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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.)
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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.
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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.
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["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 crawl through a timed eternity, strapped to the dynamos like so many numbered robots. There is no rest, no beauty, no life below the gardens of the higher levels. Man is inanimate. Life is metronomic. It is only the machines that are alive. (pp. 323-24)
As Lang has directed it, "Metropolis" is more stylized fantasy than realism. Even in the torrentous revolt of the workers as they pour through the machine-rooms, alive, demoniacal, there is an air of unreality. This is not revolution as the Russians stage it. It has neither taste nor smell. Yet it is magnificent. Even the most careless groupings are beautifully composed. Lang is too much the artist to deny the imagination….
"Metropolis" is utterly devoid of humor. Thea von Harbou, its author, wrote it originally as a novel and then adapted it to the screen. Only her concept of Metropolis itself is intellectual. The rest is sentimental symbolism. There is no individualization within the type. Her persons are puppets. There is the Capitalist, his Son, Mary the spiritual leader of the workers, et al. The Son is the eternal mediator who, with the help of the woman Mary, although only after a revolution intervenes, brings "brains" and "brawn" together for the final fade-out.
Perhaps it is because of its original form that "Metropolis" lacks concision. One of the most interesting episodes of the entire film is that in which the inventor transmits the shape and likeness of Mary to the woman of his creation by encircling bands of electricity, yet it is only partially developed. The robotess, or creature of human invention, breeds revolution and is stoned by the mob, but the formula which gave her life is never mentioned again. The inventor is himself hurled from the cathedral roof by the blond and shining John, the hero; but what of the formula?
It is Metropolis itself, the city of domed basements and curving machine-rooms, of massed buildings that conceal the sky, of aeroplanes that ply their corner-to-corner traffic, of trains that seem to shoot into unmeasured and untracked space, that makes Fritz Lang's film so significant. (p. 324)
Evelyn Gerstein, "Moving Pictures: 'Metropolis'," in The Nation, Vol. 124, No. 3220, March 23, 1927, pp. 323-24.
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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.
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[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 oneself the many awkward questions that occur as the film unfolds, in order to be able to accept such grossness as the pathetic reconciliation of father and son, or the cheap contrast of Capital and Labour supplied by the Garden of Pleasure and the underground city. Metropolis came from a paper-covered thriller which can be purchased in translation in any Woolworth's store. I doubt whether even the critics who praise "the bigness of outlook and power of broad visualisation" of the film would be able to stomach the book. What makes the film interesting while its literary counterpart is unbearable are the technical qualities, the brilliance of the camera-work and the mass architecture. But excellence of production does not transmute a fundamentally worthless theme into a work of art, nor ever will do. (pp. 24-5)
William Hunter, "The Achievement of the Cinema," in his Scrutiny of Cinema, Wishart & Co, 1932, pp. 22-49.∗
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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 of the crimes. We are shown a whole city thrown into panic by what is for every class the least pardonable of all acts of violence…. [This] provides a formal suspense more sustained than would any playing on the usual modes of physical horror. It also provides a certain nervous relief. The horror, as is proper and necessary in the films, is conveyed by implication rather than representation. It is implied through a very few miraculously appropriate symbols—a child's toy balloon caught in a telegraph wire or a child's ball rolling to a stop from the scene of the crime. Bloodlust is identified with the strain of Grieg which the criminal whistles whenever the passion is upon him. The whole pattern—lust, the victim, and the circumstances—is symbolized in the frame of glittering knives in which the criminal, staring in a shop window, sees the image of his latest victim reflected. Because these symbols are one and all visual or aural, peculiar to the talking screen, they serve to make "M" of the very highest technical interest. But they are not enough to explain why it may also be considered a great tragedy…. The modern psychopath … attains to the dignity of the tragic hero. It does not matter that the forces are no longer on the outside. They are perhaps the more ruthless for being inside him. The moirae may be given different names by the doctors, the judges, and the audience, but they have lost none of their ancient inevitability.
The last thing that may be said about "M," therefore, is that it confirms our belief in the continued vitality of the tragic emotion. Few other attempts to substitute for the old gods, fates, or destiny a modern fatalism of psychological mechanisms have been so successful…. It may be that Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre [who played the child murderer] are better artists in their fields than most of those who have sought to revive tragedy in our time. Or it may be—and "M" gives strength to the supposition—that the cinema is able to supply a language for modern tragic experience that is at once fresher, more various, and more poetic than the flat statement of naturalistic drama. (pp. 454-55)
William Troy, "Tragedy and the Screen," in The Nation, Vol. 136, No. 353, April 19, 1933, pp. 454-55.
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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 sphere…. It is by no means a documentary film, but it is a document of its time.
The world it pictures has fallen prey to lawlessness and depravity. A night-club dancer performs in a décor composed of outright sex symbols. Orgies are an institution, homosexuals and prostitute children are everyday characters. The anarchy smoldering in this world manifests itself clearly in the admirably handled episode of the police attack against Mabuse's house—an episode which through its imagery intentionally recalls the tumultuous postwar months with their street fights between Spartacus and the Noske troops. Circular ornaments emerge prominently time and again. Both the tricky floor in a new gambling club and the chain of hands formed during a spiritualist séance are shown from above to impress their circular appearance upon the spectator. Here, as in the case of Caligari, the circle denotes a state of chaos. (pp. 82-3)
The film succeeds in making of Mabuse an omnipresent threat which cannot be localized, and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime—that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody may be the tyrant's ear or arm.
Throughout the film Mabuse is stigmatized as a man of genius who has become Public Enemy No. 1…. [In the end,] Mabuse is wrecked; but social depravity continues, and other Mabuses may follow. Here as well as in Caligari not the slightest allusion to true freedom interferes with the persistent alternative of tyranny or chaos.
Dr. Mabuse adds to Caligari only in one respect: it attempts to show how closely tyranny and chaos are interrelated…. [Chaos] breeds tyrants like Mabuse who, for their part, capitalize on chaos. (pp. 83-4)
[The plot of Destiny] forces one point strongly upon the audience: that, however arbitrary they seem, the actions of tyrants are realizations of Fate. The agent of Fate supports tyranny not only in all three episodes but also in the story proper. The death he inflicts upon the young lover appears so senseless that it is as if some unscrupulous tyrant had pulled the strings…. [No] paradoxical meaning can be read into the shocking actions of Fate in Destiny. The film ends with the girl's self-renunciation accompanied by a caption that emphasizes its religious significance: "He who loses his life gains it."…
The long-lived power of Destiny's imagery is the more amazing as all had to be done with the immovable, hand-cranked camera, and night shots were still impossible. These pictorial visions are so precise that they sometimes evoke the illusion of being intrinsically real. (p. 90)
In Destiny Fate manifests itself through the actions of tyrants; in [Die Nibelungen], through the anarchical outbursts of ungovernable instincts and passions. To mark as fateful the doom these impulses bring about, the story closely interlinks causes and effects. From the moment when the dying dragon with a movement of his tail makes the ominous leaf drop on Siegfried's back down to the moment of Attila's self-chosen death, nothing seems left to mere chance. An inherent necessity predetermines the disastrous sequence of love, hatred, jealousy and thirst for revenge. (p. 93)
This Fate-conditioned story materializes through scenes which seem to be staged after decorative paintings of a bygone period…. It is amazing that despite their too pronounced beauty and their somewhat outmoded taste—a taste already outmoded in 1924—these pictures are still effective. The constructional austerity they breathe may account for it. Lang knew why … he relied upon the spell of such decorative compositions: they symbolize Fate. The compulsion Fate exerts is aesthetically mirrored by the rigorous incorporation of all structural elements into a framework of lucid forms.
There are many elaborate scenic details…. But far from pretending to self-sufficiency, each of these details assumes its specific function only within the composition as a whole. To heighten the impression of pictorial unity, extensive use is made of simple, large and solemn architectural structures dominating the scene. (pp. 93-4)
Nibelungen unfolds in lingering scenes that have all the qualities of stills. Their slow procession, which characterizes the mythic realm as a static one, is calculated to draw attention to the action proper. This intrinsic action does not coincide with the succession of treacheries and murders, but is to be found in the development of smoldering instincts and imperceptibly growing passions. It is an all but vegetative process through which Fate realizes itself. (p. 95)
Outstanding instances of grand-style manner were the three films Fritz Lang produced during the stabilized period. They dealt with thrilling adventures and technical fantasies symptomatic of the then current machine cult. The first of them was Metropolis…. (p. 149)
[What is important in Metropolis] is not so much the plot as the preponderance of surface features in its development. In the brilliant laboratory episode, the creation of a robot is detailed with a technical exactitude that is not at all required to further the action. The office of the big boss, the vision of the Tower of Babel, the machinery and the arrangement of the masses: all illustrate Lang's penchant for pompous ornamentation. In Nibelungen, his decorative style was rich in meaning; in Metropolis, the decorative not only appears as an end in itself, but even belies certain points made through the plot. It makes sense that, on their way to and from the machines, the workers form ornamental groups; but it is nonsensical to force them into such groups while they are listening to a comforting speech from the girl Maria during their leisure time. In his exclusive concern with ornamentation, Lang goes so far as to compose decorative patterns from the masses who are desperately trying to escape the inundation of the lower city. Cinematically an incomparable achievement, this inundation sequence is humanly a shocking failure…. (pp. 149-50)
Lang's subsequent film, the mystery thriller Spione (The Spy, 1928), shared two traits with his Dr. Mabuse. It featured a master spy who, like Mabuse, led several different lives: besides the spy, he was also the president of a bank and a music-hall clown. And exactly like Dr. Mabuse, this new film refrained from conferring moral superiority upon the representatives of the law. Espionage and counterespionage were on the same level—two gangs fighting each other in a chaotic world. Yet there was one important difference: while Dr. Mabuse had incarnated the tyrant who takes advantage of the chaos around him, the master spy indulged in the spy business for the sole purpose, it seemed, of spying. He was a formalized Mabuse devoted to meaningless activities. By emphasizing this figure, the film reflected the neutrality prevalent during that period—a neutrality which also manifested itself in the absence of any distinction between legal and illegal pursuits and in a prodigal abundance of disguises. No character was what he appeared to be. This constant change of identities was appropriate to denote a state of mind in which the paralysis of the self interfered with any attempt at self-identification. As if to fill the void, Lang piled up sensations which conveyed no meaning. His imaginative virtuosity in shaping them reached its climax with a train wreck in a tunnel. Since it proved impossible to stage the catastrophe in life-size proportions, he gave the impression of it through confused mental images of the persons involved in this shock situation.
