Monday, August 4, 2014

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

One of cinema’s greatest directors in indisputably Fritz Lang. Born in Vienna during the fin-de-siècle as Friedrich Christian Anton Lang, he helped create the crime genre, serial killer film, German Expressionism, the fantasy epic, the science fiction epic, made some of the most important anti-fascist films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and helped shape the film noir cycle of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He allegedly travelled the world, studied painting in Paris, and served in WWI in Russia and Romania before beginning a career in cinema. Soon after the war, he found a job at Germany’s most prestigious studio, Ufa, and began writing and directing films – many alongside his wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou. Lang was forced to flee Nazi Germany due to his outspoken nature and Jewish heritage (there is some controversy surrounding exactly how much time it took him to leave) and made one film in France before beginning a lengthy Hollywood career. He ran the gamut from silent cinema to early talkies, westerns, war films, crime cinema and film noir, science fiction, fantasy, adventure epics, psychological melodrama, and more. He went on to influence filmmakers of his own time – as diverse as Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel – while helping to set the course for an entire century of cinema.

German Silent Films
Lang’s work can be roughly divided up into four periods: his German silent films (1919 to 1929), his European sound films (1931 to 1934), his American war, western, and crime films (1936 to 1950), and his denouement (1959 to 1960). Of his German silent films, Halbblut (1919) and Der Herr der Liebe (1919) are lost, while Harakiri (1919) and Das wandernde Bild aka The Wandering Shadow (1920) are fairly mediocre tales of troubled women. Vier um die Frau aka Four Around a Woman (1921) continues this theme, as a husband becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating on him and begins spying on her. These themes of espionage and paranoia would become a constant throughout his work, while the plot of two-part adventure-thriller The Spiders (1919) revolves around the idea of an underworld criminal gang. Lang would use this repeatedly throughout his German films.

The popularity of The Spiders gave him confidence and Lang soon transitioned to silent epics and made some of the first masterpieces of his career. In Destiny (1921), a fatalistic, three-part film about a woman’s attempts to beat death and reclaim her lost lover. She moves through historical and geographical locations, learning important (if somewhat heavy-handed) lessons about love and mortality.

Lang’s first true classic – and the very first crime epic of cinema – is Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), a visionary film about paranoia, surveillance, and evil. Dr. Mabuse is a mastermind who uses hypnosis and surveillance to control the criminal underworld, while a stubborn policeman attempts to track him down. This is a unique glimpse of Europe between the two world wars and also serves as a portent of the rise of Nazi Germany and things to come. Mabuse is perhaps cinema’s first master villain and provides an unsettling introduction to his real-life totalitarian counterparts, such as Hitler, Franco, and Stalin.

This was followed up with one of the first filmic fantasy epics, Die Nibelungen (1924). Like The Spiders, this is a two part tale of adventure, but it is also a more mature presentation of fantasy and myth and remains one of the only filmic adaptations of Germanic mythology. Lang’s use of dizzying special effects and enormous sets – inspired by D.W. Griffith – would rise to even greater heights in his next film, Metropolis (1927). He followed the first crime epic and the first fantasy epic with the first science fiction epic and – by that point – his first major masterpiece and one of the most influential films of ‘20s cinema. A futuristic society has transformed the working class into tormented slaves. An upper class young man and beautiful activist team up and attempt to put things right. The visionary look of the film has been hugely influential – it was also the most expensive silent film of the time.

His last two silent films remained in the crime and sci-fi genres. Falling somewhere between The Spiders and Dr. Mabuse is Lang’s next film, Spies (1928), another look at an underworld criminal conspiracy with some excellent set pieces. Woman in the Moon (1929) is a dazzling, if somewhat slow look at space travel and exploration. Though these are two of his more underrated films, understandably ignored beside Mabuse and Metropolis, they both have plenty to offer.

European Sound Films
Arguably Lang’s biggest masterpiece was his first foray into sound filmmaking – M (1931). One of the first cinematic examinations of a serial killer, M continues to examine the themes of Dr. Mabuse, The Spiders, and Spies in the sense that order is largely dispersed by an underground criminal network and by mob justice in a kangaroo court. This look at hysteria and paranoia is one of the finest works of cinema and is also an evolving glimpse into pre-WWII German society. The reasons for police raids, media frenzy, and government surveillance are the horrible child killings of Hans Beckert (played brilliantly by Peter Lorre), though the police are ineffectual and the citizens are forced to team up with criminals to protect their children. This is ultimately a film about the importance of individual agency and the danger of succumbing to mass hysteria, a theme Lang would return to many times throughout his career.

