Fritz Lang Essay, Research Paper Overview Fritz Lang (1890-1976), an Austrian-born film director, was one of the commanding figures of German and American
Fritz Lang Essay, Research Paper
Lang (1890-1976), an Austrian-born
film director, was one of the commanding figures of German and American
cinema. In a career spanning over four decades, he pioneered entire new
genres and modes of cinematic expression. From the distortions of German
Expressionism to the malignant brooding of American film
noir, Lang’s films depicted a fatalistic universe where all possibilities
are predetermined. Fascinated
by the psychology of violence, his movies were populated by murderers, thieves,
prostitutes, and spies. In films like Metropolis,
M, Fury, While the City Sleeps, and others, Lang
made immeasurable contributions to the technology of film making, and
the art of visual story telling.
Fritz Lang was born
in Vienna on December 5, 1890. His parents Anton and Paula were staid
and respectable members of the city’s middle class. Anton, a municipal
architect, believed his son would one day succeed him in his profession.
Yet early on it was apparent that Fritz was not at all like his father.
Free spirited and imaginative,
he loved to draw and read fantastic stories by Jules
Verne and other writers. As he grew older he became fascinated with
philosophy and the occult. Anton believed the discipline of school would
tame the boy’s wild mind. He enrolled Fritz in a technical high school,
and later sent him to the Vienna Academy of Graphic Arts where he studied
architecture at the College of Technical Sciences.
He did not easily settle
into his architectural studies, and much preferred to paint and draw.
He admired the work of painters Gustav
Klimt and Egon
Schiele, and envied the romantic life of an artist. He became something
of a Viennese bohemian, haunting cabarets and nightclubs; meeting women
and having casual affairs.
Cabarets were more
than amorous playgrounds for Lang. He earned his first professional pay
painting sets for small productions. When his father learned of Fritz’s
excursion into show business, he forbade him to continue. The pair argued
bitterly and without resolution.
"And since I could
not convince him that I would make neither a good architect or a successful
engineer," Lang wrote in his memoirs, "I ran away from home
— something every decent young man should do."
Young Artist Adrift
Leaving for Belgium
when he was twenty, Lang soon wandered half the globe. Drifting through
North Africa, Turkey, Asia Minor, Bali and the South Pacific, he returned
to Europe in 1913. Settling in Paris, he made a living selling hand-painted
postcards, paintings, and cartoons for German newspapers. With his spare
cash he diverted himself at the cinemas. Even though most of the picture
shows he watched were primitive and crude, Lang responded to the medium’s
"I already subconsciously
felt that a new art — I later called it the art of our century — was
about to be born," he recalled.
Vision: WW I & the Golden Age of German Cinema
When war broke out
in 1914, Lang was nearly arrested by the French police during a roundup
of "foreign enemies." He fled to Vienna and felt very lucky
to have avoided the conflagration that would soon engulf all of Europe.
He rented an art studio in the city and began to work as a painter. No
sooner was this enterprise under way, than he was drafted by the Austrian
Lang proved a worthy
soldier and eventually became a lieutenant. Wounded in battle four times,
his final injury left him blinded in his right eye. He was discharged
in 1916 and spent a year convalescing in a Vienna hospital.
As he recovered, he
began regularly visiting movie theaters. "I was preoccupied with
the new medium of film," he wrote. He started writing short stories
and film scenarios, and acted in Red Cross plays. He submitted his initial
screen effort, a werewolf tale, to several film companies but generated
Two subsequent screenplays,
Wedding in the Eccentric Club, and Hilde Warren and Death
caught the attention of the German producer Joe May. He purchased the
scenarios from Lang and produced them under his own name. When the young
veteran saw his stories mangled and misinterpreted on screen, he determined
that one day he would direct his own films.
By the time he left
the hospital in 1917, he had sold several screen concepts to May and other
German directors. Moving to Berlin, he was hired as story reader and editor
for Decla-Bioscope, an independent production company. Lang soon worked
as a staff screenwriter and occasional actor in Decla productions.
He got his first chance
to direct in 1919 with The Half Breed, a tale about a spurned half-Mexican
mistress who gets even with her lover. The film explored the all consuming,
destructive power of revenge, a prototypical Lang theme.
Lang’s next film, a
two-part work called The Spiders established him as a commercial
success. Produced during 1919 and 1920, The Spiders concerned master
criminals plotting to conquer the world. This was a popular theme in post-war
German cinema. Audiences were captivated by visions of doom and pessimism.
It’s not surprising that Expressionism, an art movement that had silently
germinated since the late 19th century, now came into its own.
Robert Wiene’s The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) uses Expressionistic design elements
to visually objectify a mad man’s state of mind. With its fantastically
distorted perspectives, dramatically contrasting light and shadow, and
extreme camera angles, Caligari set the standard for a whole new
direction of Caligari by Decla’s chief executive Erich Pommer,
Lang was forced to bow out because of his commitment to The Spiders.
