“For me, cinema is a vice. I love it infinitely.” — Fritz Lang
More than a career retrospective, the Harvard Film Archive’s Complete Fritz Lang unrolls as a visionary panorama of what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.” Lang’s purview encompasses police states and criminal networks, surveillance systems and media manipulations, information economies and mob rule. From Metropolis’ totemic skyscrapers to While the City Sleeps’ glassy television studios, M’s aerial view of society’s response to a shocking crime to The Big Heat’s hard-boiled report on a criminal society, Lang’s films grasp the twentieth century’s organizing structures of power and perception through an exquisitely controlled style owing more to architectural design than literary imagination. As Frieda Grafe writes, “Lang is not interested in a reproduction of a reality one has already seen. He wants to reveal, with his instrument, the real power of forms.”
Born into a solidly bourgeois family in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Fritz Lang (1890 - 1976) studied art and relished Europe’s café culture as a young man. He enlisted in the Austrian army in 1915 and began writing film scripts during a period of convalescence. Several sold to influential producer Joe May who Lang followed to Berlin in time for the armistice. With its air of experimentation and decadence—to say nothing of its burgeoning film industry—Lang flourished in the Weimar Republic. Something of the epoch’s essential insecurity would remain lodged in all his films, attuned as they are to the underlying instability of identity, power relations, and society itself. With the key collaboration of his wife and scenarist Thea von Harbou, Lang vaulted to the forefront of German directors on the strength of mythic epics (Destiny, Die Nibelungen) and sharply modern crime films (The Spiders, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler). After nearly bankrupting the Ufa studio with Metropolis, Lang went independent for Spies before boldly venturing into the sound era with two inexhaustible studies of society in crisis (M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). The second of these was completed as both the Weimar Republic and Lang’s marriage crumbled: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was ultimately banned by Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry for presenting criminal acts “so detailed and fascinating” as to tempt copycats—even as the Nazis themselves seemed to be following the film’s script by taking advantage of the Reichstag Fire to secure their “empire of crime.”
The actual terms of the director’s exit from Nazi Germany remains the subject of controversy, but after a brief stopover in Paris, where he directed the delicate fantasy Liliom, he decamped for Hollywood. Within a year he emerged with one of the most caustic portraits of American demagoguery ever to be produced by a Hollywood studio (Fury), setting the tone for a remarkably corrosive body of work. The many distinct cycles of Lang’s Hollywood years advise against simply dividing his career into German and American periods. After the social-problem pictures of the 1930s (Fury, You Only Live Once, You and Me) came ardent anti-Nazi thrillers (Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, The Ministry of Fear, Cloak and Dagger), psychological chamber pieces (The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Secret Beyond the Door), media-obsessed exposés (The Blue Gardenia, The Big Heat, While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), as well as more exotic specimens such as House by the River, Rancho Notorious, and Moonfleet. Lang zigzagged between different producers, studios, and genres during his Hollywood years, burning many bridges in the process. And yet in spite of the evident contraction from the dizzying heights of Metropolis to a crummy two-picture deal with RKO at the tail end of the studio era, Lang’s artistic powers remained undiminished. If anything, the late films are even more severe in their minimalist rigor, with form and theme perfectly aligned in what Jacques Rivette praised as Lang’s “world of necessity.”
“Around each of Lang’s meticulous images hovers the wispy presence of movies yet unmade,” Geoffrey O’Brien wrote of Spies, and Lang gave every appearance of being haunted by his own films, obsessively returning to key arrangements and figures. Style itself becomes a kind of specter looming over the particulars of any given plot—thus Lang’s supreme importance for the young directors of the nouvelle vague. “For Astruc, Rivette, Rohmer or Douchet, Lang is no longer just like other filmmakers,” wrote Raymond Bellour. “Not that he is the greatest; it’s quite another matter: Lang embodies, in a sense, the very possibility of cinema—what is ambiguously called direction or mise-en-scene.” In other words, the central conceptions of the politique des auteurs owe their life to the fierce lucidity and inexorable logic of Lang’s images.
That the director took extraordinary care in his direction is a matter of biographical record. A long line of former collaborators denounced Lang’s imperious behavior and mystifying exactitude as mere megalomania, yet from the comfort of our seats we might observe the revealing slippage that occurs between the mastery of the characters (often villainous, always illusory) and that of the film technique. Dr. Mabuse is only one of many onscreen proxies through which Lang tested the limits of control; his American protagonists were driven to manipulate perception for more narrowly personal reasons, namely the Langian yin-yang of guilt and revenge. One senses that Lang saw cinema as a vice precisely because it indulged this predilection for playing God, and yet as his films enter the Cold War era the desire for control begins to be overtaken by its opposite, the fear of losing one’s identity. The forty-year span of the Mabuse films is ever instructive: from the telepathic domination over time and space exerted in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler to the panoptic surveillance mechanism employed in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, the figure of mastery is increasingly decentralized and dehumanized.