Lang also created a sequel to Dr. MabuseThe Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1922) – which continues to address many of the issues raised in M. Though Dr. Mabuse has been in a mental hospital for many years (linking him somewhat to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and dies, his crime ring grows stronger. Mabuse appears to possess his cronies, and his ghostly, supernatural evil becomes a pervasive tool of surveillance and manipulation. This was his most overt comment on Nazism, which was quickly noticed by the Nazi Party, who banned the film. Goebbels allegedly offered the role of head Nazi filmmaker to Lang despite this, though he soon fled the country.

He made one film in France before leaving for the US, the ineffectual Liliom (1934). Based on a play, this fantastical, light-hearted effort concerns a carnival worker who dies, but is brought back to life. It doesn’t fit in with Lang’s work of the period and would soon be overshadowed by his US films. However, it was one of Lang’s favorite films and deserves a watch for its surreal elements – including an appearance by surreal writer and poet Antonin Artaud in a side role.

American Films: Crime and Film Noir
Lang made more than 20 films during his time in America, though these can be split into three genres – crime cinema or film noir, westerns, and war films. More than any other genre, Lang made crime films and his early works were often about a series of events that transformed a decent, average person into a bitter criminal. 1936’s Fury, starring Spencer Tracy, is similar to M in the sense that it concerns mob justice. A wrongly convicted man is nearly killed in a lynch mob and is determined to get justice – by framing the mob. In You Only Live Once (1937), a love affair between a criminal and a lawyer’s secretary makes both of their lives spiral out of control into a web of violence.

You and Me (1938) also concerns criminals; a store owner hires convicts, hoping to aid in their rehabilitation. A love affair develops between the two, but when the man discovers his fiancée has been lying to him, he plans to return to his old ways and rob the store. Bizarrely, this film has a few musical numbers from the great Kurt Weill, which is perhaps more confusing in a Hollywood film than it would have been in a German work. Though he is uncredited, Lang co-directed Moontide (1942) alongside noir queen Ida Lupino, French superstar Jean Gabin, and Claude Rains. A boatman believes he accidentally committed a murder while intoxicated, but rescues a woman trying to kill herself. A romance develops, but his possessive friend is determined to get rid of her.

Two of Lang’s most famous films noir star Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson. In The Woman in the Window (1944), a criminology professor becomes accidentally involved with a beautiful woman and kills her violent paramour in self-defense. Their attempts to hide the body and destroy the clues are clumsy and they become targeted by a greedy blackmailer, while the police are moving closer to the truth in the meantime. In Scarlet Street (1945), Bennett and Robinson reprise similar roles. Robinson plays a down-on-his-luck painter in an unhappy marriage, who meets a femme fatale. Believing him to be wealthy and a famous artist, she follows her abusive boyfriend’s advice and soon wraps him around her finger and convinces him to buy her an apartment. When she sells his paintings under her name, she initiates a spiral of madness, obsession, and murder.

Lang united with Joan Bennett for Secret Beyond the Door (1947), a noir retelling of Bluebeard also inspired by Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In the similarly psychological House by the River (1950), a crazed writer kills his maid when she rejects his sexual advances. The murder inspires him and he soon frames his disfigured, but much kinder brother. In Clash by Night (1952), a woman returns home to a small village after years of bitter disappointment in New York, but she has trouble settling down. In The Blue Gardenia (1953), a woman fears she may have killed a man in self-defense while drunk, and in one of the finest and most violent noir efforts ever made, The Big Heat (1953), a rough cop gets vengeance on a crime syndicate.

Human Desire (1954), his second effort with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame and one of the first films made about returning Korean War vets, concerns a soldier who has an affair with his friend’s wife that leads to violence and murder. While the City Sleeps (1956) focuses on media corruption and the struggle for power at a local newspaper, all while an anonymous serial killer stalks the streets of New York.  Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) looks at corruption in the legal system, when a writer frames himself for murder in order to expose corruption at the District Attorney’s office.