Before he left, he made a critical contribution to the film’s narrative
structure. Instead of simply recounting the nefarious acts of Dr. Caligari,
Lang suggested the tale be told from the perspective of a mad narrator.
Only at the film’s end does the audience learn that the story was a lunatic’s
paranoid delusion. Lang’s narrative framing device augmented the film’s
expressionistic vision and provided a twist that audiences loved.
In 1920, the year that
Decla-Bio merged with German film giant Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft
(UFA), Lang began a long partnership with screenwriter Thea
von Harbou. Their first collaboration, The Tired Death became
a classic of Expressionism.
Set in the middle ages,
this highly allegorical film tells the story of young woman who bargains
with Death for the return of her deceased lover. Thematically typical
of the angst-ridden genre, The Tired Death is most notable for
Lang’s distinct use of lighting as an element of design and composition.
a critical role in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), the story of
a criminal genius who leads a gang of thugs on a murderous rampage. With
its brooding shadows and moral ambiguities, Dr Mabuse was a direct
antecedent of the American film noirs of the 1940s and 50s.
Lang’s next two films,
Siegfried (1922-24) and Kriemhild’s Revenge (1923-24), were
lavish studio fantasies. UFA spared no expense for the productions. Mammoth
studio sets housed specially constructed mountains, forests, and a giant
fire-breathing dragon. Lang was free to realize his vision in minute detail.
He experimented with the geometrical relationships between people and
architecture. After finishing production in 1924, Lang and von Harbou
When Lang and von Harbou
began work on Metropolis in March 1925, UFA was the biggest and
best equipped studio in the world. When they finished filming in October
1926, the mighty studio was on the verge of collapse.
was not the first science fiction film ever made (that distinction belongs
to Frenchman Georges
M?li?s’s A Trip to the Moon, 1902), it set the precedent for
all those to follow. Despite its flaws, Lang managed to create a futuristic
vision that was coherent and believable. Technically, Lang pioneered an
array of special effects, many that are still in use half a century later.
Lang conceived Metropolis
during a visit to the United States in 1924. As his ship docked in New
York harbor, he stared in awe at the city’s imposing skyline. He imagined
a futuristic urban landscape where humans are swallowed in the gears of
their own creation. Lang told Thea about the idea and she wrote a novel
about a grim industrial dystopia. In 1925 they converted Thea’s book into
vision reaches an apex in Metropolis. The glittering, ultra-modern
cityscape contrasts starkly with the distorted, expressionistic underworld
of the workers. He emphasized this by introducing "architecturalized"
For a worker-riot scene,
Lang carefully choreographed the actors’ movements into bold geometric
patterns. These designs were closely linked to the set’s architecture
and the scene’s framing. Thus, even in rebellion the workers are still
a part of the machine.
Most of Metropolis’s
stunning visual effects were achieved by cinematographer Eugen Sch?fftan.
His innovative trick-shot technique allowed miniatures and live action
sequences to be seamlessly combined. Sch?fftan used specially made magnifying
mirrors to pick up reflections of miniatures. The mirrors were then secured
at 45 degree angles from the movie camera. This way the camera would see
the reflected miniatures but not photograph itself.
Next, Sch?fftan made
a kind of matte by scrapping away the reflective surface, revealing clear
windows to the sets and live action behind the mirror. Captured in two
dimensions on film, the miniatures, life-size sets and actors are combined
in one frame.
introduced the kind of eye-popping visual effects that are staples of
contemporary science fiction films. In a memorable sequence, the mad scientist
Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) transforms a robot into a beautiful woman.
Audiences were mesmerized as they watched the robot, bathed in floating
orbs of electricity, metamorphosize into an evil replica of the beautiful
Maria (Brigitte Helm). Lang achieved this effect through in-camera dissolves
and an early form of optical printing.
For shots of cars and
airplanes gliding above the city’s skyline, Lang and crew employed stop-motion
animation techniques. These sequences, lasting barely a minute on film,
took six days to film. In another pioneering segment, John Fredersen (Alfred
Abel), the master of Metropolis, talks to his chief foreman Grot
(Heinrich George) on a giant telescreen. This effect was one of the earliest
known examples of rear-screen projection.
at the time, the most expensive film in European history. The production
drained the studio’s resources and crippled its output. UFA was forced
to borrow over four million dollars from two American studios, Metro-Goldwyn
and Famous Players. Despite the loan, UFA still owed the Deutsche Bank
forty million marks. Though millions of viewers around the world attended
the film, box office receipts could not save the sinking studio. In 1927
UFA was taken over by Alfred Hugenberg, a newspaper mogul with close ties
to the Nazis. The golden age of German cinema was at an end.
