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.)