The Spy would have been a true forerunner of the Hitchcock thrillers if Lang had not fashioned it after the pompous manner of Metropolis, so that empty sensations took on the air of substantial revelations. Virtuosity alienated from content posed as art. (p. 150)
In his third film, Die Frau im Mond (The Girl in the Moon, 1929), Lang imagined a rocket projectile carrying passengers to the moon. The cosmic enterprise was staged with a surprising veracity of vision; the plot was pitiable for its emotional shortcomings. These were so obvious that they discredited many an illusion Lang tried to create by showy virtuosity. (p. 151)
[M was Lang's] first important film after the pretentious duds he had made during the stabilized period. M again reaches the level of his earlier films, Destiny and Nibelungen, and moreover surpasses them in virtuosity. To increase the film's documentary value, pictorial reports on current police procedures are inserted in such a skillful way that they appear to be part of the action. Ingenious cutting interweaves the milieus of the police and the underworld: while the gang leaders discuss their plans, police experts, too, sit in conference, and these two meetings are paralleled by constant shifts of scene which hinge on subtle association. The comic touch inherent in the cooperation between the lawless and the law materializes on various occasions. Witnesses refuse to agree upon the simplest facts; innocent citizens indict each other fiercely. Set against these gay interludes, the episodes concentrating upon the murders seem even more horrifying.
Lang's imaginative use of sound to intensify dread and terror is unparalleled in the history of the talkies. Elsie's mother, after having waited for hours, steps out of her flat and desperately shouts the child's name. While her "Elsie!" sounds, the following pictures pass across the screen: the empty stair-well …; the empty attic; Elsie's unused plate on the kitchen table; a remote patch of grass with her ball lying on it; a balloon catching in telegraph wires—the very balloon which the murderer had bought from the blind beggar to win her confidence. Like a pedal point, the cry "Elsie!" underlies these otherwise unconnected shots, fusing them into a sinister narrative. (pp. 219-20)
The film's true center is the murderer himself. [He is] a somewhat infantile petty bourgeois who eats apples on the street and could not possibly be suspected of killing a fly. His landlady, when questioned by the police, describes this tenant of hers as a quiet and proper person. He is fat and looks effeminate rather than resolute. A brilliant pictorial device serves to characterize his morbid propensities. On three different occasions, scores of inanimate objects … surround the murderer; they seem on the point of engulfing him. Standing before a cutlery shop, he is photographed in such a way that his face appears within a rhomboid reflection of sparkling knives…. Sitting on a café terrace behind an ivy-covered trellis, with only his cheeks gleaming through the foliage, he suggests a beast of prey lurking in the jungle. Finally, trapped in the lumber room, he is hardly distinguishable from the tangled debris in which he tries to evade his captors. Since in many German films the predominance of mute objects symbolizes the ascendancy of irrational powers, these three shots can be assumed to define the murderer as a prisoner of uncontrollable instincts. Evil urges overwhelm him in exactly the same manner in which multiple objects close in on his screen image. (pp. 220-21)
In its exploration of this character, who is not so much a retrogressive rebel as a product of retrogression, M confirms the moral of [Josef von Sternberg's] The Blue Angel: that in the wake of retrogression terrible outbursts of sadism are inevitable. Both films bear upon the psychological situation of those crucial years and both anticipate what was to happen on a large scale unless people could free themselves from the specters pursuing them. The pattern had not yet become set. In the street scenes of M, such familiar symbols as the rotating spiral in an optician's shop and the policeman guiding a child across the street are resuscitated. The combination of these motifs with that of a puppet incessantly hopping up and down reveals the film's wavering between the notions of anarchy and authority. (p. 222)
[The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse] is inferior to M. In it, Lang accumulates mere thrills, elaborating upon them zealously. Whenever Baum feels swayed by Mabuse, the latter's ghostly apparition emerges with clocklike punctuality. Since repetitious shock effects tend to neutralize each other, the result is monotony rather than an increase of suspense. Nevertheless the film includes … brilliant episodes which testify to Lang's "uncanny genius for invoking terror out of the simplest things." (p. 249)
Siegfried Kracauer, in his From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (copyright 1947 © 1975 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1947, 361 p.∗
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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 before the actors complete it. Every emotion is registered with emphatic gestures and facial expression in the manner common to the films of the period, except in the work of a few of the more exceptional players in Griffith's films. The characters are, of course, larger and psychologically simpler than life in their legendary setting, so that some heroic magnification is correct…. (pp. 84-5)
Human characterisation, however, was not Lang's main consideration. He wanted to create a legendary atmosphere, and to create it by pictorial means. It was more important for him that Kriemhild should sit a still and statuesque figure in the archway of a window than that she should show the nervous impulses of a woman waiting for a likely prince. Siegfried and his warrior kings observe strict formation in the Burgundian court and processions and church services alike are seen to be perfect in their pictorial symmetry. If this exact symmetry oppresses you, then the architecture of Siegfried with its vast, spacious walls, its balance of curved masses with angular masses, its geometrically patterned floors and its long flights of steps will soon become a visual bore. But if you like symmetry, then you will find (for a time, at least) a nobility and grandeur in these palaces and courts, and in the costumes with their equally symmetrical designs from the Reinhardt theatre.
The most impressive and beautiful scenes in the film are those in the forests, the misty glades and the caverns through which Siegfried has to travel before he reaches the Kingdom of Burgundy. After many viewings spread over nearly twenty years I still find the sequence of Siegfried's approach to the dragon through the high trees one of the most beautiful in the silent cinema, and the dragon himself … the most impressive of all the screen's giant monsters. The descent into the cave holding the Rhine treasure hoard is a wonderful studio spectacle, and the shot of the slowly petrifying dwarfs is completely convincing. One's memory of this long film returns in the end to these scenes, or to those of the ride of Siegfried on his horse led by Alberic through the mists, and his death at the end of the film in the little artificial glade.
The rest of the film is best projected at sound speed. This substantially quickens the intolerably slow pace of the action in the midst of architectural sets which appear increasingly cold and dead as the film develops. (p. 85)
Roger Manvell, "Revaluations—I: 'Siegfried' 1922–1924," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1950 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 19, No. 2, April, 1950, pp. 83-5.
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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….
The Big Heat is one of those enjoyable films which make no great claims for themselves, yet which so balance style and intention … that they are finally more satisfying than many more ambitious works. The film lacks the density of [Huston's] Maltese Falcon; one or two of its elements are over-conventional; Lang's viewpoint remains exterior. All the same, it creates its world, and proves that, when his interest is engaged, this director still has at his control the technique of a master.
Lindsay Anderson, "Film Reviews: 'The Big Heat'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1954 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 24, No. 1, July-September, 1954, p. 36.
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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 situation, but it remains a valid one, and one senses its appeal to Lang's harsh, Germanic temperament.
This harshness is apparent in the film. There is a welcome lack of gloss about it. The little town at the end of the line is a grey place. And the relationships, for at least the first half of the story, have an interestingly European quality to them—a complication of motive and reaction that seems strange in a Hollywood film of today….
Inevitably, pressures of commercialism and production codes being what they are, the film collapses. Returning from the midnight sortie in which he has pursued the drunken husband across the railway yard, with intent to kill, the lover has to confess: "I couldn't do it…." The actor can't believe it; we can't believe it; and Lang hardly tries to convince us. The good parts of the film are good enough to make one regret its final disintegration.
Lindsay Anderson, "Film Reviews: 'Human Desire'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1955 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 24, No. 4, Spring, 1955, p. 198.
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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 domination; in Metropolis, fatality of the machine future. Lang had studied painting and architecture before coming to the cinema, and it is in his legendary and spectacle films, naturally, that a sensuous plastic quality is uppermost, but the images in his melodramas were no less assiduously composed. As in Siegfried he discovered the expressiveness of architectural form, so in The Spy and Doctor Mabuse he discovered the expressiveness of light and, of course, darkness. In these films he effectively created a language of screen melodrama as well as many of its myths. (pp. 16-17)
Behind the two Mabuse films, The Spiders and The Spy is the … idea of demonic, almost abstract, power-organisation determined purposelessly to overthrow human society by acts of outrage and violence…. Finally, in M, the horrific life-and-death struggle is embodied in a single character, the child-murderer wretchedly trying to escape from his impulses and hallucinations.
