is as neutral as an advertisement living room. Joan Bennett's rooms in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street are dens from schoolboy dreams. Rancho Notorious is found in the cardboard Rockies. The hotel in The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is a laboratory rat community, and Metropolis is a lonely child's model of the world....
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You Only Live Once is one of Fritz Lang's most widely admired American films and is thought to be among the finest of the 'social consciousness' films of the 1930s. The movie is praised for its technical excellence, its richness of visual texture and its generally moving depiction of the story's star-crossed lovers. These judgments are absolutely correct as far as they go; and yet, I believe, they do not begin to go far enough. In particular, You Only Live Once exhibits a kind of structural and stylistic complexity which carries it into areas of concern that the usual remarks fail entirely to reflect…. The thematic concerns of the film and the methods by which they are expressed are of very...
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Lang's films reflect the struggle within his people as they respond to the pushes and shoves from the dual sides of their character. In medieval morality plays the struggle would have been represented by good and bad angels whispering into the ear of the character trying to resolve his dilemma, and frequently Lang is able to find a similar material representation of the struggle.
Many of Lang's chief characters are people driven by some inner conflict of the sort symbolized by Jekyll and Hyde. Kriemhild, in Lang's version of The Nibelungenlied, is, at the opening of the film, a lovely woman; but after the murder of her husband, her loveliness is destroyed by her desire for revenge…. In...
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The earliest examples we have of Lang's work, The Golden Sea and The Diamond Ship—completed parts one and two of a projected four-part "series" called The Spiders (1919)—are in some ways representative of much of that work. Serial-like, they feature the most rudimentary of "thrills"—actors menaced by rooms filling up with water or the walls of a room coming together—and have, to put it mildly, no character, story, or thematic interest. Pre-art, they qualify at best as slow, dull camp. The second part is perhaps even more slowly paced than the first, and duller…. "Action," in both parts, usually means that (a) something is about to happen, and (b) something has happened, but (c) thanks to...
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