Many of Lang’s noir and crime efforts deal with inherent corruption – whether it is in the media, legal system, or in mob justice – and with the machinery of society that turns decent people into criminals and murderers. His films are some of the most scathing of the period and represent a critique of fascism, the hypocrisy of American democracy, McCarthyism, and frank depictions of an almost cynical sexuality. Despite his reputation for being difficult and tyrannical, he worked with many of the best actors of the period, often in multiple films: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Ida Lupino, Jean Gabin, Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson, Michael Redgrave, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Dana Andrews, George Sanders, and others.

American Films: War Movies and Westerns
Lang didn’t make a lot of Westerns or adventure films while in the US. His first, The Return of Frank James (1940), is unsurprisingly a tale of vengeance. The brother of Jesse James leaves the anonymity of farm life to exact revenge on his brother’s killers, though some Pinkerton detectives and a female reporter are on his trail. In Western Union (1941), a retired outlaw has to face off against his outlaw brother and a band of Indians in this somewhat light-hearted shoot ‘em up flick. The best of these is Rancho Notorious (1952), which stars Lang’s countrywoman Marlene Dietrich. A rancher seeks revenge for the death of his wife and follows her murderers to a strange ranch that doubles as a criminal hideout. There’s also the somewhat related Moonfleet (1955), a 19th-century tale of adventure and swashbuckling. I suspect that this is the least regarded of Lang’s later films, though it seems a shame to take what is otherwise a colorful, engaging romp out of context.

He made far more war-themed films in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Like the early war-time works of Hitchcock Man Hunt (1941), Lang’s first anti-Nazi film has a British setting and sensibility. A famous big game hunter stalks Hitler and is in turn stalked across the UK by a high ranking Nazi and his cronies. A beautiful young prostitute is the only person who can help him, though she doesn’t realize how dangerous the situation is. Confirm or Deny (1941), which Lang co-directed but remains uncredited for, also had a British setting: a journalist and a teletype operator fall in love during the London Blitz while struggling for survival.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943) is the first of his films loosely based on a real WWII event – the Czech assassination of Gestapo head Reinhardt Heydrich. Co-written by Bertolt Brecht, this film focuses on the assassin’s escape and attempts to hide, while Nazis round up hundreds of hostages, preparing to kill them all. Ministry of Fear (1944), another British-Hitchcockian toned film and based on a Graham Greene novel, concerns a man who is released from a mental asylum after accidentally killing his wife (he fails to prevent her suicide). On his way back to freedom, he gets caught up in a ring of Nazi conspirators and falls in love with an escaped member of the resistance. Cloak and Dagger (1946) is somewhat of a reworking of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940). An intelligence agent is sent to rescue a scientist and hopefully prevent the development of German atomic weapons. American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950) is perhaps the least of these war films and concerns a soldier stranded in Asia who keeps an eye on Japanese activities.

The end of Lang’s career is oddly a throwback to its start. He made two European films at the end of the ‘50s known as The Indian EpicThe Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and The Indian Tomb (1959) – a final throwback to his early two-part epics. These colorful adventure films with a hefty dose of romance are actually a remake of a script Lang and then-wife Harbou wrote in the ‘20s, though the project was given to director Joe May. These West German-Italian-French coproduction are like a blend of comic book, soap opera, epic fantasy, and high camp, shot in eye-ball blasting Technicolor with plenty of Lang’s fantastic, huge sets.

His last film – he retired out of necessity due to impending blindness – was a final follow up for that beloved arch-criminal, Dr. Mabuse. The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) is oddly set in a former Nazi hotel and ties together much of his later career with his early work, as well as the American themes that obsessed him – surveillance, revenge, mob justice, media corruption, and hypocrisy – making this a fitting final piece of the puzzle. Coincidentally, Mabuse had become a somewhat popular European series with unconnected efforts from other directors.

To learn more about Lang, obviously watch his films – and check out Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), an homage to the great German director where he appears as himself. Also recommended are a number of excellent books: Patrick McGilligan’s biography, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Peter Bogdonavich’s Fritz Lang in America (from a series of interviews), Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang and The Haunted Screen, and Siegfried Kracauer’s classic, From Caligari to Hitler.

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