Article abstract: Lang was a pioneer in twentieth century filmmaking. The silent films that he directed in Germany in the 1920’s established his reputation as a creative innovator and skilled cinematic craftsman. His sound films in the early 1930’s and Hollywood films of the 1940’s and 1950’s demonstrated his remarkable ability to adapt to changing technical and cultural settings without sacrificing cinematic integrity.
Fritz Lang was born in Vienna on December 5, 1890. His father was the municipal architect, and Lang followed in his father’s footsteps, studying engineering and architecture at Vienna’s technical university (1908-1910). Though he grew increasingly disenchanted with conventional middle-class life and finally broke with his father and family to study modern art in Munich and Paris, he never lost the architect’s eye for space, light, and alignment.
In the years before World War I, Lang lived a bohemian existence. He traveled to Asia, North Africa, and the South Seas, exotic places that figured occasionally in later films. Even more important for his subsequent development as a director was his immersion in prewar expressionism, a German cultural revolt that challenged most existing standards. Like other youthful artists in this movement, Lang repudiated the urban bourgeois values of his parents’ generation, turning in his case to the orient, the works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Karl May Westerns, and the occult in search of a new worldview. By 1913, he was back in Paris painting and selling postcards and cartoons.
Interned at the outbreak of World War I, Lang soon escaped and returned to Vienna, where he joined the Austrian army. He rose to the rank of lieutenant during the war and was decorated several times. He was wounded three times, including one injury that left him blind in his right eye. It was during a year of hospitalization at the end of the war that Lang wrote and sold his first screenplays to a leading German filmmaker. While convalescing he also took a small part in a patriotic war play; in the audience was a representative of Berlin’s Decla Film Company, who invited Lang to Berlin as soon as he recovered.
Lang arrived in Berlin at an opportune moment in early 1919. While most Germans were trying to cope with the chaotic consequences of military defeat and political revolution, the infant German film industry was struggling to satisfy surging public demand for escapist entertainment. It was in this turbulent setting that Lang made his directorial debut in Halbblut (1919), a low-budget thriller about two men destroyed by their love for a half-caste woman. Lang’s early silent films were distinguished by their expressionist stylization, simplification, and exaggeration. Lang’s imaginative use of lighting, fantasy, Freudian symbolism, and oversize corridors, stairways, and doorways reflected the influence of expressionist theater. This style is clearly visible in his first popular film, Der müde Tod (1921; Destiny). Here names such as “the Man” are utilized to universalize characters in the expressionist manner. In Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922; Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), Lang’s silent classic about a master criminal out to dominate the world, the young director utilized expressionist sets with painted shadows on the walls. In Metropolis (1927), an overly simplistic study of class and moral conflict in a futuristic city, he introduced stylized workers enslaved to gigantic expressionistic machines. The expressionist element in Lang’s films gave way to greater realism in the late 1920’s, but reminders of this appeared in many later films.
Lang’s silent films were also notable for their extraordinary technical innovation and creativity. Destiny, for example, so impressed Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., that he purchased the American rights to the film in order to copy its flying carpet scene and other special effects for his 1924 production of The Thief of Bagdad. Die Niebelungen (1924), a two-part epic based on the Siegfried saga, contained an eerie artificial forest guarded by a seventy foot fire-breathing dragon—another cinematic first. Later, in Metropolis, Lang introduced the first “transformation” scene in film history, turning a machine into a lifelike woman. Finally, in his first sound film, the unforgettable classic M (1931), Lang utilized sound creatively to intensify audience anxiety as police and criminals pursue a child murderer. Lang’s fifteen films, all studio-produced in Berlin, created cinematic images that have been copied by film directors ever since.
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