These films are not only Lang's most original and lasting achievements of his German period, but remain the most haunting melodramas of the cinema. Their most obviously chilling feature is the suggestion of a cosmic terror at work behind society, a senselessly destructive presence capable at any moment of manifesting itself with an unspeakable outrage. (p. 17)
There is no moral force in [The Spiders and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse], only fascination and horror. In dramatic terms Lang made the menace of power vividly suggestive and disturbing …, but without pity for its victims or indignation against their aggressors. Less completely ruthless, in fact, the films would have been less startling as melodrama. It is only in M, when Lang concentrates on the individual so brilliantly portrayed by Peter Lorre, that a kind of steely intellectual compassion is evoked, through the actor's subtle facial play and his last grovelling confession of helplessness. But even here, perhaps, one is struck more by the fatality of instinct than the particular human predicament. From the beginning Lang's method was to abstract, to make "absolute." It was a method that, though he modified its expressionist tendencies, he preserved in America; it is apparent in Fury, in You Only Live Once, in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street; and, under the surface of something as characteristically American as The Big Heat, it is still there.
The trilogy of Fury, You Only Live Once and You and Me stands in a rather ambiguous relation to the American social cinema of the 30's. In one sense (disappointing though the third film is) they remain its most daringly conceived contribution; in another, they scarcely belong to it at all. The difference lies deeper than in the extreme harshness of temperament in the first two films; it is in what the films are about. Fury is not … about a lynching, but an almost abstract study of mob hysteria; this hysteria has a number of results, of which the attempted lynching is one and the ferocious destructive bitterness it arouses in the victim … is another. You Only Live Once and You and Me are not about the difficulties of ex-convicts going straight in American society—but, again, dramatic abstracts of society's indifference to the outcast, whom it creates, punishes and then forces back into crime so as to feel justified after all. (pp. 17-18)
You Only Live Once is an extremely sombre melodrama in which the indictment of society, though less direct [than in Fury], is equally bitter, and the outcome is wholly despairing. While Joe Wilson is presumably reconciled, and society will presumably allow him and Catherine to work in the same town in future, Eddie Taylor and his wife Joan are killed at the end of their desperate flight from the forces of order. This change of emphasis is implicit from the beginning…. This time society is accused by the spectacle of his confusion and desperation. It is guilty of no concerted vicious outburst, but a blind multiplicity of indifference and hard-heartedness that amounts, the film suggests, to an act of betrayal. (p. 20)
[The events of the film] sound unacceptably fabricated. Yet it is this arbitrariness that gives to the film its curious and memorable force. Critics at the time reproached Lang with sacrificing valid social comment to melodrama; but they misunderstood, I believe, his purpose. From the opening scene of Eddie's release—asked if he'll go straight, "I will, if they'll let me," he replies—a world of inexorable foreboding and melancholy is created, a world of terrible angst in which guilt and innocence, calculation and fate, are confused. The imagery is continuously dark and concentrated…. The images evoke that feeling of anonymous terror preceding an act of atrocity that shivered through the melodramas of the 20's…. (pp. 20-1)
Here, as the exposition gives way to action … the reference to the world of Doctor Mabuse seems explicit; and from this moment the drama of You Only Live Once stays in a kind of doomed imaginary country of night, rain, penumbral mist and darkness. (p. 21)
In You Only Live Once even more than in Fury, Lang's preoccupation with the values of "classic tragedy" and "prearranged fate" … seems especially meaningful.
In You and Me the method breaks down because the scheme itself is not valid…. Unlike the two preceding films, the central motivation is psychological, proceeding from the relationship between Joe and Helen; Joe reverts to crime not on account of social pressures but of his discovery of Helen's past, just as her attempt to deceive him springs from fear of losing his love. One can argue that society is responsible because it made the law that criminals on parole may not marry, but to elevate this to a tragic "injustice" is fairly absurd. The central relationship … fails to convince…. [The] falsity seems to come from the fact that the light intimate tone adopted for these passages is not suited to Lang. Aware of this, perhaps, he also places undue emphasis on stylistic trappings. The film opens with a montage sequence set to a Kurt Weill ballad—"You cannot get something for nothing, only a chump would try it"—which sets a note of wry sympathy for the poor and under-privileged in a heartless world, but has little to do with the story itself…. As an experiment it is not very successful either, for the images are mainly no more than literal illustrations to the words; and the two other semi-expressionist sequences with music by Weill … are hardly more integrated into the general texture of the film. The dance-hall song has some point, as its tale of parted underworld lovers conjures up a series of images in Helen's mind. The style, however—bizarre dockland cafés with a sailor bearing a parrot on his shoulder, a hammock in which giant starfish recline, flamingo statues and a clientèle straight from [Pabst's] Dreigroschenoper—is hardly appropriate to working class life in America.
These setpieces, and the generally over-emphatic visual style … also deflect from what should have been the film's true purpose: the penetration of American life on a more personal, intimate level than Lang was, perhaps, equipped yet to achieve. The abstractions now exist in a vacuum. As the introductory sequence vaguely reproaches society, so the prison-evocation relates back to You Only Live Once; but in fact society … is positive…. (pp. 21, 55)
[Since You and Me], Lang has been more prolific but, with a few exceptions, less personal in his work. He has never attempted anything as ambitious, as broadly conceived, as his films of the '30s, and even the most interesting of his later ones remain minor in comparison. All the same, the output as a whole is far from negligible; and a work as recent as The Big Heat (1953) has shown that his talent, if seriously engaged, has not been exhausted by the whole Hollywood experience. (p. 92)
[The Return of Frank James and Western Union] have conventional scripts and … rather indifferent playing. They lack dramatic tension, they are diffusely narrated, and in spite of the admirable period reconstruction of Richard Day's sets, they fail to create a living atmosphere. The clear air and the sweeping landscapes of the West seemed to stimulate Lang only as a painter, for it is in their markedly tasteful and exploratory use of Technicolor that the main interest of both films lies. The landscapes are soft and luminous, they have a rich, idyllic glow; and there are some night scenes … that have seldom been equalled for their delicate, subtle shading. Yet one doesn't feel that colour holds much dramatic meaning for Lang; it seems mainly a decorative adjunct…. The feeling in these films is remote and external, and though they contain some traditional prairie comedy with experienced players …, there is something academic, laborious, about it. (pp. 92-3)
Lang was, however, commercially re-established; and he was now able to make an anti-Nazi subject—not one, as it turned out, but three in succession. Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die (1942) and The Ministry of Fear (1943) represent a curious sideline in his work. The first and third, set mainly in London, are really stories that Hitchcock should have made, depending for effect on ingenuity in plotting physical tension and excitement, in developing their intrigues and chases against naturalistic backgrounds. But this is not Lang's method. For thrillers, the films are wrongly paced—too applied, too expository—and their (mainly nocturnal) London backgrounds are as weirdly synthetic as Pabst's in Dreigroschenoper…. Overladen with suggestions of vague terror and menace in everything—a tree or a clock, even, seems macabre, a phenomenon or object of intrinsic ill-will—these films dissipate their real source of tension, the game of hunter and hunted.
Only Hangmen Also Die, written in collaboration with Berthold Brecht …, has real authority and power. Its plot is not always plausibly contrived, and it suffers from disunity in casting …; but its characterisation of the Nazis is highly original—these frightening but ironically observed members of a terror-group remind one of Lang's German melodramas…. Hangmen Also Die seems more penetrating now than any other American film about Europe under the Nazis. Once again, though, it is interesting to note the dramatic force with which criminals are characterised, the lack of real individual power in the "other side."…
Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and The Secret Beyond the Door (1947) were made under conditions of relative independence and form a kind of trilogy. The first two have strong qualities, and possess what Lang's intermediate work lacked—a consistent, self-created world; and yet, apart from the fact that their scope is deliberately limited, there is something a little arid in their brilliance. Purposeful, imaginative, scrupulously executed, they voluntarily withdraw from the contemporary world.
All three revive some earlier themes: Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street the femme fatale and her trapped, insignificant victim, The Secret Beyond the Door the extravagant, tormented psychopath. The first two bear unmistakable imprints of the harsh schematic method and preoccupation with fatality in their opening scenes, but Woman in the Window is as a whole the most satisfactory. It has a strong melodramatic situation…. (p. 93)
[The film's adventure is] described with an assiduous deliberation that gives it an almost dreamlike quality. Everything seems real—yet, surely, it cannot be. But the sleeper is not to wake, and nightmarish sequels … arrive with the same inexorable, ominously charged momentum. It is only with the entrance of the blackmailer … that this momentum begins to slacken; the sense of accumulating fatality is not matched by a gathering intensity of rhythm, the inevitable begins to hover on the edge of the obvious. Yet perhaps this was Lang's intention; for, knowing the trap is bound to close, one is still fascinated to learn exactly how, and when….
But the ending, which reveals the whole adventure to have been indeed a dream, is surely indefensible. Lang himself has tried to justify it: "If I had continued the story to its logical conclusion, a man would have been caught and executed for committing a murder because he was one moment off guard … I rejected this logical ending because it seemed to me a defeatist ending, a tragedy for nothing brought about by an implacable Fate—a negative ending to a problem which is not universal, a futile dreariness which an audience would reject." This seems, really, a confession that the story itself, if real, is pointless; in which case, why make it at all? From another point of view, turning "reality" at its harshest moment into a dream is itself defeatist and negative. The film's "logical ending" is, in fact, the moment when the desperate professor takes the poison, unaware that his blackmailer has just been killed in a gunfight with the police and that he has nothing more to fear. (p. 94)
One doesn't know whether, in the last eight years, Lang has found difficulty in obtaining congenial subjects, or whether the conventionality of much of his output has reflected an inner lassitude. The films have ranged from workmanlike commerce (I Shall Return, The Blue Gardenia), to another exercise in the Man Hunt-Ministry of Fear style (Cloak and Dagger), to rather sterile artiness (House by the River, Rancho Notorious). They show an almost complete indifference to contemporary reality, and their characterisation is mainly thin and perfunctory. Occasionally, as in Cloak and Dagger, a spy thriller with extremely unorthodox European settings, there are moments of characteristic bravura; but they exist in a vacuum, which the fact that the hunted formula this time is an atomic one does nothing to break.