Lang’s is finally a cinema of questions: Who is the real protagonist? By what logic do these events cohere? Do these images reveal or conceal? The only certainty is conflict. A battery of French critics representing Cahiers du Cinéma once asked Lang, “Does guilt preoccupy you in your films?” He responded by reframing the question: “Let’s just call it the battle against destiny. I believe that it is necessary to fight destiny. It is the battle which is important, not the goal.” In the final analysis there can be no other explanation for Lang’s exceptional life in movies. — Max Goldberg, writer and frequent contributor to CinemaScope
Due to limited print availability, two of Fritz Lang’s early films The Wandering Image (Das wandernde Bild) and Four Around a Woman (Vier um die Frau) will be screened from rare archival 35mm copies later this year.
This program is presented in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Boston.
Special thanks to: Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, Karin Oehlenschläger—Goethe-Institut Boston; Calac Nogueira—Raio Verde Filmes; Carmen Prokopiak—Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung ; Caitlin Robertson—Fox; Kyle Westphal—Criterion Pictures; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film and Television Archive; Anja Göbel—Deutsche Kinemathek; Fleur Buckley—British Film Institute; Brad Deane, Samuel La France—TIFF Bell Lightbox; Daniel Bish—George Eastman House; Regina Schlagnitweit—Austrian Filmmuseum; David Shepard.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Germany 1927, digital video, b/w, silent, 150 min. German intertitles with English subtitles
With his most successful silent film, Lang not only created a durable template for science-fiction cinema in the decades to follow, but also helped inspire the dystopian sci-fi blockbusters so popular today which echo Metropolis’ keen anxiety about the future of technology and its place in society. Yet, while recent examples of the genre seem most concerned about the environment, spectacle or surveillance, Lang’s film reveals a dread of the coming of automation that will not only place technology at the heart of social interaction but will further the gap between rich and poor by creating a plutocratic elite. The film promises that “the mediator between the head and the hand will be the heart,” yet is this prophecy the harbinger of an egalitarian society or a recipe for authoritarianism? Exploiting this disquieting ambivalence, Metropolis potentlydiagnoses the conflicting political currents of Weimar Germany and the innumerable fictional and factual societies it predicted. This version includes the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
From its bravura opening camera movement receding, as if in shock, from a crooked cop’s suicide, The Big Heat offers one of Lang’s most relentless depictions of the enveloping world of crime, starring an especially gruff Glenn Ford as an implacable cop tracing a series of killings back to a powerful syndicate. After the murder of his wife, he turns in his badge to pursue what Lang called a “private campaign” against crime; as ever in Lang’s filmography, though, vigilantism is less a sign of heroism than hopelessness. The Big Heat’sspasms of violence and finely delineated shades of corruption forge an especially damaging portrait of the violence and anxiety pervading fifties’ America. A dark monument to cruelty and power abuse, The Big Heat is buttressed by the striking presence of Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin, whose quivering lip provides Lang with one of his most indelible images of sadism.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds,
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 84 min
Insightfully noted by critic Dave Kehr as “the epochal meeting of two masters of Catholic guilt and paranoia,” Lang’s Graham Greene adaptation rivals Spies as a dizzying catalog of feints and false leads. Yet Greene, who previously championed Fury as an “extraordinary achievement,” scorned this adaption, and Lang himself was soured by the unyielding control over the script wielded by producer-writer Seton Miller. Nevertheless, from its very first image of a closely-watched clock, Ministry of Fear winds through a twisting an unmistakably Langean maze of seances, phony suicides, and blind men who can see. Ray Milland’s nervous and enigmatic protagonist proves especially susceptible to random twists of fate in this most capricious of Lang’s anti-Nazi thrillers: a fitting overture to the increasingly pervasive threat permeating the director’s post-war films.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walter Reyer
West Germany/France/Italy 1959, 35mm, color, 97 min. German with English subtitles
