Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

"Fritz Lang lived his last years in a splendid, secluded home high above Beverly Hills. His place in film history is equally high, for he is generally considered to be one of the genuine pioneers of motion picture history. As the industry grew, he grew with it and helped it to become an art form by becoming an artist himself. Indeed, the movie industry will never again see giants like Fritz Lang.

Lang was born on 5 December 1890, in Vienna, the son of Anton and Paula Lang. Although Austrian born, Lang eventually moved to Germany and became a German citizen. Lang's heritage was Jewish, but his mother was raised a Roman Catholic, so Lang was brought up in a Catholic environment. His father was a Viennese architect and wanted his son to be an architect too. To please his father, Lang studied engineering for a while, but he eventually neglected his studies in favor of painting, which became his first love. "I ran away from home to become a painter," Lang recalled, "and went first to Brussels to study art." Then he traveled the world for almost a year. "I finally went to Paris in 1913 and continued to study art in a private school.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, I left Paris on the last train out of the city and escaped to Vienna. When I came back to Austria, I was drafted into the Austrian Imperial Army, and in 1915 I was sent to serve on the Italian front." In due course Lang attained the rank of lieutenant and was wounded in action on more than one occasion. One of his wounds caused the loss of sight in his right eyewhich explains why he subsequently wore a monocle in that eye. In 1918 he was declared unfit for further active duty and was sent back to Vienna.

He was asked to play the role of an Austrian lieutenant who was captured by the French in a play produced by the Red Cross Theater. "The production met with moderate success, and during the run of the play a friend introduced me to Erich Pommer, who had his own film production company, Decla-Bioscop, in Berlin." Their first meeting did not get off to a good start because Pommer assumed that Lang's monocle was a mark of arrogance. "When Pommer first saw me" Lang said, "he took one look at the monocle I was wearing and said to his companion, 'I don't want to have anything to do with that son of a bitch. I don't like his looks.' Nevertheless, he did talk with me, and subsequently gave me a job in the Script Department as a script doctor." [2]

The Weimar Years: 1918-1933

"Lang accordingly went to work for Pommer in 1918 at Decla-Bioscop in Berlin, where he wrote several screenplays. But he was often dissatisfied with the liberties taken with his scripts when they were filmed. Finally, when he finished a screenplay entitled Half Breed (Halbblut, 1919), he told Pommer that he wanted to direct the film himself, and Pommer agreed. That was the beginning of Lang's career as a director. He subsequently went on to direct, among other things, two companion features with the overall title of The Spiders (Die Spinnen, 1919-20), about a secret society of criminals known by that name. The Spiders is Lang's earliest surviving work.

Fritz Lang and second wife, Thea von Harbou

He was slated to direct the landmark silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari., 1920), but had to give it up in order to make the second Spiders film. His crucial contribution to Caligari was the ending: an epilogue reveals that the whole of the foregoing tale is a madman's hallucination, which thereby negates the validity of the story the narrator has told throughout the course of the film." [2]

In 1921 Lang began collaborating with scenarist Thea von Harbou, who will become his second wife. Lang’s first wife was named Lisa Rosenthal although no source is absolutely positive about that. Little else is known about her and it is not her life that is fascinating as much as it is her death. "In late 1920 she was found dead from a gunshot to the chest, fired from Lang’s Browning revolver. Lang claimed that he found his wife’s body in the bathtub, the victim of an apparent suicide. His collaborator and mistress at the time (and soon-to-be second wife), Thea von Harbou, corroborated his testimony in a formal inquiry that found Lang free of any wrongdoing. Yet nagging doubts about Lang’s innocence surfaced at the time and persist today. What appears indisputable is that Rosenthal had been distressed for some time over her husband’s flaunting of his relationship with von Harbou, and that he was furious with Rosenthal for not dutifully accepting the affair. At one point, according to a witness, he had waved his revolver at Rosenthal during a heated argument about the matter. What remains in dispute is what happened when she later discovered him and von Harbou in a hotel room. Contrary to Lang’s and von Harbou’s version, newspaper editor Hans Feld and cinematographer Karl Freund, both of whom were around at the time and familiar with all parties, believed that Lang shot Rosenthal in a fit of rage, or even premeditatedly. One piece of circumstantial evidence, on top of the contentious backstory, lends the homicidal accusation credibility: shortly before her death, Rosenthal had called a girlfriend to go shopping with her after she took a bath.

