Fritz Lang grew up in fin de siècle Vienna, during the Golden Autumn of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he carried its intellectual and artistic heritage with him for the rest of his days. The son of a well-to-do construction magnate and his fervently Catholic (and formerly Jewish) wife, Fritz attended art school before World War I, imbibing the sensuous decadence of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. He also studied the explosive theories of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, gleaning from them ideas about amoral übermenschen and unconscious drives which would animate his work for decades to come.
Lang’s artistic ambitions met with resistance from his stern father, so he abandoned painting and, after distinguishing himself in the Austrian army during WWI, joined the vibrant German film industry. By the end of his first year under Erich Pommer at Decla, he had written seven screenplays and directed two features. His early efforts, typified by the first film that bears his distinctive mark The Spiders (Die Spinnen) (1919), were action-adventure exercises that offered the then-popular thrills of Perils of Pauline cliffhangers. Only with the allegorical Destiny (Die Müde Tod) (1921) did Lang transcend the pulpy genres of his day and herald the brilliant career that would follow. A central tale of a young woman bargaining with Death for the life of her beloved unfolds into three lavishly costumed episodes of tragic and forbidden love. Death will return her beau if she can save one of the lovers fated to die in each historical setting.
The success of Destiny was far surpassed by the sensation created by Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (Doktor Mabuse, Der Spieler) (1922). A sprawling and lurid gangster serial inspired by Al Capone and foreshadowing the rise of Adolph Hitler, Mabuse was one of cinema’s first super-criminals, an evil genius with the power to mesmerize his victims into doing his bidding. Shown in two parts over successive nights, it electrified audiences and made Lang’s reputation as a showman of the first rank.
But his work to this point was clearly popular in its bent, part Indiana Jones, part Thief of Baghdad, with a dose of the Brothers Grimm thrown in (indeed, Lang always accused Douglas Fairbanks of stealing the magic carpet idea from him). His next two efforts were decidedly highbrow, and their critical reception won him a unique place in the history of German cinema. A diptych of the Nibelungen saga of Norse legend, followed by the dystopic Metropolis, demonstrated that here was a genius to be reckoned with.
Die Nibelungen (1924) was also shown in two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge (Kriemhild’s Rache). In the latter, Lang focused on the self-destructive effects of launching a vendetta, one of the recurrent themes of his oeuvre. The former is one of the most painterly of his compositions, drenched in the ideology of the German Romantic movement, and the compositional influence of 19th century painter Caspar David Friedrich. Siegfried was such an impressive depiction of the Norse myth that multiple viewings of it were said to invariably bring Adolph Hitler to tears.
Metropolis (1927), for all its genius, was a sensational and astronomically costly flop of such disastrous proportions that it bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of Weimar Germany. Visionary in its scope and innovation, childish in its treatment of political and romantic themes, Metropolis is a magical behemoth that still leaves contemporary film students shaking their heads in wonder. The influence of this monument of the silent era cannot be overstated; from mad scientist scenes in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) to the look of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) it echoes down through the cinematic ages.
Undaunted by the bankruptcy of his home studio, Lang next cranked out a couple of competent exercises in genre (something he was always capable of doing), Spies (Spione) (1928) and The Woman in the Moon (Die Frau im Mond) (1929), a sci-fi thriller. Adapting quickly to the coming of sound, Lang then painstakingly crafted what is perhaps his greatest work, M (1931). Inspired by an actual serial child molester, who was being sought by German police even as Lang penned the story, M virtually invented the psycho-killer genre, which has become so popular of late. Die Neue Sachlichkeit (‘The New Objectivity’) was a grittily realistic and highly popular artistic style in Berlin in the late ’20s, and its influence would help Lang overcome his early obsession with the fantastic. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. House by the River ), such gritty realism would come to characterize much of his subsequent work in America as well. M explored what would become characteristic Langian themes; it reflected his sympathy for the compulsive criminal, and initiated his campaign against the death penalty. Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, who whistles Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” when he contemplates his next murder, is the first actor that moved me in any of Lang’s films (Spencer Tracy was the second, and Gloria Graham the only other). Lorre’s chilling description of feeling psychologically compelled to do his heinous crimes gets at the essence of the insanity defense, even if it didn’t convince his criminal judge and jury.