Mabuse and the Third Reich
Lang left UFA and started
his own production company. He made two more silent films, Spies
(1928), and The Girl in the Moon (1929), a science fiction film
where he coined the concept of the rocket-launch countdown.
Though Lang’s films
often explored the most gruesome aspects of human behavior, the director
deplored the depiction of violence. Consequently he devised many visual
strategies that suggest violence without actually portraying it. His first
sound film, M (1930), was Lang’s favorite and a masterful example
of metaphorical storytelling.
Lorre plays a tormented psychopath who relentlessly stalks and murders
little girls. Though he desperately wants to stop, he can’t resist the
primal compulsion to kill. In the end it is criminals, not police, who
track the murderer down.
Although sound films
were barely two years old, Lang demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of
the medium. In M he juxtaposes sound and images to create scenes
of compelling emotional resonance.
In one segment, a mother
is heard calling for her little girl. On screen there is a succession
of stark imagery: a desolate stairwell; a dark shadowy basement; and finally
an empty place setting at the family dinner table. Sound and image conjure
a terrible sense of foreboding about the little girl’s fate.
Another clever device
Lang used to create suspense was the murderer’s recurrent whistling before
each homicide. Unlike many film makers of the early "talkie"
period, he realized that sound was much more than dialogue. Artfully employed,
sound evokes powerful emotions.
Though Hitler was not
yet in power, the Nazi influence was increasingly pervasive, particularly
in the media. During Alfred Hugenberg’s tenure, UFA became a production
and distribution center for Nazi propaganda films. Many of the newsreels
and shorts UFA produced were intensely anti-Semitic. Lang, a liberal of
Jewish descent, sensed that Nazi venom was more than empty rhetoric.
In 1933, the year Hitler
assumed control of the government, Lang completed The Last Will of
Dr. Mabuse, a sequel to Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In the fervently
anti-Nazi film, Lang’s most wicked characters spew Nazi slogans. The Nazis
immediately banned Last Will. However, in a strange twist, the
director was invited to meet with Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda.
Goebbels did not mention the ban, but said that Hitler was a big fan of
the director’s work, particularly Metropolis. The Furher was offering
Lang a position as Artistic Director of UFA, a post later assumed by Leni
Lang was astounded
and horrified by the offer. Now reality seemed as twisted and distorted
as an Expressionistic film. Even his wife Thea seemed a stranger to him.
When the Nazis came to power she joined the party, and began churning
out propagandistic screenplays.
He didn’t trust Goebbels,
and suspected that Goebbel’s offer was some kind of trick. Certain he
might be arrested at any moment, he departed Goebbel’s office and caught
a train to Paris that evening. He had little money and only the possessions
he could carry. He and von Harlou were divorced shortly after Lang fled.
She went on to write and direct many films for the Nazis.
The Hollywood Years
Lang spent a year in
Paris and directed one film, Liliom (1934), the ethereal story
of an angel trying to earn his wings. Escapist fantasy seems a natural
outlet for a man who had just lost everything to the Nazis. Yet Lang did
not long remain in the clouds. Meeting American producer David O. Selznick
in London, he signed a one-picture deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM),
and set sail for Hollywood.
Lang spent most of
1935 learning English and working on screenplays, but his early efforts
were flatly rejected by MGM. He traveled across American, hoping to learn
more about the culture and people of his adopted home. Frequenting small
backwaters and villages, Lang came to know the American soul. He developed
a keen understanding of the nation’s conflicting virtues and inequities.
In Fury (1936)
he returns to the terrain of intense psychological dramas like M.
Spencer Tracy plays
a young man who is wrongly accused of kidnapping, and then is nearly lynched
by a vengeful mob. This penetrating study of scapegoats and crowd hysteria
draws subtle parallels with the fascist movements swallowing Europe.
You Only Live Once
(1937) and You and Me (1938) completed Lang’s series of brooding
social critiques. The former tells the story of an ex-convict who has
mended his ways, but is still persecuted by society. In You and Me,
a department store owner hires an ex-con, but soon suspects him of foul
The films received
a passing reception, but did not do as well as Fury. Lang, used
to complete artistic freedom, was increasingly frustrated by autocratic
studio rule. Signing a contract with 20th Century-Fox, Lang embraced American
mythology with The Return of Frank James(1940), an entertaining
sequel to Henry King’s acclaimed Jesse James (1939). Western
Union (1941), though not as successful, cemented his reputation as
a master of the time-honored genre.
in World War II turned Nazis into standard box-office villains. Lang gladly
launched his part in the war effort with a series of anti-Nazi films.