Whatever the actual cause of Rosenthal’s death, film historians are still speculating on the relation between the incident and Lang’s work, which is haunted, from the first film to the last, with guilt, complicity, false accusation, irredeemable crime, inadvertent crimes, and suicide." [3] Fritz Lang married Thea von Harbou in 1922 and she and Lang co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including 1922's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler), which ran for over four hours in two parts in the original version and was the first in the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, 1924's five-hour Die Nibelungen, the famous 1927 film Metropolis, and the 1931 classic, M, his first "talking" picture.

Fritz Lang at work in the Staaken district of Berlin, filming 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler', c. 1922

"Lang's first film of consequence was a fantasy entitled Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921). The critics found the technical effects that Lang employed in this exotic fantasy original and impressive, and the movie proved to be his first international success. Moreover, Destiny helped to inaugurate the Golden Age of German Cinema during the 1920s, when, in addition to Lang, directors like F. W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch produced major silent films in Germany that were seen around the world.

Another of Lang's major silent films is Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922). As Lang described it, the film was "a thriller about an archcriminal, and the public liked it for that. Nevertheless, it was also a picture of how crime was rampant in Germany after the First World War. The film reflected the demoralized atmosphere in Germany," in the wake of the nation's defeat in the war. "It was the kind of atmosphere in which a criminal like Mabuse could thrive."

The longer Lang worked in the German film industry, the more he felt himself a bona fide German; in due course he took German citizenship. Shortly afterward, he made the Nibelung saga which portrayed Germany's legendary past. By this time Pommer had merged his Decla-Bioscop studios with another production company, the Universum-Film-Aktiengellschaft (Universal Film Agency), generally known as Ufa. Lang filmed the Nibelung saga at the enormous Babelsberg studios of Ufa outside Berlin. The film is divided into two parts, each part is feature length: Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (Siegfried, 1924) and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge, 1924).

From Caligari to Hitler, 1947

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, the first part of Lang's Nibelungen is filled with pageantry, which is best exemplified by the elaborate scene depicting Siegfried's stately funeral cortege. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer suggests that such scenes in the film foreshadowed the pageantry of the parades and processions at the Nazi rally portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl's documentary Triumph of the Will (1935). Asked about this, Lang replied, "In my opinion, this book is wrong about a lot of things. In making Die Nibelungen I wanted to show that Germany was searching for some ideals in her past, during the horrible time after her defeat in World War I, when the film was made. I wanted to film the epic legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her past, and not, as Mr. Kracauer suggests, as a way of looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler, or some such stupid thing as that. I was dealing with Germany's legendary heritage."

The Haunted Screen, 1952

Some of Lang's early films, such as Die Nibelungen were produced when the movement known as Expressionism had a significant impact on the German silent cinema. Lotte Eisner, in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema, describes the movement in the following terms: "Expressionism sets itself against Naturalism, with its mania for recording mere facts"; instead, the Expressionist artist seeks the symbolic meaning that underlies the facts. To be more precise, Expressionism exaggerates surface reality in order to make a symbolic point.

For example, in part 1 of Die Nibelungen, Siegfried is clearly portrayed as a larger-than-life hero, symbolizing the virtues of courage and honor associated with Germany's legendary heroes. Moreover, Lang underscores the fact that he is depicting the adventures of a legendary superhero by placing Siegfried in vast, Expressionistic settings that match the grandeur of the heroic national epic he is portraying on the screen. For his part, Lang insisted that Expressionism was a major element in only a few of his German films. Furthermore, German Expressionism was rarely evident in his films once he began working in Hollywood. Die Nibelingen was a tremendous success all over Europe, but only mildly successful in the United States. "After all," Lang said, "what do people in Pasadena care about Siegfried fighting with a dragon?" Today, however, it is acknowledged everywhere as a landmark of German cinema.