Lorre’s terrifying rant is an anomaly in what is an essentially cold Langian cinematic landscape. Like Spielberg, he could make a good action-adventure movie, and like Lucas he was fascinated with futurism, but like both of them he could come off as either naively sentimental or simply out of touch with the human side of things. He had already demonstrated his versatility in both high art and sheer pulp. But his next film got him in trouble with the newly installed censors of culture, the Nazis. The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) (1933) had too many uncomfortable parallels to the behavior and repugnant pronouncements of the thugs the Nazis employed to consolidate their power early on. Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels called Lang into his office to apologize for having to pull the film from circulation, and to offer its director the position of studio head of the new production company the Nazis were assembling. Lang immediately resolved to leave the country, in part because of a Jewish heritage he reportedly had the temerity to remind Goebbels of, and did so either that same day (if you believe his own dramatic account) or within the year.
After a brief transition in France, where he lensed a piece of fluff called Liliom (1934), Lang came to America and the Hollywood that would become his second home. Part of a burgeoning wave of artistic expatriates that poured into Hollywood from Hitler’s Germany, Lang had trouble finding work, until he latched onto a property that would reignite his career. Fury (1936) was a compelling tale of tragic coincidence, and (once again) of the corrosive effects of seeking revenge. Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy, in his breakout role) is mistakenly jailed for murder and apparently immolated when a vengeful crowd torches his prison. He miraculously escapes, and then watches with glee as his would-be executioners are tried for mob violence in a sensational court of law. Revealing himself to a hushed courtroom after his vendetta has destroyed his life-affirming spirit, and alienated him from his one true love (Sylvia Sydney), Tracy’s final speech is an eloquent plea for extending forgiveness, not for the other’s sake, but for the sake of the person who is obsessed with seeking revenge.
Lang followed up this initial Hollywood success with another examination of the criminal justice system, You Only Live Once (1937). The archetypically Teutonic director with a reputation for dictatorial excess was brought on board by Sylvia Sydney, who championed Lang even while he and male lead Henry Fonda clashed constantly over a ridiculous number of retakes (which might have ended up highlighting Fonda’s vulnerability, crucial to the ultimate success of the film). Once was the second crime drama hit in a row for the Austrian émigré, who let success go to his head. His next picture was a genuine bomb, a musical comedy called You and Me (1938) with songs by Kurt Weill and script input from Bertolt Brecht. Singing in the Rain it wasn’t.
For a while after that, Lang’s career in Hollywood was dead in the water. A ladies’ man accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, he struggled with bouts of depression as the time between pictures grew. Sam Jaffe, who was a talent agent before fashioning his own distinguished career in front of the camera, sold Lang to a skeptical Darryl F. Zanuck as the perfect director for The Legend of Frank James (1940), a sequel to a recently successful Jesse James movie. Lang was already an aficionado of all things Western, including Indian beadwork and cachinas, so he dove enthusiastically into an unlikely genre that would revive his career and to which he would return in Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952).
Sandwiched in between the mostly mediocre series of wartime melodramas Lang churned out over the next five years (Man Hunt , Hangman Also Die , Ministry of Fear , Cloak and Dagger ) were two film noir classics which featured the same leads (Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett) and similar themes: Woman in the Window (1944) and Lang’s personal favorite from the period, Scarlet Street (1945). In both, Robinson plays an unlikely criminal brought to killing someone through contact with a femme fatale, with his fall from respectability reminiscent of The Blue Angel (Josef Von Sternberg, 1930). Woman in the Window pulled its punch by having the Robinson character wake up from a nightmare at the end, but Scarlet Street reduced him to being a homeless street bum, haunted by the murder that he pinned on Joan Bennett’s boyfriend (Dan Duryea, who is executed unjustly) and for which he had escaped prosecution. Scarlet Street was also the first time Lang ran afoul of the Hays Office, which objected to his protagonist getting away with the crime.
Lang’s career foundered a bit after the war, when he completed only three nondescript films in six years. But, in the following twenty-four months, he released four films that have led to a heightened critical respect for the Hollywood phase of his career. Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954) are definitive works of late film noir, full of expressionistic chiaroscuro and hothouse desires. The Big Heat is a particularly satisfying study of a husband out to revenge his wife’s murder in a car bombing meant for him. There is a moment when an otherwise wooden Glenn Ford scans his now-empty living room (as he leaves the house for good and reminisces about his dead wife) that is as moving as anything in Lang’s oeuvre, and Gloria Graham is heartbreaking as a gangster’s moll that exacts Ford’s revenge for him when he can’t bring himself to break the law that he has served all his life.