Nearly forty years after Lang and Thea von Harbou wrote the script for Das indische Grabmal, a West German producer offered Lang the opportunity to finally direct his Indian epic, in two parts. Returning to his homeland after years of exile, Lang described a kind of full circle with his earliest silent epics by constructing a spectacular, glittering fantasia steeped in comic book action, soap opera melodrama and an ornate Technicolor luster. Lang’s India is unabashedly an Occidental exotic dream world of temples, tigers, jewels and magic where one man’s passions can be expressed on a grand, ornamental scale and affect an entire cosmos. In Part One, the Maharajah’s desire for Seetha, a beautiful dancer is blocked by Seetha's love for a Canadian architect, unleashing an array of furies, both primal and otherworldly. Just as Westerners blatantly fill all of the Indian roles, their skeptical, scientific mindset also encroaches upon the painted, mystical fairy tale world. In order to reconcile this rupture, the forbidden lovers must escape the prince’s outmoded, luxurious palace of desire and control.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walter Reyer
West Germany/France/Italy 1959, 35mm, color, 101 min. German with English subtitles
In the sequel to The Tiger of Eschnapur, the lovers of Fritz Lang’s first installment are now swept more forcibly along an adventure with supernatural detours and horror film annexes. Lang’s childlike fascination is both complicated and heightened by hypnotic set design and increasingly dizzying architecture. Traversing deeper into the jealous Maharajah’s obsessive psyche, the pursued Seetha and Harald are aided by Harald’s sister and her architect husband who must secretly investigate a labyrinth of inner chambers while officially designing the ultimate “Tomb of Love.” Meanwhile, the Maharajah’s trusted brother devises a coup d’état and has his own plans for the desired dancer whose seductive powers culminate in an exotic dance with a beautifully faux cobra. With no irony or pretension, Lang’s Indian duet transcends average B-movie kitsch and blossoms into its own uniquely convoluted Langian dystopia in which the darkest characters perform some of the most selfless deeds and paradisiacal temples turn out to be tombs.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Lil Dagover, Niels Prien, Georg John
Germany 1919, 35mm, b/w, silent, 80 min. Dutch intertitles with English subtitles
On the heels of The Spiders, Part I and with much of the same cast, Harakiri adapts the Madame Butterfly tale with names changed and slightly altered roles. Lang’s Butterfly is O-Take-San—played by Dr. Caligari’s and Dr. Mabuse’s Lil Dagover—while her freewheeling lover is Scandinavian rather than American. Rising from his more minor role in the original is a ghoulish priest whose invocation of a wrathful Buddha appears as distinctly European as the cast. He malevolently pursues the ostracized, lovelorn O-Take-San from nunnery to teahouse, through the flowers, screens and silks of the beautifully rendered Japanese village which Lang had meticulously constructed in Germany. Lost for decades until its 1987 discovery, Harakiri‘s coiled melodrama and supernaturally tinged exoticism resemble a light pastel sketch of the more trenchantly drawn visions of Lang’s later work.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Peter Lorre, Ellen Windmann, Inge Landgut
Germany 1931, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. German with English subtitles
There is nothing tentative in M: not the use of sound to expand the visible frame, nor the implied links between mass culture and mass murder, nor the canny deployment of the serial killer story to reveal the organizing structures of a world in which, as Anton Kaes puts it, “nothing [is] left to chance but death.” Embodied with an uncanny and twitching malaise by Brecht actor Peter Lorre, the child murderer is himself childish: a whistling flaneur who seems less a Mabusian master of destinies than a slave to his own dark impulses. For much of the film he is a cipher for the dual investigations of police and criminals, their respective regimes of detection and surveillance converging in a darkly prescient picture of a law beyond the law. Footage of Lorre’s climactic confession would later be incorporated into the infamous Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew as “proof” of the Jewish actor’s leading audiences towards a dangerously ambiguous reading of legal justice. Print courtesy of Kino International.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Tyrone Power, Micheline Presle, Tom Ewell
US 1950, 35mm, color, 105 min
Among Lang's rarest American films is his rousing combat film about American soldiers stranded in the Philippines during World War II who choose to join the anti-Japanese resistance. Tyrone Power gives an untypical naturalistic performance as a navy ensign who finds a new direction to his career and life fighting a non-conventional war and finding love amongst the ruins of war. Shot on location in the islands, American Guerrilla in the Philippines, like Western Union, offers an alternate, marginal perspective on American history.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus,
Germany 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 178 min. German intertitles with English subtitles