The film set being flooded during the production of Metropolis

Metropolis (1927), like Die Nibelungen contains some salient examples of Expressionism. This is evident in its spectacular Expressionistic sets, such as the three-tiered city of Metropolis itself, and in its larger-than-life characters, most notably Dr. Rotwang, the insane scientist. The film is set in the year 2000; it opens with shots of the skyline of a fabulous city, which Paul Goldberger has called "the most celebrated piece of architecture" ever put on film. There are breathtaking images of soaring skyscrapers and of trains moving along elevated tracks, while in the canyons below there are highways filled with hordes of traffic." [2]

Metropolis, for all its genius, was a sensational and astronomically costly flop in Germany, of such disastrous proportions that it bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of Weimar Republic. 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.

Asked for his reflections on the film's message, Lang replied, "When I looked at the picture after I had completed it, I was convinced that you cannot solve a country's social problems by such a message. Personally, I still think that the idea is too idealistic. How can a man who has everything really understand a man who has very little?"

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.

Fritz Lang (right) directs Peter Lorre (left) on the set of M (1931)

"Lang made two sound films in Germany after the advent of talking pictures, before departing from Germany to pursue his film career abroad. Before making The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), he directed M (1931), which was his first sound picture. Lang's decision to make M came about in an interesting way. He had experienced a great deal of studio interference while making his last silent picture, a science fiction film entitled The Woman in the Moon. As a result, "I was very disgusted with filmmaking and wanted to become a chemist," he recalled. Just at this time, however, an independent producer named Seymour Nebenzal invited Lang to make a picture for him. Lang told the producer, "I will make you a proposition: I will make a picture for you provided that you have nothing to do with it except give me the money to make it; the film must be finished and exhibited exactly as I made it." Nebenzal agreed, and Lang set about making M. Lang's insistence on making this film his own way brings into relief his striving to be an auteur long before the term was invented.

Beckert’s (Peter Lorre’s) predatory shadow in M

The working title of M was The Murderers among Us, since the film was about a sexual psychopath who violates and murders little girls. He later decided to abbreviate the film's title to the single letter 'M', which is short for 'murderer'. The psychopathic murderer of the film was based on Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who terrorized that city in the mid-1920s. (In the 1995 film Copycat a serial killer calls himself "Peter Kürten," after the Düsseldorf Vampire.)" [2]

M virtually invented the psycho-killer genre, which has become so popular later. 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, 1950), 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, has a spark of genius; it has been said that Peter Lorre inhabits, rather than plays, the role of Beckert. 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 Testament 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.


"Lang's film career in Germany ended abruptly in 1933 when Hitler had Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda minister, invite Lang to take charge of the German film industry, which had been recently nationalized by the Nazis. The Führer, Goebbels explained, had been impressed by the epic qualities of Metropolis and had decided that the director of that film was the right man to make films for the Third Reich. Furthermore, Hitler was willing to overlook the fact that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse had been banned by the Nazi regime as subversive. After listening to Goebbels, Lang ostensibly agreed to work for the newly nationalized German film industry, while all the time he was surreptitiously watching the clock over Goebbels's shoulder, to see if he could get away in time to withdraw all his money from the bank before fleeing the country. But the banks were closed by the time that Lang left Goebbels's office, so Lang took the next train for Paris with only the money in his pocket. Thea von Harbou, his wife and scriptwriter, stayed behind and joined the Nazi Party." [2]

Fritz Lang with Erich Pommer on the SS Deutschland in 1924

"However, it has recently been ascertained that Lang’s movements prior to his final stay in Paris were more fluid and less dramatic than the scenario hitherto painted. As an elite member of the German film industry, like his friend Erich Pommer, he was able to make extensive preparations for his departure from an increasingly anti-Semitic and xenophobic Berlin. He already knew Paris well from having studied there as an art student in 1913 and 1914. He departed for the French capital in late June 1933, but actually returned to Germany before finally leaving for good on 21 July 1933. Unlike the case with many of his exiled compatriots who stayed in poorer Paris lodgings like the Hotel Ansonia, 8 rue de Saigon, Lang’s luxurious room at the Hotel George V was proof of his status and economic mobility. Erich Pommer had in early 1933 made detailed financial arrangements in the United States with Sidney Kent, president of the Fox Film Corporation, to set up a film production division based in Europe. This enabled him to leave Germany for France with the knowledge that he had an established business to come to. Originally, of course, Fox Film Europa was to be based in Germany. By August, however, announcements were made in the French film press that Pommer had established a modus operandi which would stimulate French film production by producing French- and English-language films in Paris. One of the directors he wished to work with was his compatriot, Fritz Lang.