Ford’s choice not to proceed with his vendetta is valorized in The Big Heat, for it represented a triumph in the fight against fate, a struggle that Lang embraced at least since Destiny‘s heroine tried to cheat Death out of her boyfriend. While some Langian protagonists seem to have no choice at all (Hans Beckert in M and Eddie Taylor [Henry Fonda] in You Only Live Once being preeminent examples), others exert their will admirably and do the right thing despite the strong temptation to do otherwise (Glenn Ford in both The Big Heat and Human Desire).
As Lang himself observed in an extended interview with Peter Bogdanovich, one of the most important transformations in his work from the German to the American period was a shift in focus from Nietzschean supermen like Mabuse, Siegfried or the Master of Metropolis to depictions of “Average Joe” protagonists, played so convincingly by Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford. The bleakness of German expressionism gave way to a guarded optimism in the Glenn Ford films, which no doubt reflected the mellowing impact of over two decades in Hollywood. Lang would even condescend to accept a “happy ending” every once in a while.
By the mid-’50s, however, Lang was fed up with fighting the collaborative studio system and all the creative compromises it demanded. After an undistinguished try at a high seas costume drama (1955’s Moonfleet), Lang ended his Hollywood career with two bitter indictments of the Free Press and the criminal justice system, pillars of democracy. Produced on shoestring budgets in 1956, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt lashed out at yellow journalism and capital punishment with a vitriol not seen since M, but not as eloquently.
When Lang returned to Berlin in 1958, he went virtually unrecognized in the capital that he once took by storm. He also returned to filmmaking when a Berlin producer offered him creative control on a remake of a picture originally stolen from him by rival director Joe May, an India diptych The Tiger of Bengal/The Indian Tomb (Der Tiger von Eschnapur/Das Indische Grabmal) that ex-wife Thea Von Harbou had penned in the early ’20s. He followed that up with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die Tausand Augen von Doktor Mabuse, 1960), which brought the Mabuse saga to a successful but not altogether satisfying conclusion. It would be the last film he completed until his death in 1976.
The director always claimed that his personal life was one thing, his work another, and he pretty much succeeded in not having the two overlap too catastrophically. Never faithful to a single woman in his life, Lang enjoyed the romantic company of Kay Francis, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Bennett, had countless other affairs and a couple of wives, one of which he is said to have murdered, and drove at least one rejected starlet to suicide. The most creative of his many female collaborators was Nazi sympathizer Thea Von Harbou (screenwriter on Destiny, Metropolis and M), who stayed behind when Lang fled Berlin in 1933-34. A tireless self-aggrandizer, he spent most of his last few otherwise unproductive years in Hollywood embellishing the Lang legend.
The model for the classic cliché of director as punishing dictator, he could be remarkably charming, when he wanted to be, and was reputedly a tender and passive lover (despite rumors of kinky sadomasochistic practices that dogged him for much of his career). A deep thinker (a rare commodity in Hollywood), his work exhibited a surprising disconnect with human emotion, a charge often leveled at another of cinema’s deep thinkers, Stanley Kubrick. Yet it was Lang’s social consciousness that was truly inspiring, and which makes his Hollywood career of greater value that his more artsy stint in Germany, (though none of his Hollywood creations are as visually impressive as Metropolis or M). His genuine feeling for the workings of the criminal mind, antipathy for the death penalty, mob violence and sensationalistic journalism, and enthusiasm for other cultures and time periods marked him as fundamentally liberal, despite the monocle and aristocratic bearing. His approach to filmmaking in the Hollywood years was too staid to sustain his popular reputation into the 21st century, but his critical stature remains untarnished to this day.
I am indebted to Patrick McGilligan and his recent definitive biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (New York: St. Martin’s Press 1997) for several of the biographical details in the above essay.