The most revealing film of this period, Clash by Night (1952),… suggests an acquaintance with American life that stopped about 1937. It is in fact an adaptation … of an early play by Clifford Odets, and no effort is made to freshen its idiom or outlook…. Some tarnished dialogue strikes a wry, rueful note that seems almost self-parody now….
A film like this seems to mirror, if not a retreat, a self-imposed distance from contemporary reality; and, remembering the formal, enclosed worlds of Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, one guesses that the general movement of the American cinema since the end of the war towards naturalism has not been congenial to Lang. With The Big Heat (1953), however, he found a subject—a small town dominated by a racketeer, and a young detective's determination to break his tyranny—in which he could combine American "realism" and the more abstract, symbolic menace of his most characteristic melodrama. The result is a minor but frequently brilliant film that stands comparison with his best work….
In its greater variety of human comment, and its more intimate observation of character, The Big Heat marks a development in Lang's work. The policeman's coldblooded, grasping widow, his anxious, fading mistress, the cruel sensual Vince … and his frivolous, childish girl-friend Debby—these are unusually rounded portraits, presented more acutely and vividly for themselves than is usual with Lang; and, at the centre, is the impressive, restrained figure of Bannion the detective…. This characterisation has a suggestion of moral force and human fervour that the enemies of Mabuse and Haighi never possessed. Bannion, like Eddie Taylor in You Only Live Once, is one of Lang's few personal heroes.
The texture of the film is richer and more concentrated than in any of his work since the '30s, and its tension slackens only in the last twenty minutes…. (p. 96)
The Big Heat is a resolutely interior film, distinguished from most contemporary American melodrama by its relatively formal approach to settings, its indifference to documentation. The world of shadows persists, and their force reminds one of Lotte Eisner's remark that the shadow, in Lang's films, is always an image of destiny….
When Lang first came to America, he found [new forms by which to express new experiences, new visions], and contact with a new reality produced Fury and You Only Live Once. These films sprang from actual situations, but Lang treated them as manifestations of a more general one—as, again, the basic material of The Big Heat resembles that of a score of American thrillers, but a personal imagination transforms it and relates it to the artist's own created world. But, between You Only Live Once and The Big Heat, Lang's imaginative vision has seemed frequently under-nourished; neither Woman in the Window nor Scarlet Street enlarges the experiences communicated by his best work: they are, rather, skilful minor variations on it. What they lack is a true raison d'être. Neither the professor nor the cashier is organically related to the society in which he lives; but Lang is not the kind of director to make the interior dramas of personal life real in themselves—abstracted, poverty, sexual desire, loneliness, cease to become powerful motivating factors and are merely conditions of life coldly taken for granted in view of what is to come.
In Lang's best films, society is always composed of victims and aggressors. For his characters really to live, he needs to place or ensnare them on one side or the other. The same struggles, marked by violence of an ingenuity and refinement that reveals a uniquely sinister imagination, are fought over and over again. Nor are they, necessarily, ennobling, for the director's impassivity precludes a tragic feeling. The violence, as such, is untouched by pity or anger; it admits only an intellectual horror.
The world of Fritz Lang is remarkable for its absence of beauty…. And Fritz Lang's America is not essentially different from Fritz Lang's Germany (or Fritz Lang's London); it is less openly macabre, its crime and terror exist on a comparatively realistic level, but both countries are really another country, a haunted place in which the same dramas constantly recur. The shadow of outrage lies across Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, as it does across Doctor Mabuse and M, and the obsessed little New York cashier is trying, like the child-murderer of Dusseldorff, to escape "the man behind you."…
A part of Lang's peculiar talent is that the surface world of his films—urban, nocturnal, the cities and machines that men have constructed, hardly ever the natural, the untouched world—is rich in symbols of evil prescience…. The destiny which advances, it need hardly be said, is not beautiful or pleasant; it is organised terror or the breakout of the "Caligari within."
It is this persistent imaginative projection of an anxiety neurosis that gives Lang's films their unique power; as works of art they are restricted by the fact that their ultimate gesture is too passive, too unmoved, but they discover, and convey, a new frisson. In the shadow of its premonition, human relations break down, guilt and violence are at large, and though for the first time in The Big Heat the ending shows a crusader still going about his business—Bannion is called out on a new job—one feels little doubt that he will soon be up against a situation equally ominous. (p. 97)
Gavin Lambert, "Fritz Lang's America: Part One" and "Fritz Lang's America: Part Two," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1955 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, Nos. 1 and 2, Summer and Autumn, 1955, pp. 15-21, 55; 92-7.
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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 child he loves, dies and the conflict becomes his individual fight, he is personally affected; the larger cause moves into the background and what takes its place is personal vengeance….
Lang is obsessed with lynching, gun-to-the-head justice, and good conscience. His pessimism seems to grow with each film, and in recent years his work has become the bitterest in the history of film. That's why his latest films have failed commercially. First there was the hero-victim, subsequently the hero-avenger. Now there is only the man who is marked by sin. There are no longer any likable characters in his recent movies such as While the City Sleeps or Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. They are all schemers, opportunists, evil. Life is like a ride on a roller coaster. (p. 65)
Lang takes larger-than-life stories and improves on them, not by making them psychologically subtle, or more believable, but by bending them to his own obsessions. Lang expresses himself with great freedom. I know more about Lang, what he is and how he thinks, after seeing While the City Sleeps, a film he made to order, than I know about René Clément after watching Gervaise…. (p. 66)
There is only one word to describe Lang's style: inexorable. Each shot, each maneuver of the camera, each frame, each movement of an actor is a decision and is inimitable. (p. 67)
You Only Live Once should be seen often, and Lang's later films should be thought about in light of it. The man was not only a genius, he was also the most isolated and the least understood of contemporary filmmakers. (p. 68)
François Truffaut, "Fritz Lang in America" (1958), in his The Films in My Life, translated by Leonard Mayhew (copyright © 1975 by, Flammarion; translation copyright © 1978 by, Simon and Schuster; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation; originally published as Les films de ma vie, Flammarion, 1975), Simon and Schuster, 1978, pp. 64-8.
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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 state, to one of Lang's very earliest films, Die Spinnen (1919), a series meant to be in four parts, though only two were actually made, about an organisation of international criminals bent on world domination with the aid of the lost treasure of the Incas. Here everything stays unmistakably on the level of popular adventure; but the fantasy of criminals conquering the world, common enough at the time, provided a germ which—fertilised perhaps by Lang's temporary contact with the mad Dr. Caligari and his strange power over men—was to blossom some three years later into Dr. Mabuse der Spieler. (p. 44)
[By] the time we come to Spione (1928), the next film to take up the theme, Lang has clearly begun to see the place of the master mind in a rather different light. Where Dr. Mabuse originally had clearcut and relatively "normal" criminal aims which he was the better able to pursue because of the chaotic state of the world, Haighi, the criminal genius of Spione, seems to have no aim beyond the general disruption of society. Living, like Mabuse but more explicitly than Mabuse, in and on the confusions of the postwar world, he heads an international spy ring which appears to exist just for its own sake and to function in a void—no particular cause, even self-interest as it is usually understood, seems to motivate their actions. Mabuse's skill as a master of disguise is here permitted to a number of characters, with a consequent further blurring of distinctions. Nobody is ever quite what he seems, and the sheet-anchor of normality is absent. This time we have moved right into the world of crime, and when spies fight spies without our ever clearly knowing what, if anything, either side is meant to represent, it is not always easy to make out where, even in the most conventional terms, our sympathy should lie. Dramatic conflict proper tends to be replaced by the mechanical thrills of a series of brilliant technical set-pieces….
If it seemed an incidental, almost accidental, characteristic of Haighi that as a crook he was strangely disinterested, involved in crime mainly for its own sake, with Mabuse in Das Testament this very lack of normal motivation is erected into a principle of life. The only aim of chaos is chaos, of destruction destruction. Lang in fact regarded, and regards, this film as a deliberate reflection, albeit oblique and distorted, on the Nazi party and its ethos, putting many of the Nazi slogans about the prime need for total destruction before a new world could be built into the mouth of the mad doctor, and permitting him, further, to will deliberately and explicitly what the Nazis willed only by implication: a new world of crime and disorder in which civilisation would be destroyed and mankind return to the condition of animals….