Lang’s only film made in France, Liliom (1934), was given contradictory reviews at the time, no doubt in part because halfway through the film, the eponymous lead, a Parisian mauvais garçon played by Charles Boyer, leaves the Parisian zone for a fantastic journey to heaven. Many of Liliom's critics also pointed out the national hybridity of the film, which was based on a play by the Hungarian playwright Frederic Molnar, produced by the renowned Ufa producer Erich Pommer, and directed by Germany’s most famous director, Fritz Lang. To the right-wing cultural press, for example, Liliom was a prime example of the dangers of having a multi-cultural film culture in France. The virulently anti-Semitic François Vinneuil saw "this French-Jewish-Hungarian collaboration" as a return to "that bizarre and boring cinematic country produced by Ufa’s French-German dramas [which was] a ‘no man’s land’, a Babel emptied of all character lying a lot closer to the Sprée than to the Seine." [3]

Hollywood Career

"He was invited to Hollywood by David O. Selznick, who represented Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time; on 1 June 1934, Lang met with Selznick in London and signed a contract to direct films for MGM in Hollywood. Once he arrived at Metro, Lang was involved in various projects, none of which panned out. Nevertheless, he was determined to remain in America, since returning to Germany was out of the question. In due time he applied for American citizenship; in February 1935, he obtained his American citizenship papers.

Lang on the set of Fury

"I was under contract to MGM for a whole year without getting a project launched," said Lang. Finally he advised the front office that he had come across a four-page synopsis of a story by Norman Krasna called Mob Rule, about lynch law; the studio gave him the green light. "So Bartlett Cormack and I wrote the screenplay for the film," which was retitled Fury (1936)" [2]. Fury was a thought-provoking tale of tragic coincidence, and 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 proved himself so demanding in working with the cast and crew of Fury that he quickly earned the reputation of being a Prussian bully. Hilde Rolfe, who was his secretary during the 1940s, writes that he responded to such criticism by observing that he was a perfectionist and adding, "Nobody likes a perfectionist." Joseph Ruttenberg, the cinematographer on Fury, agreed with Lang's observation by saying that Lang's meticulous attention to detail made him an exacting taskmaster. Still, Ruttenberg came away from the film with an abiding respect for Lang, calling him "above everything else, a great technician and a hell of a director."

In any case, Lang remembers that the front office took one look at Fury, his harrowing study of mob rule, and decided that it was too grim to appeal to the mass audience. He recalled that one studio executive assured the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter that "Fury is a terrible movie; and it's all the fault of that German son of a bitch with the monocle, Fritz Lang." Nevertheless, the film opened to critical acclaim, with Graham Greene in the vanguard of the film's supporters. Greene wrote that he could recall no other picture that had conveyed so completely, by sound and image, "the pity and terror of the story." He concluded, "Any other film this year is likely to be dwarfed by Herr Lang's extraordinary achievement."

Henry Fonda, Fritz Lang (to right of camera in white), and crew on the set of You Only Live Once

John Russell Taylor emphasizes that an important aspect of the wide public acceptance of Fury was that it was "the first really successful film made by an emigré director in Hollywood during the sound era." As a result, the film not only established Lang's reputation in Hollywood, but paved the way for other European directors like Otto Preminger to establish themselves there as well.