The brief prologue of Lang’s first independent production condenses the spy genre to a cascade of iconographic images: hands pilfering a secret document from a safe, a motorcyclist’s daring escape, newspaper headlines reporting the crime, the murder of a diplomat followed swiftly by the dispatching of the crime’s sole witness, and, irreducibly, the smiling visage of the criminal mastermind behind it all. Like that of Mabuse, Haghi’s power is a function of his ability to observe and control events across time and space, an emergent form of panopticism Lang details, almost lovingly, with crisp insert shots and a breathless pacing. With each discrete image threatening to pull the film into its own orbit, Spies gives ideal expression to the director’s insight that modernity can only be grasped as a series of converging simultaneities—an essentially conspiratorial vision forty years ahead of Jacques Rivette and Thomas Pynchon’s similarly elaborate narratives.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker
Germany 1922, 35mm, b/w, silent, 270 min. German intertitles with English subtitles
Lang’s visionary silent epic introduces his most enduring emblem of modern life, the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s villain is introduced shuffling a set of cards depicting his many disguises, ingenious Feuillade-like costumes that allow him to slip by unnoticed as—apropos events then overtaking the Weimar Republic—he manipulates the stock market, undermines currency and beguiles Berlin’s decadent demimonde. Explicitly positioned as a representative figure (the first half of the film is subtitled An Image of Our Times), Mabuse draws upon technological advances in communications and synchronization to exert control over time and space—a totalizing form of power that mirrors the work of the film director. “Once the universe has been struck by Mabuse’s vision, a certain unreality pervades it,” Chris Fujiwara writes. “Devoted to negation, Mabuse sees—and spreads to others’ vision—only hollowness, absence, delusion, and destruction.”
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper
US 1940, 35mm, color, 92 min
Lang's oft professed love of the Western is everywhere apparent in his spirited first foray into the genre, as well as his first color film, a creatively embellished portrait of Frank James as a revenge-bent yet righteous hero at war against the anti-democratic expansion of the railroad. With Henry Fonda's carefully understated Frank James as a thoughtful, even ruminative, action hero, Lang continues the Western's rich tradition of critically engaging the facts and legends of American history and lore. Especially striking is the presence and role of a winsome Gene Tierney, in her screen debut, as a eager reporter who learns to appreciate the deep power of the press.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetzke,
Germany 1921, 35mm, b/w, silent, 85 min. German intertitles with English subtitles
Little-seen today, Destiny has had an outsized influence on film history. Not only was its visual style crucial to establishing the look of German expressionist cinema, but the film additionally had a major impact on Hitchcock, Dreyer, Buñuel and Michael Powell. The German title translates as “Weary Death,” and the film is made up of three episodes, each with an extravagantly different setting in time and place, and a framing story, in which a young woman begs Death to return her lover, which he agrees to do if she can save the life of another young man whose life is in danger. Each episode thus depicts the woman’s futile attempts to change unswerving Destiny. The film’s unshakable fatalism, often seen as an echo of the catastrophe of World War I, would shape almost all of Lang’s subsequent work.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett,
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 102 min
Working with unusual creative control under the auspices of the independent production company, Diana Pictures, Lang reconvened the cast of The Woman in the Window for this remarkably harsh adaptation of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. Stripped of his earlier character’s semblance of dignity, Edward G. Robinson’s browbeaten cashier and amateur painter is readily deceived by Joan Bennett’s femme fatale and Dan Duryea’s reptilian pimp. A masterpiece of formal construction in which “nothing takes place only once” (Tom Conley), Scarlet Street’s incisive mise-en-scene inscribes the pathological drama inside a maze of misleading appearances. The film’s barely concealed elements of masochism and voyeurism outraged the censors, and yet not even the Legion of Decency could have devised a more punitive denouement.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer
US 1952, 35mm, color, 89 min
Characteristically, the most personal of Lang’s Westerns centers on a hideout rather than the open range. A cowboy seeks his fiancée’s killer in a group of outlaw taking refuges at Marlene Dietrich’s bandit ranch, his thirst for revenge unleashing a maelstrom of wayward desires. With its garishly painted sets and Dietrich’s arch performance, Rancho Notorious boldly eschews naturalism in pursuing its tragic moral of “hate, murder, revenge.” “The world of the film is a closed one,” writes Lotte Eisner, “in which moral alternatives are limited, in which there is literally no where to go.”