[In his films of the next ten years] the processes set in motion in Lang's mind by the rise of Nazism seem to be working themselves out, and although Hangmen Also Die has wonderful sequences,… they are not for the most part conceived on anything like the same level of imaginative intensity as their German predecessors. Instead, with the tide turning against Hitler and the urgency of that particular crisis daily diminishing, Lang chose to turn, virtually for the first time, to the superwoman as a substitute for the superman, the femme fatale who achieves by sheer sexual allure very much what the Dr. Mabuses achieve by the exercise of intellect and will power. (p. 45)
Since those days, the raw plot material of Lang's American films has been very much in the normal run of the American cinema, with occasional hints of favoured themes—femmes fatales in Moonfleet or Human Desire, glimmerings of satanic intellect from the publisher in While the City Sleeps or the hero-villain of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, varying degrees of mental derangement … But the real culmination of Lang's "thought" on the subject of the superman has been reserved for his return to the German cinema; until, in fact, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. There are a number of overt references back to the earlier works in the cycle: from the first are borrowed the clairvoyant side of Mabuse's interests and his mastery of disguise, from the second come his strictly noncommercial aims in crime and the doubts they cause among members of his gang, as well as the idea of Mabuse's influence persisting after death through his writings and personality…. But in one particular the film pushes the reasoning of the earlier works even further, to its logical conclusion: while Mabuse in Das Testament merely seeks to reduce human civilisation to primal anarchy, the later Dr. Mabuse plots for no less than to gain control of the major atomic factories in the world. And why? What good will it do him? None, he admits in the key scene of the film, except to give him the ultimate pleasure of putting his finger on the button and returning the whole world to the scattered atoms from which it was made. Destruction for its own sake can go no further.
Even though this steady, logical progression from Die Spinnen to The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse does exist, and provides one thread of continuity running through Lang's work, it is finally only one of several, and by no means the most important. To concentrate upon it without qualification would suggest that Lang is a "philosophical" director…. But this, really, he is not: he makes films with ideas rather than films of ideas. As he remarked recently, "I live through my eyes," and in the end it is his power to embody his ideas visually which accounts for the lasting effect of his films. The main conflict in them is not primarily on the intellectual level, between good and bad, order and disorder, but on the intuitive, between darkness and light. (pp. 45-6)
John Russell Taylor, "The Nine Lives of Dr. Mabuse," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1962 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1961–62, pp. 43-6.
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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 of the imagination, and the two Indian films belong defiantly to this enjoyable if outdated tradition.
The pleasure to be derived from the films does not lie in the story—they are films for the eye, not the brain, and there's no need to be snooty about them on this account. The "mysterious mise-en-scène" so beloved by French critics becomes their justification. Shot partially on location in India, with studio work in Germany, they again display Lang's feeling for architectural values (this time in colour) and elaborately worked-out action sequences. Here are all the trappings of the adventure serial: mysterious palaces inhabited by evil princes and lovely dancers; corridors which lead nowhere; underground passages (some of them straight out of Die Spinnen) which lead only to the tiger pit or a secret prison for lepers. Through it all, Lang's camera tracks and prowls, always settling for the most revealing set-up and producing beautiful images from dappled sunlight, gleaming costumes and heavily decorated interiors. Even in this truncated version, his personality continually imposes itself through a characteristic camera movement, a grouping, or the way a scene is put together. Lang's return to Germany was probably a painful as well as a nostalgic experience. Yet there is something enjoyable in finding a director returning to the themes he first explored nearly half-a-century ago, and relishing their absurdities with a good deal of the old glee.
John Gillett, "Film Clips: 'Tigress of Bengal'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1962 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1962, p. 147.
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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 town in Metropolis Lang used Expressionistic stylization to great effect: impersonal, hunched, servile, spiritless, slavish beings dressed in costumes of no known historical period. The stylization is extreme during the change of shift when the two columns meet, marching with rhythmic, jerky steps, and when the solid block of workers is heaped into the lifts, heads bowed, completely lacking individual existence. (p. 225)
Apart from these machine-men, Lang seeks more and more to make his groups of extras fall into a geometrical pattern. In Siegfried the human body was often used as a scenic element. But in Metropolis it becomes a basic factor of the architecture itself, immobilized with other bodies into triangles, ellipses or semicircles.
Yet in spite of this geometrical stylization, the last vestige of the Expressionist aesthetic, Lang never becomes trite. Even when his crowd is 'architecturalized' it remains alive…. (p. 229)
The scenes set in the immense office, with a few actors lost in the vastness, are less forceful than those with the crowds of workers. The mawkish garden where the children of the rich are sent out to play and the Nazi-style sports stadium in which these gilded youths are trained in athletics, together with the pleasure-house ruled by the bogus Maria, all contrast with the gauntness of the underground town. (p. 232)
In Metropolis, as in all his films, Lang handles lighting admirably: the futuristic city appears as a superb pyramidal accumulation of shimmering sky-scrapers. By means of trick shots and hyper-elaborate lighting, illuminated windows and stretches of dark wall stand out like the white and black squares of a chess-board; the light seems to explode, spreading a luminous mist, falling as iridescent rain. (p. 233)
On the rare occasions when Lang relaxes his hold on the lighting effects, we suddenly notice that the machines have practically no raison d'être: they do no more than compose a kind of moving background, an accompaniment, a sort of noises-off; in the noisy visual orchestration of Metropolis—a silent film—we can almost hear them, like the factory whistle. (p. 235)
In Die Spinnen Lang reveals another aspect of his genius. This unfinished serial—only two episodes were filmed—has a profusion of varied incidents which overflow their framework, complicating the action; these colourful, multiple adventures, overlapping or interlinked, now defy all understanding. In the existing copy, the titles judged necessary for it to be understood at the time are unreadable, which does not make matters easier.
It is surprising that a young director in his third film … should show such mastery in directing certain sequences. The scenes actually filmed in a train without back-projection, the chases in which every detail of suspense is calculated and placed with the logic and precision we admire in his later works, the atmosphere created by skilful lighting and sets—all these proofs of Lang's talent are already there to be seen for those who can see. (p. 237)
The secret trapdoors, the complicated lifts guarded by a Chinaman with a cutlass, the ground caving in, the terrifying underground chambers in which sinister gentlemen in top hats hold secret meetings, the armour-plated vaults, the sliding partitions, the cellars filled with poison gas—all these accessories, of course, Lang drew from the common stock of the suspense film.
Lang succeeds in using them to good effect, and since nothing goes to waste in this 'conscious and conscientious' director, for whom 'all films, whatever they be, demand much care and reflection' he was to use them again in his later films.
Thus the mirror in Die Spinnen which 'televises' scenes before the beautiful vamp Lio Shah anticipates the multiple television screens in Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse (The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, 1960). There is also a parallel in Metropolis when the master learns about the riot from his foreman, whom he can see and talk to through a sort of television screen in his study. (pp. 238-39)
Lang uses his wealth of contemporary settings [in Dr Mabuse der Spieler] quite differently from the settings of Die Spinnen: they heighten and also explain the atmosphere, practically joining in the action; they are much more than a background. But this setting, despite certain features which recall Expressionism, especially in the tavern sequences, was not created in that style, the only suggestions of which come from occasional harsh lighting effects. (pp. 240-41)
As had already happened in Destiny, the settings create the atmosphere, heighten it, and make the spell-binding chiaroscuro of the Stimmung pulse with life…. Here and there the objets d'art shine out insistently, Expressionistically, as if they are infused with an insidious latent life. An enormous, primitive, fluorescent statue catches the eye, the crystal of a chandelier sparkles, an immense mask seems to split the screen.
All these precious objects are no longer elements of the setting, as they were in Die Spinnen, and even less the ornamental arabesques on a kind of back-cloth. Their luminous presence makes the silence more and more oppressive, and they are as it were the hieroglyphs of an ineffable solitude and despair. (pp. 241-42)
Lang is concerned with every detail…. And his precision, his taste for detail and his desire for rigorous authenticity are apparent from the very first sequences. An example is the attack on the man bearing the contract in the train. On three occasions three characters consult their watches in three different places. Step by step, with a meticulous inventiveness, the intrigue moves remorselessly forward, and the editing emphasizes the quasi-simultaneity of the events. If an audience these days can sit through the four hours of Mabuse without tiring … it is thanks to the precision of the editing. (p. 245)
After the first Mabuse a film like Spione (Spies) is disappointing. It lacks the rigour one admires so much in the two episodes of Mabuse. The fault may be Lang's for having tried to introduce too many small traits of character. More plausibly, it may be attributed to Thea von Harbou and her taste for pompous melodrama. Thea von Harbou always dwells excessively on the feelings and reactions of her characters. The action gets clogged, and Lang's vigorous editing suffers accordingly. (p. 246)
The influence of Thea von Harbou is obvious in Die Frau im Mond. In the vast expanses of white sand in the lunar landscapes the falsity of the turgid sentiments is especially jarring: the grandiosity of the fantasy often becomes plain bathos. From one end of this sentimental piece to the other, Fritz Lang's genius only comes through in the rocket-launching scenes, which are exact in their prediction of the future. Good examples are the scenes before the take-off, where the newsreel tone is even more convincing than the science-fiction inventions. (p. 249)
Lotte H. Eisner, in her The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, translated by Roger Greaves (translation copyright © 1969 by Thames & Hudson; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press; originally published as L'ecran démoniaque, revised edition, Le Terrain Vague, 1965), University of California Press, 1969, 360 p.∗
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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 everybody else, with nothing really to do in his underground room except look at the imminence of his own destruction and then go up into the sunlight and, after routine dodges, suffer it. For all he has made happen, and for all his technical expertise and ingeniousness, Mabuse has failed radically in perceiving any message beyond the medium. Half blind, half invisible, he doesn't sense that there are other relations possible that depend upon not merely settling for a sophisticated point of view.