Lang was invited to United Artists to make his next picture, You Only Live Once (1937), and he accepted the offer. Lang's second American film dealt with a man who, like Joe Wilson in Fury, faces death for a crime he did not commit. Commenting on the unvarnished realism of the film, Lang said that he often told his cameraman that he did not want any fancy photography in the movie. He preferred instead cinematography that had a newsreel-like quality a style of photography he had favored as far back as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, with its brutally realistic shootout between Mabuse's gang and the police. "I think every serious picture which depicts people today should be a kind of documentary of its time," he explained. "Only then, in my opinion, do you get the quality of truth into a picture. . . . I like to think all my so-called crime pictures are documentaries." Later Hollywood immigrants like Fred Zinnemann would strive for this same kind of documentary realism in their films." [2] 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. Singin' in the Rain it wasn’t.

In 1938, Lang chats on the set of You and Me with studio exec Adolf Zukor, George Raft and Sylvia Sydney.

"Lang made Fury for MGM and You Only Live Once for United Artists; then he moved on to Paramount, Fox, Universal, and other studios to make his subsequent films. As Charles Silet points out, "Lang never worked long for a single studio in the U.S." He realized early in his Hollywood career that a director keeps his artistic independence by committing himself to one picture at a time, instead of tying himself down to a long-term contract with a particular studio, where the front office would determine what movies he would make. Silet goes on to say that, by the same token, Lang "often preferred to work on underbudgeted projects which he could produce, and therefore control, himself." In this manner Lang was able to maintain the sort of creative control over his Hollywood films that he had enjoyed as a filmmaker in Germany, the kind of artistic freedom, in fact, that one associates with an auteur." [2]

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 Return 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).

Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott on Western Union (1941)

"With the advent of World War II, Lang embarked on a series of anti-Nazi films, including Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die (1943), and the best of the group, Ministry of Fear (1944). The last-named film was derived from a novel by Graham Greene, whom Lang had always admired. Nevertheless, as Lang said, "When I came back to Hollywood from New York, where I had signed the contract, and read the script, I did everything I could to get out of making the film. But Paramount wouldn't cancel the contract." He later added, "That was one of the times that my agent had failed to get a clause in my contract that allowed me to work on the script." One reason that he would have liked to have revised the screenplay was that the searching examination of the hero's psychological problems, so evident in Greene's novel, was mostly missing from the script. Greene portrays Stephen, the hero, as a deeply neurotic man in the novel, but in the screenplay Stephen's emotional problems seem to be largely behind him.

Be that as it may, Lang's version of Ministry turned out to be one of his most accomplished spy melodramas. He was, after all, a master at creating thrillers. In fact, Lang's success in making his own a popular American film genre like the thriller is a clear indication that he had become an American filmmaker, not merely a German filmmaker transplanted to American soil. Writing of Lang's thrillers, Michael Sragow endorses the "precision, inventiveness, and barrelling pace" whereby Lang could "firm up and energize the material." Lang's ability to turn out a suspenseful thriller is clearly on view in a chase melodrama like Ministry of Fear." [2]

During the period when Lang was filming his anti-Nazi movies, he also made 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).

E.G. Robinson and studio exec William Goetz on Woman in the Window set with Lang

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.

"Asked for his reaction to the criticism of the ending of Woman in the Window, Lang responded, "I personally felt that an audience wouldn't think a movie worthwhile in which a man kills another man and then kills himself just because he had made the mistake of going home with a girl. That's when I thought of having him wake up to discover that he had fallen asleep in an armchair at his club. So I was able to end the story on a positive note, rather than just having it wind up as a movie with a killing and a suicide in it." Elsewhere he has added that "Woman in the Window was a considerable success; and while it may be hindsight on my part, I think that with another ending its success would have been less." Be that as it may, Lang did not hesitate to append a decidedly bleak conclusion to his next film, Scarlet Street, simply because the material would not admit of anything but a tragic ending.

Lang gives E.G. Robinson some direction on Scarlet Street

Scarlet Street (1945) is a remake of Jean Renoir's La chienne (The Bitch, 1931). "Lang said that he had seen Renoir's film during its original release, but he did not use it as a model for his version of the same story, since he wanted to make a new film, set in New York's Greenwich Village, not a mere copy of Renoir's French original. Lang remembered that the studio was worried that the film industry censor might object to the fact that Johnny (Dan Duryea) was executed for a crime that he did not commit, rather than Chris (Edward G. Robinson), who actually committed the murder. Lang said that he mollified the censor by pointing out that "Chris is punished more by living with his guilt than he would have been by going to prison. At the end of the movie he is a man driven by the Furies, at his wits' end."