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Oskar Beregi,
Germany 1933, 35mm, b/w, 122 min. German with English subtitles
Ten years after Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,Lang’s paradigmatic criminal mastermind remains locked in an asylum, furiously writing instructions for the dismantling of civil society. The secretive and unbroken transmission of these instructions is the mystery facing M detective Lohmann here returning to face nothing less than an “empire of crime.” Notable given Hitler’s concurrent ascent, the film focuses less on the super criminal’s concentration of power than on the widespread susceptibility to his influence. As Nicole Brenez writes, “The figure of evil disperses. One can no longer assign it a body; it has become an idea which transmits itself.” Lang employs a dazzling arsenal of formal techniques to realize this frightening new totality, a terminal vision of society that ends with the camera itself locked in the asylum.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Paul Richter, Margarethe Schön,
Germany 1924-25, 35mm, b/w, silent, 280 min. German intertitles with English subtitles
Fritz Lang’s epic two-part saga, written by his wife Thea von Harbou and based on an ancient myth—which also inspired Wagner’s Ring cycle—is a celebration of Germanic nationalism and an idealized view of the past that Lang would ultimately reject when he fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood. For Part I, Siegfried, Lang employs a painterly style, creating symmetry of figures within elaborate, architectural tableaux of monumental proportions that speak to the moral code governing the hero’s actions. The intentional austerity of Part I gives way to a dynamic sense of movement in Part II, Kriemhild’s Revenge, in which the violence becomes frenzied and revenge-driven, with spectacularly staged battle sequences and special effects. Shot entirely in the Ufa studio with elaborate sets and meticulous production design, Lang’s incredible saga remains a visually stunning composition of light and shadow.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt
US 1950, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
In House by the River, Lang brought the Gothic sensibility so prominent in Die Nibelungen and Destiny to America. The film, with its tale of the aftermath of a sordid small-town murder at the turn of the twentieth century, is an important link between the dark melodramas of forties Hollywood and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). As in Laughton’s film, the river is omnipresent visually, and its flow represents both the promise and the threat of time: everything passes, but some things resurface that should remain buried. In Lang’s hands, the “American Gothic” on display emanates not from the supernatural but from a keen sense of moral bankruptcy.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Sylvia Sidney, George Raft,
US 1938, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
Lang united with the great playwright Bertolt Brecht, as well as Brecht's regular composer Kurt Weill, for this unusual gangster comedy, and part musical, whose unrelenting critique of American capitalism is emphatically delivered by a Brechtian Greek chorus that bursts unexpectedly into occasional song. Among Lang's greatest—and most unusual—Hollywood films, the still overlooked You and Me was savagely critiqued upon its release for its unconventional intentions and approach to the gangster film, with a fabulous cast of the finest studio heavies led by George Raft, tamed by Sylvia Sydney and together demonstrating the captivating, self-reflective powers of Brecht's remarkable distanciation techniques.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine,
US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 80 min
Lang’s final American film is a nearly clinical account of a world beyond justice, where even social crusaders rely upon craven manipulation. Dana Andrews plays a fledgling writer who delays his engagement to Joan Fontaine’s heiress in order to aid her publisher father’s campaign against capital punishment. The two men reverse engineer a murder, planting evidence to elicit a false guilty verdict—but as ever in Lang’s ambivalent universe, the difference between imagining a crime and committing it may not be so great as it first appears. The film was championed by the young directors of the nouvelle vague, with Jacques Rivette particularly impressed by the diagrammatic quality of Lang’s direction: “Here one breathes, if I may venture so, the rarefied air of the summits, but at risk of asphyxiation.”
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda,
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 86 min
Eager to exploit the sensational story of Bonnie and Clyde, maverick producer Walter Wanger offered Lang unusual creative freedom on this lovers-on-the-run scenario. The director responded by transforming Gene Towne and Graham Baker’s social-problem script into a razor-sharp rendering of Depression-era America anticipating film noirs like They Live by Night and Gun Crazy. Even with Sylvia Sidney at his side, the deck is stacked against Henry Fonda’s ex-con from the start: so much so that it hardly seems to matter whether or not he was responsible for a violent bank heist, a point deliberately elided in Lang’s bold montage. The director’s intense concentration on detail here threatens to come wholly unglued from actuality, revealing what V.F. Perkins calls “a secret movie in tension, if not at odds, with the genre piece that You Only Live Once so powerfully delivers.”
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 99 min
Already a strong motif in M, Fury, and You and Me, the desired object behind a shop window serves as the primary trigger for an inexorable chain of events in this quintessential film noir. Reversing course from his lawful role in Double Indemnity (1944), Edward G. Robinson here essays a shy psychology professor drawn into a web of self-betrayal after encountering Joan Bennett’s irresistible dream woman on a quiet, lonely night. Unquestionably more intimate in scale than the wartime films that preceded it, The Woman in the Window nevertheless maintains a rigorous analytical distance from the slippery events befalling the professor. A key transitional work in Lang’s filmography, this film inaugurated the director’s turn towards obsessive chamber dramas and the tightly controlled mise-en-scene characteristic of the cycle of films Tom Gunning calls the “desire trilogy” (The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Secret Beyond the Door).