Man Hunt (1941), finds a British assassin stalking Hitler while
he, in turn, is hunted by the Gestapo. Here, he returns to the fatalistic
themes that marked so many of his German films. Espionage thrillers like
Hangmen Also Die (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak
and Dagger (1946) rounded out this cycle.
in the Shadows: Film Noir
Toward the end of the
war, and for some years after, Lang revisits the mystery-suspense themes
of his earlier career. Psychological thrillers like The Woman in the
Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the
Door (1948), and House by the River (1950) epitomized the emerging
American genre that French critics named film noir.
Like M and the
Dr. Mabuse before, these films were marked by somber, shadow-filled
tones, often set in what film critic Gavin Lambert described as "an
anonymous, melancholy urban world." They portrayed an American landscape
where heroes and villains were sometimes difficult to distinguish.
Lang turned away from
mobsters briefly and made one last western. Rancho Notorious (1952),
is a psychological tale about a cowboy turned vigilante after the murder
of his girlfriend. Though the film was eventually ranked among his more
important works, critics and audiences rejected it at the time.
Lang’s next films reclaimed
the shadowy realm of crime. Clash by Night (1952), set during the
Depression, considers how social turmoil can transform a peaceful man
into a murderer. Shortly after the film was finished in 1951, Lang was
swept up in the growing turmoil of the cold war.
Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities branded
Lang a "potential communist." This charged stemmed from the
director’s association with "left-leaning" screenwriters like
Berthold Brect and Ring Lardner Jr. Blacklisted, Lang was unemployed for
over a year.
In 1953 Harry Cohn
of Columbia Pictures testified before McCarthy’s
witch-hunting committee that Lang was not a communist. The director
was immediately hired to work on Blue Gardenia (1953), the story
of an innocent young woman accused of a ghastly murder. This marginally
successful film was followed by The Big Heat (1953), one of Lang’s
best crafted and evocative noir thrillers.
In The Big Heat,
a young detective battles a ruthless mobster who controls a small town.
The film shocked both audiences and critics alike with its brooding intimations
of violence, and moral ambiguity. Lang depicts a world where corruption
is the norm, and honesty is a laughably naive ideal.
(1954), a remake of Jean Renoir’s La B?te Humaine (1938) explored
the destructive power of lust. Lang departed from contemporary criminal
themes in Moonfleet (1955), a gothic melodrama about an orphan
enlisted by a gang of smugglers.
Lang’s last American
masterpiece was also one of his personal favorites. While the City
Sleeps (1956) concerns three newspaper reporters whose ruthless news
gathering tactics rival the horror of the murder they are investigating.
Arguably the darkest of his crime thrillers, Lang casts a scathing critique
of America’s cutthroat business culture.
Beyond a Reasonable
Doubt (1956) marked a disappointing conclusion to Lang’s American
career. Although the idea was intriguing — a novelist masquerades as
a murderer to expose inequities in the judicial system — the production
was a mechanical exercise in excess. Not even the film’s unexpected twist-ending
restores its potential.
wearied of zealous studio chiefs meddling with his productions. He longed
to direct films where artistry was not compromised by commercial considerations.
He traveled to India in 1956 and did research for an independent project
called Taj Mahal. Not far into the planning stages, he abandoned the project
and returned to the United States.
In a last attempt to
work with Hollywood studios, he pitched a story idea concerning illegal
telephone tapping by the FBI. Still reeling from McCarthy-era paranoia,
the premise was flatly rejected. After twenty years of feuding and frustration,
Lang abandoned Hollywood forever.
In 1957 a German production
company offered him a chance to direct a two-part story, The Tiger
of Eschnapur (1959), and The Indian Tomb (1959). The scripts
were closely based on scenarios written by Lang and Thea von Harlou in
1921, and held great personal significance for the director.
Lang stayed in Germany
and made one last film, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). His
directorial swan song was a finely crafted update of his Mabuse series.
After a series of grisly murders, the Berlin police suspect the killer
may be a high-tech copycat of the evil Dr. Mabuse. Taut and suspenseful,
the film delivered a polemic against the dangers of over reliance on technology.
In 1963 Lang played
himself in Jean
Luc Godard’s Contempt. A film about the making of a film, Contempt
is also a glowing tribute to the career of Fritz Lang. Godard and other
French New Wave film makers were among the first to recognize the director’s
profound influence on modern cinema.
Lang returned to the
United States in his late years, and lived in Beverly Hills, CA. He died
on August 2, 1976 after a long illness.
films, Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) are
considered masterpieces of cinematic propaganda.
Bibliography for Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
A., A History of Narrative Film, New York: W.W. Norton & Co,
H., Fritz Lang, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
The Film Encyclopedia, New York: HarperCollins, 1994
and Kawin, Bruce, A Short History of the Movies: Fifth Edition,
New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
"Fritz Lang and Metropolis: The First Science Fiction Film,"
Metropolis Homepage, January 1997.
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