Among the many fine elements in the film, one that must not be overlooked is Lang's adroit use of the standard romantic ballad "Melancholy Baby" throughout the movie. From the opening credits, where the cheery strains of the song give no hint of the road to hell Chris will take, to the thunderous Wagnerian finale, the song is heard in numerous versions, each one more emotional than the last. . . . The mere title of the song evokes a potentially dark mood." [2]

1950 - House by the River: Fritz takes a coffee break

Lang’s career foundered a bit after the war, when he completed only three nondescript films in six years. "Lang made two rather routine thrillers, The Secret beyond the Door (1948) and House by the River (1950), before turning to Rancho Notorious (1952). The last was a Western starring Marlene Dietrich who, like Lang, was a prominent German expatriate working in Hollywood. But they did not get along while making the picture, and hence never worked together again. As far as Dietrich was concerned, Lang deserved his reputation as a tough taskmaster by being demanding with the cast and crew. "She showed her antagonism to anyone she chose," writes her daughter Maria Riva in her biography of her mother. "No wonder he did all those frightening pictures . . . like M," said Dietrich; such films, she indicated, showed what a frightful person he really was. As for her future directors, Dietrich concluded, "No more Germans!!!"

In Rancho Notorious Lang employed a theme song even more effectively than he did in Scarlet Street. Rancho Notorious was one of the first dramatic films to use a title song composed especially for the film; it is sung during the opening credits and then repeated at various times throughout the film to comment on the action. The ballad in the present film is entitled "Chuck-a-Luck," and is named after the vertical roulette wheel that was commonly used in gambling saloons in the Wild West.

In 1952, the same year Rancho Notorious was released, Lang found himself out of work for several months. He discovered that he had been blacklisted in Hollywood because there was suspicion in some quarters that he might be a Communist. This was the tense Cold War period, which spawned Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt for Communists and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Lang explained how these suspicions about him arose in this manner:" [2]

When I came to this country in 1934, I was asked to join several anti-Nazi organizations; and I did join one. On the letterhead of this society I saw the names of novelist Thomas Mann and other eminent Germans, so I signed my name to the list of members. Years later, HUAC declared this organization to be pro-Communist; and so I was blacklisted for having belonged to it. But I was never a member of the Communist Party, though I had friends who were.
It seems that someone from the American Legion had gone to the studio's front office and said, 'We have no proof that Lang is a Communist, but we know that he has friends who are. We suggest that you investigate him before you let him make another picture for you.' The front office doesn't investigate anyone; the easiest way out for the studio was just not to let me work anymore. So I couldn't get work at any studio for more than a year. Finally, Harry Cohn, the top executive at Columbia, said to me, 'Fritz, is there any truth to this business about your being a Red?' I replied, 'On my word of honor, there isn't.' With Cohn's support I was able to go on making pictures.
Fritz Lang directs Ford and Gloria Grahame in 'The Big Heat'

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. Although The Big Heat was looked upon as a routine crime melodrama when it opened, the movie's critical reputation has grown steadily over the years, to the point where it is now justly revered as one of the all-time classic film noir.

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).

Fritz Lang

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 - which he famously said "was good only for snakes and funerals"), 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. While shooting While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Lang had several bitter quarrels with Bert Friedlob, the producer of both films. As a result of these unpleasant experiences, Lang opted to leave Hollywood for good: "I looked back over the past; ... and since I didn't have any intention of dying of a heart attack, I said, 'I think I'll step out of this rat race.' So I decided not to make pictures here anymore."