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Stewart Granger, George Sanders,
US 1955, 35mm, color, 87 min
Little known in the US but a revered cult film throughout Europe, Moonfleet is a visually opulent and oneiric swashbuckling adventure. With the lush fantastic qualities of Lang’s late exotic Indian films, Moonfleet was Lang’s second and last film for MGM, who he had deliberately avoided after the studio unsuccessfully attempted to sabotage his first American film, Fury. Although Lang suffered another rough ride with the studio—denied final cut and challenged by studio executives throughout production—Moonfleet is nevertheless a genuine and rewarding surprise within the director’s oeuvre. Richly evocative, Moonfleet reveals a romantic and less grim, less jaundiced, yet no less fatalistic side of Lang’s cinema.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Spencer Tracy, Sylvia Sidney, Walter Abel
US 1936, 35mm, b/w, 94 min
It would be difficult to think of another Hollywood film to take such a corrosive view of American democracy as Fury. Begun a full year after Lang left Europe, the director’s first American film stars Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney as innocent lovers whose lives are derailed when Tracy is mistaken for a kidnapper and pursued by a lynch mob. Lang precisely evokes the grotesque carnival atmosphere of the lynching, though the film finally settles into an unsparing study of the monstrous impulses of revenge. Tracy was the first of many Hollywood stars to complain about Lang’s dictatorial direction, and yet it is difficult to argue with the glowering performance that emerges as his character attempts to stage-manage the trial of his would-be lynchers. The key piece of evidence brought against the townspeople is a newsreel film identifying the assailants in the midst of their murderous rampage, an eloquent figure for Lang’s conviction in cinema as the privileged medium for revealing humanity’s darkest tendencies.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas,
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 105 min
While Lang would initially seem an unlikely candidate to direct a seamy melodrama adapted from Clifford Odets, Clash by Night proves to be one of the director’s most scarring treatments of a romantic theme. Barbara Stanwyck is a woman returning home after years of disappointment (“Home is where you come when you run out of places”), Robert Ryan the seething misanthrope all too eager to join his fate to hers, and Marilyn Monroe an innocent butterfly-like waif whose gossamer wings, too, will be singed. Without any of the director’s typical camera flourishes, Lang sharply delineates a full spectrum of self-loathing in the claustrophobic bars and houses dotting Cannery Row. The theme of entrapment is indelibly etched from the opening documentary footage of fisherman reeling in their catch, gloriously shot by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Dawn Addams, Peter von Eyck,
West Germany/France/Italy 1960, 16mm b/w, 103 min. In English
Lang’s swan song is suffused with uncanny remnants of the past, both in its transposition of set-pieces from earlier films as well as its central setting of a grand hotel that formerly served as a headquarters for Nazi intelligence. Reflecting Lang’s increasingly disenchanted view of late modernity, this last incarnation of Dr. Mabuse proves more charlatan than mastermind: as in While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the insidious forms of social control that had previously been the province of criminal kingpins are now thoroughly integrated into everyday life. Producer Artur Braun persuaded Lang to return to the streets of Berlin for this dyspeptic conclusion to the Mabuse trilogy, but Lang felt himself estranged from the city. “His films were from a different world,” recalled Volker Schlöndorff, an assistant on the production. “His only thoughts were of Germany, of what it had been, of what it had done, of what it had become."