Initial German career
Hilde Warren and Death (Hilde Warren und Der Tod) (1917) Also performer
Der Herr Der Liebe (1919) Also performer
The Half Caste (Halbblut) (1919) Also screenwriter
Spiders (Die Spinnen) (1919)
Das Wandernde Bild (1920) Also screenwriter
Destiny (Der Müde Tod) (1921) Also screenwriter
The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal) (1921)
Vier um die Frau (1921) Also screenwriter
Dr Mabuse: The Gambler (Dr Mabuse: Der Spieler) (1922)
Die Nibelungen (comprising Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge) (1924) Also screenwriter
Metropolis (1926) Also screenwriter
Spies (Spione) (1928) Also producer, screenwriter and story
Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond aka Girl in the Moon aka By Rocket to the Moon) (1929) Also producer and co-screenwriter
M (1931) Also screenwriter
The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse aka The Last Will of Dr Mabuse aka Crimes of Dr Mabuse) (1933) Also producer and screenwriter
Transition in France
Liliom (1934) Also screenwriter
Fury (1936) Also screenwriter
You Only Live Once (1937)
You and Me (1938) Also producer
The Return of Frank James (1940)
Man Hunt (1941)
Western Union (1941)
Hangmen Also Die (1943) Also producer, adaptation, story
Ministry of Fear (1944)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
Scarlet Street (1945) Also producer
Cloak and Dagger (1946)
Secret Beyond the Door (1948) Also producer
American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950)
The House by the River (1950)
Clash by Night (1952)
Rancho Notorious (1952)
The Big Heat (1953)
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Human Desire (1954)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Return to the Fatherland
The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) (1958) Also screenwriter
The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal/Journey to the Lost City) (1959)
The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die Tausend Augen Des Dr Mabuse/Diabolical Dr Mabuse/Secret of Dr Mabuse) (1960) Also producer, screenwriter
Die Peitsche (1916) Dir: Adolf Gärtner (Screenwriter)
Wedding in the Eccentric Club (Die Hochzeit in Exzentric Club) (1917) Dir: Joe May (Uncredited screenwriter)
Die Bettler – G.M.B.H. (1918) Dir: Alwin Neuß (Screenwriter)
Die Rache ist Mein (1918) Dir: Alwin Neuß (Screenwriter)
Die Frau Mit Den Orchideen (1919) Dir: Otto Rippert (Screenwriter)
Die Pest in Florenz (1919) Dir: Otto Rippert (Screenwriter)
Lilith und Ly (1919) Dir: Erich Kober (Screenwriter)
Mistress of the World (Die Herrin Der Welt) (1919) Dirs: Joseph Klein and Joe May (Assistant Director)
Totentanz (1919) Dir: Otto Rippert (Screenwriter)
Wolkenbau und Flimmerstern (1919) Director unknown (Screenwriter)
M (1951) Dir: Joseph Losey (From original Lang screenplay)
Hollywood Goes A-Fishin’ (1953) Documentary (Performer)
Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard (Performer)
Begegnung Mit Fritz Lang (1964) Dir: Peter Fleischmann (Performer)
75 Years of Cinema Museum (1972) Dirs: Roberto Guerra & Elia Hershon (Performer)
The Exiles (1989) Dir: Richard Kaplan (Performer)
Armour, Robert, Fritz Lang, New York: Twayne Pub., 1972
Bogdonavich, Peter, Fritz Lang in America, New York: Praeger Inc., 1967
Clarens, Carlos, Crime Movies, New York: W.W. Norton, 1980
Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977
__________, The Haunted Screen, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973
Hart, Henry, “Fritz Lang Today”, Films in Review, June 1956
Jensen, Paul M., The Cinema of Fritz Lang, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1969
Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film, Princeton Univ. Press, 1947
Shaw, Dan, “Lang Contra Vengeance: The Big Heat“, Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 29, No.4, December 1995
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, New York: Morrow Paperbacks, 1975
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Kitsch, Sensation – Kultur und Film by Michael Koller
Destiny by Michael Koller
The Woman in the Window by Girish Shambu
The Blue Gardenia by Sam Ishii-Gonzalès
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse by Michael Koller
Woman in the Moon by Michael Price
Felicitous Rooms: Fritz Lang’s House by the River by David Cairns
Compiled by Albert Fung
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
A dedicated site to the film Metropolis containing links and pics.
Fritz Lang: Master of Darkness
A bfi feature site on Lang.
Film Directors: Articles on the Internet
Plenty of articles to be found here.
The Films of Fritz Lang
Large page on 25 Lang films. Each film is explored through a discussion of it’s themes, visual style and architecture.
Fritz Lang’s M
A page with some info on M
Fritz Lang Papers
From the American Heritage Digital Center Collections. Contains lesser known information about Lang.
Take a look at some images from the film.