The act of seeing in the later films of Fritz Lang—an act that includes the bemused gaze of a middle-aged man caught by the portrait of a beautiful woman in an art gallery window (The Woman in the Window, 1944), or the intent squint of a hunter centering his human prey in the sights of a powerful rifle (Man Hunt, 1941)—involves for the protagonist a decision not merely to look but rather to enter into the scene his imaginative concentration has in part called into being. Such a decision is a submission to fate, which is also a submission to willful desire and an invitation to act. At the very least, it is a way of getting into trouble. But since trouble is the nature of our lives, and since our century has shown wonderful ingenuity in surpassing the wildest fantasies of Lang's evil geniuses, getting into trouble has at least a certain relevance to living to recommend it. Mistaken in our impulses and acts, misled by our desires and our fears, we seem to have lost our way in a maze. But Lang's camera needs only the slightest movement—a short, straight track—to reveal that we are actually caught in a web, a universal conspiracy precisely directed toward insane ends. Uncertainty is what we know of our environment, and in assurance there is neither comfort nor even truth. The night and fog that envelop so many of Lang's films had probably better not lift. The better way is not out into the daylight, out inward into that deeper darkness where Travers, as if by an intensity of voyeurism, wills his way through to his love, enters the realm of her magic sleep and, by blindly joining for a while in the rhythms of her dreaming, finds through dreaming a way to life. (pp. 56-7)
The 1,000 Eyes compares very favorably with at least one of the earlier Mabuse films. The Testament has its own stories, but over the years Lang seems to have refined his style and deepened his understanding of what his master criminal is up to….
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse uncovers schemes; The 1,000 Eyes senses connections. The traps that abound in the earlier film are most often the products of architecture, city planning, industrial design. The traps that lie hidden in the later film are usually revealed only to exceptional perception—nothing is there unless you are alert and suspicious enough to see it. Mabuse's underground room in The Testament is an empty sound chamber with real brick walls; the trapped young lovers have to blast a hole to escape from it. The underground room in The 1,000 Eyes is a real nerve-center with a sham exterior. The young lovers whom Mabuse leaves there to die escape easily enough through an opened door, and nothing really is caught except in shifting images on television screens. Plan has become process, and everything, even the end of the world, is relative. (p. 57)
Roger Greenspun, "Roger Greenspun on 'The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1973 by Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 9, No. 2, March-April, 1973, pp. 54-7.
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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, no coincidence at all, helps to define the coordinates of the labyrinth from which [Wanley] seems unable to escape. Darkened rooms, corridors, car interiors, and the menacing walls of a once-benign street all contribute to his sense of entrapment….
At least one critic has complained that the setting of The Woman in the Window is unrealistic, too barren, the victim of its low budget…. The rain-washed studio streets of The Woman in the Window, a noir convention, are expressive enough, and one shouldn't complain that they are empty; our dreams are also low-budget productions, peopled in a very selective fashion. If the buildings in these nocturnal scenes are too clearly sets, can it not be argued that this contributes positively to the stylized, dreamlike ambience? Dr. Caligari, another mental set, is even less "realistic" than The Woman in the Window, whose stark façades, the result of design or expediency, also bring to mind the unadorned and disquieting architectural caprices in the paintings of de Chirico….
The Woman in the Window, as its title suggests, is a compendium of glassy surfaces, of ad hoc mirrors and unreliable reflectors—so many traps in the labyrinth. The dream itself, featuring the professor's alter ego, is a kind of fun-house mirror, if only because it recasts the club's doorman and hatcheck clerk as the blackmailer and Mazard (as we discover when the dream is over). [The woman], however, has no "real life" equivalent, and her illusory nature is literally communicated through mirrors or windows which belie their everyday optical functions….
The death of Mazard seems authentic enough, but again mirrors serve as metaphor. As in Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, the killing is reflected in a mirror, a modest infinite regress; and the multiple images of the two accomplices establish the circumscribing nature of the crime, its infinite range of consequences. [The woman and Wanley] are each contained by a mirror of their own, doubling the spatial tension in the room and accentuating the psychic distance which separates these two strangers. (p. 15)
"Only a dream," grumble critics and viewers, as though dreams were meaningless constructs…. According to [the D.A.], "It's too late for us," and Wanley's dream attests to that truth, which he must live with if not accept. Unlike Wanley, most of us censor our worst nightmares or refuse to consider their implications. The pathos of The Woman in the Window is predicated on the definitive self-knowledge supplied by Wanley's nightmare. Viewed as the logical culmination of a myriad of effects, as the exit from the labyrinth, the dream-ending should seem considerably less blatant.
If Orson Welles is the baroque master of film noir, then Fritz Lang is its classicist, an economical and precise craftsman whose carefully controlled effects are all the more powerful for the compression of their means. The Woman in the Window, with its running time of ninety-nine minutes, could be profitably studied by those contemporary directors of thrillers who usually need two hours to tell their stories. (p. 16)
Alfred Appel, Jr., "Fritz Lang's American Nightmare," in Film Comment (copyright © 1974 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 10, No. 6, November-December, 1974, pp. 12-17.
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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 feelings and romantic love; to remain indifferent to Etzel the Hun required, after all, such icy determination as even the career girl might be incapable of achieving. The most immediate antecedent of the career girl is Marion Menil in Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse. Using her sexual powers to attempt a takeover of Henry Travers' financial empire, Marion has, however, been hypnotised into working for Dr. Jordan. The spell is broken ultimately by her human emotion, which allows her to save both Travers and herself, thus escaping the fate of Kriemhild and the career girl. Such salvation is more typical of Lang's women, as can be seen in Sonja (Spione), Mae Doyle (Clash by Night) and Debby Marsh (The Big Heat).
The career girl, indeed, resembles Dr. Jordan or even Mabuse himself, on a smaller scale. She even uses many of the same electronic devices as Jordan in the last Mabuse film…. [The] secret recordings in Career Girl closely parallel those in Tausend Augen, and are negatively related to the positive values of respect, trust and the right of individual privacy. Denying love, the career girl inhabits a world in which personal advantage is taken whenever and however possible, with no thought to the rights of others to speak openly and without fear of reprisal on any level. What the career girl does, of course, is to incorporate on the personal and business planes those techniques which Lang had ascribed earlier to Mabuse. From the animated dreams in Die Nibelungen (telling the truth), to the newsreels in Fury (telling an ambiguous truth), to the portrait of Kitty March in Scarlet Street (mocking the truth), to the television images of Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse and the eavesdropping career girl (recording the truth for evil ends), one can follow the progress of the perversion of the image in the modern world as sadly but accurately observed by Fritz Lang. In Career Girl, it is even more horrifying because the corruption is no longer that of a master criminal working on a grandly mad scale, but of a private citizen, a zombie-like version of each of us, spying on her fellows for personal gain, at once both symptom and cause of her agonising death-in-life. (pp. 241-42)
Had [Death of a Career Girl] been made, Lang would have returned full circle, back to Der Müde Tod, but with a startling difference. In that film, arguably the most personal of the director's European work, the figure of Death seeks to demonstrate that he is stronger than love. The final point of the film, of course, is quite the opposite, for the two lovers eventually triumph (a motif echoed later by Eddy and Joan in You Only Live Once) by being joined together in a life beyond death. Forty-four years later, Lang found himself reversing that motif exactly. If death were exhausted then, it is love which is exhausted in Death of a Career Girl. It is perfect Langian irony that two deaths should equal a 'happy ending', and that an ending with the protagonist alive, beautiful and 'successful' should be the saddest in any of his work. (p. 243)
David L. Overbey, "Fritz Lang's Career Girl," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1975 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 44, No. 4, Autumn, 1975, pp. 240-43.
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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 the realistic…. Lang's films, like those of every great cinema creator, reveal a profound underlying unity. (pp. 140-41)
[Lang believes that] character determines human fate: character is the demon of man. All Lang's American films will demonstrate this belief, with their recurrent questions: Where does guilt begin? What is innocence? What is good and what is evil? (p. 148)
The subjects of Lang's films are very varied—often he accepted subjects that were offered him…. Yet there are always inner connections: whether in the preliminary preparation or the studio work, they were turned into Lang subjects.
One means by which this was achieved was his characteristic stress on detail. The accumulation of detail, the power of the camera to isolate it at once gives him his spontaneity and his realism…. In his American films detail is no longer symbol as in his German period. In Fury symbols may still be important … and even in You Only Live Once there is the frog image; yet their significance is deeper. (p. 369)
It is an academic question … whether Lang's German films or his American period are to be valued more highly….
American films were made in a different time and a different environment. There is doubtless, a profound difference in perspective, but there is also a firm continuity of vision. Lang, of course, matured as a natural process of aging common to all men, and the change in environment of course played a part in this maturation. The first films, then, are not exactly the same as the later films, but the same man made them all; both periods are always related in essentials (Big Heat, for example, can be taken to correspond to M in many ways). (p. 380)
Lotte H. Eisner, in her Fritz Lang, edited by David Robinson, translated by Gertrud Mander (translation copyright © Martin Secker & Warburg Limited 1976; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.; in Canada by Secker & Warburg Limited), Secker & Warburg, 1976 (and reprinted by Oxford University Press, New York, 1977), 416 p.
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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.
This is a cinema in which we are always conscious of art direction, and thus of the fabricated and organised spectacle. Where does Lang trust nature or reality, save in the unavoidable seashore of Moonfleet, some obligatory Western landscape in the early 40s, and the uncharacteristic Clash by Night? That is a woman's picture more typical of producer Jerry Wald. But it has a 'documentary' section on fishing—essentially redundant—put together from footage Lang shot while waiting for filming to begin. Otherwise, Lang's exteriors are meticulous studio mock-ups, and this artifice saps all the vitality of nature. (p. 116)
Action never falters in Lang; it is his language, just as his emphasis comes in acceleration. This was always apparent in his work, and no silent director made such restless films. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, from 1922, has such a teeming profusion of incident that its 3 hours pass like an express. Time's speed is referred to throughout The Ministry of Fear….