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 131 min
Lang followed Man Hunt with a second anti-Nazi thriller, this one conceived now with his fellow émigré Bertolt Brecht. Closely based on the Reinhard Heydrich affair, the film traces the tense aftermath of the Czech resistance’s assassination of an SS general. Brecht envisioned the picture as a paean to peoples’ resistance, while Lang’s interests lay in sketching the various forms of pressure brought to bear by the Nazi occupiers and Resistance agents: in a darkly ironic scene given Lang and Brecht’s emigre status, a traitor gives himself away by inadvertently revealing that he understands German. The film’s writing credits eventually required arbitration before the Screen Writers Guild, with John Wexley awarded sole screenplay credit and Brecht sharing original story and adaptation credits with Lang. “Brecht got a raw deal,” Lang later acknowledged, and yet despite its concessions Hangmen Also Die! remains a singular artifact of the indelible European influence upon wartime Hollywood.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett,
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 102 min
Never one to shy away from a sensational pulp setup, Lang opens his first anti-Nazi film with the protagonist lining up the Führer himself in his rifle sight. Equally characteristic, Lang’s camerawork and editing emphasizes the murky motivations underlying this dream of power. After evading his Nazi captors, Walter Pidgeon’s gentleman hunter leads German agents on a thrilling chase through a carefully arranged series of confined spaces: the hold of a ship, an abandoned subway tunnel and a prototypically Langian standoff around the opening of a cave. Pidgeon’s relative affectlessness in the lead role makes his character strangely interchangeable with George Sanders’ cocksure German, a fellow hunter jauntily sporting Lang’s signature monocle. Even in a film with obvious propaganda value for the Allied cause, the director cannot help but blur the distinctions between Good and Evil.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming,
US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 100 min
The first of two terminal masterpieces produced for RKO, While the City Sleeps reprises M’s serial motifs for the television age. Here the killer is a leather-clad voyeur weaned on violent comic books, and the competition for his capture is waged, as a high stakes gamble, by a heartless corporation: Kane Enterprises, a media syndicate with a new executive position riding on the killer’s capture. Dana Andrews’ television anchor is the only employee unswayed by honorifics, and yet Lang is at pains to show him to be the mirror reflection of the boy murderer. Critics have speculated that the film’s unforgiving lighting was a result of the director’s failing eyesight, and yet it also seems incontrovertible that the media-obsessed While the City Sleeps is the work of a director who, in Jacques Rancière’s words, “senses that it may very well be the end of the line for the old box of illusions, but wants to play a bit anyway with what has supplanted it.”
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus,
Gustav von Wangenheim
Germany 1929, 35mm, b/w, silent, 169 min
If Metropolis represents speculative science fiction, Woman in the Moon finds Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou returning to the genre with a dramatic emphasis now upon the science. Lang’s last silent film presents the tale of the first rocket to the moon with a sincere realism and a woman virtually at the helm. Retrospectively, a few details—the multi-stage launch, the weightlessness, sunrise from space—were prescient, if not actually pioneering, as in the case of Lang’s apparent invention of the backward countdown. Although there is a plot involving a romantic triangle and a cabal of sinister capitalists, it is clearly the machinery that attracts Lang’s attention, as well as the science and morality behind it. Called Lang’s most abstract film, it retains some fatalistic and fantastic detours, yet with an atmosphere much cooler, and at times, chilling; the celebrated rocket launch sequence predicts the mass-as-machine imagery of Triumph of the Will.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame,
US 1954, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
Lang's dark fatalism is unleashed in his unsettling film noir adaptation of Zola's The Human Beast, the same source for Jean Renoir's eponymous 1938 masterpiece. Lang's is, in many ways, the harder, more disturbing of the two for its vision of men and women pulled inexorably by cruel forces towards certain doom, forces embodied in the endless chains of box cars and engines that glide through the train yard which is the film's evocative primary location. After the commercial success of The Big Heat, Columbia insisted on a reunion of that film's two stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, as the doomed lovers whose brutal instincts are awakened by a true human beast, the scheming, paranoid husband played with trembling intensity by Broderick Crawford. Noir cinematographer Burnett Guffey (In a Lonely Place, The Brothers Rico) gives a steely edge to the shadows that embellish and enmesh the sordid and willfully self-destructive love triangle at the dark heart of Human Desire.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Gary Cooper, Lilli Palmer, Robert Alda
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 102 min
Released more than a year after V-J Day, Fritz Lang's final anti-Nazi film follows Gary Cooper’s improbable nuclear scientist into war-torn Europe on a secret mission for the OSS. “The opposite of a James Bond,” writes Enno Patalas, “Cooper stumbles through a hostile world.” The character’s transformation from noble-minded rationalist to a realpolitik hero culminates in a remarkably brutal scene of hand-to-hand combat with a fascist agent. Lang would later complain that Warner Bros. excised his preferred ending of Cooper uncovering an abandoned Nazi bomb factory: a strikingly paranoid vision of the nuclear threat cut to fit the emerging Cold War era. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funding provided by The Film Foundation.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger
US 1941, 35mm, color, 93 min
A fascinating and alternate vision of the West is offered by Lang's adventurous telling of a little known chapter in American history: Western Union's struggle to bring modern communication technology to the frontier. An adaptation of Zane Gray's last novel starring Western icon Randolph Scott, Western Union embraces the landscape tradition so central to the genre by making stunning use of sweeping panoramic locations in Utah's Zion National Park.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover
Germany 1919-20, digital video, b/w, silent, 173 min
The Spiders was conceived as a four-film cycle—like such contemporary dystopian “franchises” as Twilight and The Hunger Games—although only the first two of the series were ever made. Even these were considered lost films for decades until a Czech print surfaced in the 1960s and the films were restored, with some consultation from Lang. Predating his later interest with technology, law and criminality, these early films instead illustrate his fascination with the exotic, which would surface again in Destiny and then submerge until the very end of his career. In place of the resolute modernism of Lang’s later cinema is a fascination with the picturesque and with age-of-exploration action sequences involving canoes and rowboats, rather than airplanes and rockets. Indeed, the film’s dashing hero, Kay Hoog, is generally acknowledged to be one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones. In these two films, Hoog journeys from San Francisco to Central America to England battling the sinister crime syndicate whose name provides the title for the series.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave,
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 99 min
Belonging to a flurry of gothic romances in Rebecca’s wake, Secret Beyond the Door… may present a Freudian funhouse of mirrors, rooms, corridors, keys and a rich complex of floral MacGuffins, yet for Lang, the real objects are more frightening and resonant than any inherent symbolism. Elucidating her emotional states through an enchanting, noir voiceover, the charming, lonely Celia is quickly drawn to the dark mystique of a handsome stranger whose unusual hobby is collecting rooms haunted by events their very design has instigated. As Celia follows her strange husband into the intricate and surprising depths of an ancestral mansion rife with fairy tale allusions, horrific tales and a coterie of enigmatic characters, the architecture of Lang’s plot develops a bizarre, hypnotic dream-logic of its own. Much like the tumultuous production which included the stars running through rooms actually on fire, the film’s twists and turns, false endings and misleading corridors at times truly seem to personify the contradictory cruelty and confusion of love, heartache and irreconcilable obsession. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funding provided by The Film Foundation.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern
US 1953, 16mm, b/w, 90 min
When Peter Bogdanovich told Fritz Lang that he found The Blue Gardenia “a particularly venomous picture of American life,” Lang responded, laughing, “The only thing I can tell you is that it was the first picture after the McCarthy business... Maybe that’s what made me so venomous.” Lang himself evaded HUAC’s glare, but The Blue Gardenia certainly signals the director’s growing misgivings about American media with its characters drawn from the ranks of newspaper men and telephone operators. Shot in just over four weeks, the film inaugurates the minimalist technique of Lang’s late style, with little more than Nat King Cole’s title ballad needed to signal an inescapable fate. A central text for feminist film critics, The Blue Gardenia’s ambiguous murder story is finally inextricable from its stark depiction of sexual politics in fifties’ America.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli,
France/Italy 1963, DCP, color, 103 min. French, English, German & Italian with English subtitles
The presence of Fritz Lang onscreen as a prominent member of Contempt’s ensemble cast is not only an homage by Jean-Luc Godard to one of his masters; it is also a key marker of the director’s cunning strategy to make the ultimate self-reflexive film—a film about itself. The plot focuses on the screenwriter of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, aninternational co-production overseen by a crass American producer—played by Jack Palance—and directed by an aristocratic filmmaker named Fritz Lang. The narrative follows two parallel trajectories: one detailing the struggle between art and commerce during the shoot, and the other tracing the deteriorating marriage between the writer and his wife. In tribute to Lang’s uncanny ability to trace the linkage between human relationships and the society in which they exist is Godard’s brilliant intertwining of his two ultimately defeatist plots.
Directed by Fritz Lang. With Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle
France 1934, 35mm, b/w, 120 min. French with English subtitles
Lang’s brief Parisian sojourn—between Germany and Hollywood—produced a single film which he later asserted was among his favorites. Already a popular stage play by the time it fell into Lang’s hands, Liliom swirls around a charismatic, brutish carnival worker whose childlike narcissism and unexamined drives lead to love, crime, punishment and death, then undergo a dreamily surreal replay in the afterlife. With a dark yet patient playfulness, Liliom tips as close as Lang allows toward romantic comedy, yet this humor is shaded by greater existential quandaries. Be they martyrs, saints, monsters or bureaucrats, Lang’s victims of destiny remain trapped in heavens and hells of their own inventive creation. Apparently under the influence of his own unconscious drives, Lang even unwittingly included the radical Surrealist Antonin Artaud as Liliom’s mysterious, gaunt guardian angel.