The wonder [of The Ministry of Fear is that Lang] could compress so much into 85 minutes and make a work more lucid than [Graham Greene's] novel. He never relents from the exposition of significant action through space, shape and light: a designed image taut with irrational anxiety. If only to illustrate the order and consistency of his direction, notice the use of doorways and entrances in The Ministry of Fear…. They connect spatial areas, serve as metaphors for progress and ordeal, and comprise a visual pattern that nearly rhymes as the film progresses, so that the crazy adventure seems more than ever ordained. (p. 117)
All his life, I think, Lang was misunderstood or treated too lightly. So long-lived, he could not be avoided in film histories, or denied the stature that we give to heroic survival. His German period was more 'respectable' for many people. It was filled with classics; and Lang was safer than, say, Leni Riefenstahl, because of his decision to leave Germany. Yet the sureness in their films is very similar. Lang had no equal at studio film-making, and he showed how stifling a form that could be. His brilliance was so cold that it was hard to touch, let alone analyse…. I do not question Lang's own liberalism. But I do believe he made authoritarian films, so expressive that we should beware of the cinema. (p. 118)
David Thomson, "Lang's Ministry," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 114-18.
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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 considerable interest on their own. Moreover, understood in the context of the subtle framework that organises its significance, certain segments and aspects of the movie which have seemed flawed or worse appear in a new and more satisfactory light—the ending, for example, which is commonly thought to be a disastrously maudlin lapse.
Considered from a historical perspective, I know of no American film from the period, with the possible exception of von Sternberg's last two films with Dietrich, which exhibits the same consistently high level of cinematic complexity and sophistication. (p. 221)
[You Only Live Once] seems obsessed with facets of perception and blindness. Through the visuals and the dialogue we are repeatedly introduced to questions concerning sight and the failure to see, pictures and picturing and the various senses of the word 'vision'….
A striking and peculiar aspect of the film is the way in which it signals the possibility of manipulating our perception of its action. At several points, in several ways, the audience is led into making a mistake of perceptual judgment after which a wider context is revealed in terms of which the judgment is shown for the mistake it is. (p. 222)
You Only Live Once is structured by an interlocking network of characters and events which express, with significant variations, the nature of this failure and its human consequences. Most striking, perhaps, is the way in which the audience is deeply implicated in these concerns. The movie explores with elaborate care the ways in which film may complicate and enhance our difficulties in seeing the world accurately by leading perception astray with methods of its own….
[The] movie systematically depicts a hierarchy of human relationships: the relationships of love, marriage and family; the relationship of a person to important sub-groups within society and his or her relationship to the social order and to the state. And all these relationships are portrayed as being perpetually threatened by the failure of people within these actual or potential ties to see and understand the others in a full and satisfactory way. Lang's vision here seems to be one of despair. The sighted blind will find themselves a human situation only by chance if, indeed, they find themselves a place at all…. You Only Live Once has a kind of complexity and a kind of greatness that we may, not surprisingly, fail to see. (p. 226)
George Wilson, "'You Only Live Once': The Doubled Feature," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 46, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 221-26.
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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 Fury Joe Wheeler is also consumed by the desire for revenge…. And Dave Bannion in The Big Heat is also driven by revenge. (pp. 27-8)
It should be clear that Lang's films do not exclusively dwell on these interior struggles, for such is not always the substance of exciting film entertainment. These interior struggles are triggered and symbolized by external struggles that bring visual excitement and suspense to the screen. The personal, inner struggles in Lang's films are the elements that give psychological realism to his characters, but the external struggles between the central characters and the forces that try to dominate them are the elements that motivate and give meaning to the inner struggles….
In a sense the dark [inner] struggle becomes a classic encounter between good and evil. The character struggles with a human desire—revenge, illicit love, power—on one hand and the dictates of his conscience on the other. There is pressure to be evil, but there is also pressure to be good. (p. 28)
[Classical] fate may be the controlling factor in a number of Lang's early films …; but as Lang learned more about psychology and societal influences, he began to create characters who struggle not against the classical Fate, but against some modern representation of it. This is not the Greek or Roman version of fate, but a newer version that is the result of the influences of determinism…. The struggle of man against some supernatural force, as in Siegfried, has become the struggle of man against some aspect of society, as in The Big Heat. In both cases the forces are gigantic and man seems small and puny beside them, but the struggle itself is important to Lang. (pp. 30-1)
Regardless, however, of the nature of the fate or the size of the group representing that fate, the struggle that really counts for Lang is the interior struggle that takes place inside the hero as a result of the external struggle. Fate, no matter what its manifestation, is not the central issue with most of Lang's characters; the struggle with themselves is more important as the exterior opponents are replaced by man's inner self. The exterior struggles are important and interesting, especially in Lang's films that comment on social issues and war, but these struggles achieve thematic significance through the inner struggles they trigger. (pp. 32-3)
Lang has a reputation as a director who makes excessive use of violence, but such criticism fails to take into account his own understanding of the art of the cinema. Lang's films do seem violent, but not in the vein of the blood and gore that so characterizes the films of latter-day filmmakers, such as Sam Peckinpah. Lang made the violence a part of the theme of the dark struggle…. Fear, pain, and violence—the three are united as the central device for depicting the struggles. In the tradition of the classical Greek theater, the violence is rarely seen…. The violence is more suggested than shown. Lang knew that it could be more effective on the viewer done that way; he leaves it to us to imagine the horror of the violence. Through our imaginations we become his collaborators in the creation of horror. (pp. 35-6)
Sometimes the hallucinations in Lang's films are inspired by guilt. A character undergoing psychological stress caused by guilt for actions he has performed may hallucinate and have visions that reflect the guilt. These are the strangest of the hallucinations used by Lang; those inspired by dreams or illness are easily accepted by the audience because many people have experienced strange visions while asleep or ill. But the hallucinations which reveal guilt are different. They may occur to a Lang character while he is walking down the street or driving his car. (pp. 37-8)
The use of hallucination is especially appropriate for a director who works with man's inner struggles. The hallucination depicts well what is happening in a man's mind and reflects the stress caused by the struggle.
Since the struggles of Lang's films are characterized by Jekyll-Hyde exchanges of personality, it is natural that on some occasions there will be confusion of character. In a psychological drama when one side of the person's character is exchanged for another, there may not be an accompanying physical change to symbolize the inner change, as there was in the original Jekyll-Hyde myth. In other words, the character may change, but another person looking at the changed person may not be able to discern the change simply from the character's physical appearance. (pp. 38-9)
[Lang's] films are dotted by easily recognized archetypes, characters and experiences that are representatives of the perceptions we hold in common and express through our dreams and art forms. These archetypes in Lang's films become central to the conflicts that make up the struggles…. Lang frequently calls upon the archetype of the superman, a character that is often responsible for the conflict in his films. Supermen, such as Dr. Mabuse or Haighi in Spies, are actually the source of conflict in their films, the characters who force others to confront evil and to experience the struggle. As the source of conflict, the superman is actively involved in it and represents one side of the struggle. On the other hand, the seductress, another of Lang's archetypes, is frequently the cause of the conflict and struggle in his films, but usually not as directly involved as a participant as is the superman…. The struggle belongs to the men, not to the women who were partly to blame for it. Similarly in Lang's films the virgin is usually not directly involved in the struggle, but she is supportive of her man whose struggle concerns her. (p. 42)
Lang also involves his characters in retellings of well-known myths that tend to heighten the struggles and make them more universal. He uses the myths of the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden in Metropolis and the story of the Nibelungen treasure in the Nibelungen Saga. Some myths he uses without naming, such as the Flood and Holocaust in Metropolis and Beauty and the Beast in The Big Heat. These myths are statements of conflict, and their narratives describe the struggles that are familiar to most men, at least in their subconscious form….
I believe it fair to judge Lang a flawed genius. He made films of great power and substance, films that leave an impact on the viewers. His films challenge the viewers' intellects and remain visually appealing. But often his taste or working conditions let him down and permitted him to strain an image or oversentimentalize an idea. These flaws stand out from his strengths like a weed among roses, detracting from the flowers but at the same time heightening their beauty through contrast.
The flaws in Lang's films are important because they cause strange reactions in contemporary audiences. Viewers today laugh where Lang did not intend a laugh … or challenge the premise when Lang wanted understanding (the heart uniting the brains and the hands at the end of Metropolis). Lang sometimes permits his sentimentality and ideology to intrude upon his plots, forcing awkward moments, such as the conclusions of Metropolis and You Only Live Once. Rarely are such moments totally wrong. The idea may well be justified by the actions which lead up to the moment; it is usually the presentation of the idea in an overdone image—such as the flag waving at the end of American Guerrilla—that is flawed. (p. 169)
Lang, like Aeschylus and Shakespeare, was expert at creating the atmosphere of tragedy. He knew how to find the right visuals to establish a tone of horror that anticipated violence and the dark struggle….
In a similar manner Lang knew the technique for developing suspense. Through the careful control of pace, selected editing, and misdirection, Lang was able to create anticipation of action. (p. 170)
[Perhaps] most important of Lang's attributes is the worthiness of the theme that dominated his films. The dark struggles within and among his characters become statements of the dark side of our own personalities. Lang depicted struggles that represented the everyday struggles of each of us—struggles with jealousy, hate, revenge, and political and criminal tyranny. He understood how each of us is driven and confused by these conflicts. In the final analysis Fritz Lang was a first-rate entertainer who never allowed us to lose sight of his message. The dark struggle is a worthy theme, a theme that gives meaning to the visual images that dominate the films of Fritz Lang. (p. 171)
Robert A. Armour, in his Fritz Lang (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 199 p.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
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 the awkward staging and editing you can't quite be sure what or how.
Lang's Destiny (1921), a three-story film with a linking narrative, has some stunning sets and effects, but the first two stories are dramatically nil. The third story, an Oriental fantasy-comedy, is slight but amusing, and the framing story, in which Death comes between two lovers, has occasional force. As with other silent German Langs like Siegfried—the first part of Die Nibelungen (1924)—Metropolis (1926), Spies (1928), and Woman in the Moon (1928), the pictorial overwhelms the dramatic. The above-cited films tend to make better stills than films. (p. 3)
Structurally, Metropolis is not just crude. It's downright brazen in its crudeness. You begin to wonder if this incredible series of narrative coincidences might not be part of some arcane aesthetic tactic. But it finally seems closer to simple didacticism than to aesthetics—Metropolis, or A Portrait of Freder's Consciousness Rising in His Time.
Metropolis, with its mixture of spectacle and camp, is a gigantic, grotesque curiosity…. Freder and Maria are simply bad ideas, but that robot is not quite as easily dismissed from the mind….
[In Woman in the Window] Lang's vaunted "determinism" begins to look more like tired writing or heavy-handed irony—a mechanical "Well, wouldn't you know it?" as the "last thing you'd expect to happen" invariably does happen in his American films…. Sentimental optimism: the pardon arrives in the nick of time. Sentimental pessimism: the pardon arrives a moment too late. Lang's American films are sentimentally ironic situation dramas. (p. 5)
Lang's conception of Fate in his American films might best be described as Sternberg without wit. You Only Live Once and Woman in the Window are, in significant ways, near-opposites of a film like The Blue Angel (1930), in which the hero Professor Rath becomes tragicomically enmeshed in the gears of a mechanism which he set in motion. The Sternberg picture—stingingly comic—has none of the phony somberness of You Only Live Once, whose fugitives are "innocents" abroad in a mean, nasty world which is (carefully) peopled with insensitive, uncaring employers and officials. The tone of the Lang film is whining, self-pitying. Poor little Eddie and Joan can't escape "the stain of the world," to quote one character. The script constitutes a too-easy absolution of individual responsibility. Glumly, it proposes that it's others who set the gears in motion. (pp. 5-6)
[Scarlet Street (1945)] is plot-constricted too, but it's a solidly constructed melodrama—one of Lang's few good American films…. Johnny and Kitty are two of the very few characters in Lang's American films to have a life apart from the demands of a plot. His hearty low humor and lusty self-appreciation, and her languorousness—she oozes in and out of beds, sofas and his arms—provide a type of human spectacle which Lang usually had no time to appreciate in his films. Their pet exclamations … are emblematic of their absolute willfulness, their impatience with objects—like other people—foreign to their universe.
Hangmen Also Die! (1943), from a story by "Bert Brecht" and Fritz Lang (as the screen credits list them), is one of Lang's most uneven films. The "inspirational" scenes of Czech resistance to the Nazi occupation in World War II are the worst…. The second half of the movie—the frame-up of an informer—is standard Lang thriller stuff, both clever and contrived, over-elaborate yet sometimes exciting. It's indicative of the film's general unevenness that one of the most devastating bits—a man's bowler hat rocking back and forth until it stops, as he dies offscreen—is preceded by the awkwardly staged, fast-motion smothering of the same man. (pp. 6-7)
Cloak and Dagger (1946), yet another of Lang's World War II dramas, is flimsy taken either as a suspenser or as a character study. The lighting … is evocative Warners "noir," but the treatment of the subject—OSS operations inside wartime Germany—is strictly Hollywooden…. The characters' emotional-fireworks displays are unearned, gratuitous—as in Ministry of Fear the past remains sealed off from the present. Lang has to content his artistic self with shooting the main characters in mirrors, a reflex gesture left over from M and Woman in the Window. (pp. 7-8)
The Blue Gardenia is smooth and bland—a plot, with no overtones, undertones, or point—Hitchcock's Blackmail … with nothing on it…. The film has a "B"-mentality script, a "B" look, "B" acting, a budding "B" romance …, and a laughably hasty "B" wrapup. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is all plot too, with no humor, characters, or life to distract the viewer from the course of that plot—the Lang express makes few stops. The film exists solely for its twist ending…. Lang's Human Desire (1954) is a dully written and acted remake of Renoir's 1938 La Bête Humaine, and Moonfleet (1955), a routine costumer, has a little of everything—action, suspense, comedy, horror …—but not much of anything in the way of narrative interest—which is not quite the same thing as plot….
Why was Lang so often cast in the role of hack, peddling plots? Was he typed for thrillers—Hitchcock, Jr.? Or did his semiadolescent fascination with the intricacies of pulp crime stories simply happen to mesh with the demands of a plot-centered American film industry? Whatever the explanation for this casting, his professional quandary was unfortunate, because the presence in Lang's films of such startling characters as Johnny and Kitty in Scarlet Street, the Gestapo people in Hangmen Also Die! and Ryan's character in Clash by Night suggests that he had a darker talent, one that too often went untapped or under-exercised, in both his German and his American films. Thrillers may too often have been an "escape" for him as well as for his audience. (p. 8)
Fury attempts to situate its lynch-mob story within the story of a "typical American couple."… The larger story does not survive the inevitable, and perhaps necessary, compression and the schematic plot, in which elements like peanuts, a torn coat, and [the] misspelling of the word "memento" turn up with too-handy regularity. However, the mob sequences themselves, and the scenes of the newsreels singling out members of that mob—and isolating their awful exultation—still carry a surprising impact…. [The] best sequences in Fury portray a frightening "right" or "good" run wild—small town citizens burning a jail that houses a supposed kidnapper; later the victim of this assault … wreaking legal revenge on them. Lang gets the viewer rooting for and against the "good guy" … at the same time. One becomes caught between exultation and horror, as the punishment—the act of revenge—takes on the configuration of the crime. Only then does Lang appear to be exploring the implications of the action and violence in his films, the implications of his fascination with violent crime…. Only then does he seem to illuminate both the subjective attraction and the objective ugliness of violence. (p. 9)
Lang made two camp versions of the M-Fury-The Big Heat syndrome—Rancho Notorious (1952) and Secret beyond the Door … (1948)—which are far from good but also far from dull. The more celebrated of the two, Rancho Notorious—weakest of Lang's revenge sagas—is striking, garish, fast moving, always faintly ridiculous, and sometimes—as with "The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck" …—wholly ridiculous….
[Secret beyond the Door …] is certainly not "only melodrama," a charge that may apply to four out of five Lang films, but not to this one. It's closer to something like camp horrorromance-psychological drama. It switches gears with hilarious abruptness…. The pulpy, stream-of-consciousness narration … is an unintentional joy in itself, and the movie's big surprise and shock scenes are more comic than horrific. Only spoilsports will object that this is Lang making a joke of M.
The emotional "fury" of Lang's Fury and The Big Heat seems to have had its source in the second half of Lang's silent version of Die Nibelungen—Kriemhild's Revenge (1924). The first half, Siegfried, is like a static prologue, but Kriemhild's Revenge is powerful and, finally, even disturbing. The implacability of character suggested by the cry, in M, of "The only thing that will stop you is death!" also informs the action of Kriemhild's Revenge, in which (unlike Metropolis) differences between the principals—Kriemhild, Hagen, Attila—are not subject to arbitration. Justified revenge becomes slaughter as Kriemhild's foes fall, and "right" becomes indistinguishable from "wrong."
But this theme of implacability finds what may be its most moving expression in Lang in, surprisingly—since it is so little shown or seen—… Lilion (1934),… perhaps his finest film…. The rhetorical power of the last 15 minutes of M becomes the sustained comic-dramatic power of Liliom, in which the protagonist's compulsion is not only named but analyzed. Becker's cry of "I can't help it!", vividly visualized in the newsreel freezes on the mob members in Fury, Lang first caught on a film-within-a-film in Liliom: the heavenly officials weighing the evidence for and against Liliom … run him a scene from his life—during an argument, he slaps his girl, Julie …—pinpointing for him and them his responsibility for his actions. (p. 10)
The film-within-a-film in Liliom is neither condemnation nor exoneration of Liliom. It's only a description of someone both controlling and controlled by his actions, accountable yet helpless. In the film, Liliom is shuttled back and forth between heaven and earth, purgatory and hell, in a very determined celestial attempt to find just the right place for him. The problem is that from one angle, he's guilty; from another, innocent. He is punished, repentant, yet incorrigible; nearly damned by his misdeeds, finally saved by his almost-good-deeds.
The legacy of Lang the artist is mostly one of parts of films—parts of Scarlet Street, Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fury, M, Hangmen Also Die!, and The Big Heat. But it's also the whole of Kriemhild's Revenge and, perhaps above all, Liliom, the two decided exceptions to the rule of Lang the melodramatist, the Lang shallowly fascinated by crime and violence and psychopathology. Only in Kriemhild's Revenge and Liliom does that fascination become the subject of the film, and the impersonal become personal. (p. 11)
Don Willis, "Fritz Lang: Only Melodrama," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1980 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 2-11.
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