When Lang returned to Berlin in 1958, he went virtually unrecognized in the capital that he once took by storm. "Lang was invited by a German producer, Arthur Brauner, to return to Germany in order to direct a two-part film that recalled his earlier two-part German movies, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Die Nibelungen. In the present instance the two-part film was an epic set in India. Part 1 is entitled Die Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Bengal) and part 2 is entitled Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) The films were premiered in Germany in 1959, but the two parts were condensed into a single ninety-five-minute feature called Journey to the Lost City (1960) for the initial American release. In both the German or the American versions of the film, however, Lang's Indian epic remains a rather routine costume drama. Lang was then asked by the same German producer to make yet another sequel to the Mabuse films. He complied by directing what was to be his last motion picture, Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960) which brought the Mabuse saga to a successful but not altogether satisfying conclusion.


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.

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

"Looking back on Lang's career, some film critics raise the question of whether or not Lang's work declined after he immigrated to Hollywood; they contend that Lang placed his personal stamp as an auteur on his German films, but that his American films were merely impersonal products of the Hollywood factory system. By contrast, John McCarty contends that Lang's creativity was not stifled when he became part of the Hollywood studio system. Indeed, McCarty believes that Lang's work in Hollywood "was, on the whole, just as expressive, personal, and cinematically skillful as his work in Germany." Michael Barson adds that Lang's American films stand out among those made by the European refugees in Hollywood "because of his ability to fully exploit the genres in vogue in Hollywood": thrillers, Westerns, and film noir. "His largely ageless body of work proves that there is no expiration date for dread or desire, the legal tender of Lang's cinematic realm."

What's more, Lang consistently expressed his personal vision both in his German and his American films: that is, his conviction that each of us must valiantly struggle against Fate in an indifferent universe in order to emerge from the contest bloodied but unbowed.

In short, Lang was able to impose the personal stamp of his thematic vision on his films while working in the American film industry, just as he had done while working in the German film industry. As a result, he thereby built up throughout his career a single, coherent body of work, which clearly demonstrates his eminence as one of the first auteur directors. Asked if he cared to comment on the theme that permeates his films, Lang replied, "Ultimately I don't like to dwell on the thematic implications of my films, to explain what they mean. Sometimes they have a very personal meaning for me, and I have never given an interview about my personal life. All I have to say I have said in my films, and they speak for themselves."

During his last years Lang received official recognition for his life work throughout the world. He accepted the Golden Ribbon of Motion Puicture Arts at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival; and in 1965 the French government bestowed on him the award of Officier des Arts et Lettres. He returned to his native Vienna in 1971, after an absence of nearly half a century, to receive the highest award that the capital of Austria could confer on a native son: the Medal of Honor of the City of Vienna. In 1973 Lang was honored with a gala tribute by the Directors Guild of America. In addition, major retrospectives of Lang's work have been presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1967), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1969), and the Moscow Film Institute (1975). Moreover, the 1996 Berlin Film Festival paid tribute to the director by showcasing a restored version of M. The restored print added eight minutes to the film's running time, footage that had been cut after the film's premier engagement." [2]

He died in 1976 at age 85. Peter Bogdanovich recalls Fritz Lang as a lonely man toward the end: "When Hitchcock first came to prominence, he was called the English Fritz Lang. And in later days Lang was referred to as the German Hitchcock."


  • Journey to the Lost City (1960)
  • Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) ... aka The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
  • Das indische Grabmal (1959) ... aka The Indian Tomb
  • Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959) ... aka The Tiger of Eschnapur
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
  • While the City Sleeps (1956)
  • Moonfleet (1955)
  • Human Desire (1954)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • The Blue Gardenia (1953)
  • Clash by Night (1952)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950)
  • House by the River (1950)
  • Secret Beyond the Door... (1948)
  • Cloak and Dagger (1946)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • The Woman in the Window (1944)
  • Ministry of Fear (1944)
  • Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
  • Moontide (1942)
  • Man Hunt (1941)
  • Western Union (1941)
  • The Return of Frank James (1940)
  • You and Me (1938)
  • You Only Live Once (1937)
  • Fury (1936)
  • Liliom (1934)
  • Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) ... aka The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
  • Le testament du Dr. Mabuse (1933) ... aka The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse
  • M (1931) ... aka Murderers Among Us
  • Frau im Mond (1929) ... aka Woman in the Moon
  • Spione (1928) ... aka Spies
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924) ... aka Kriemhild's Revenge
  • Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) ... aka Siegfried
  • Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler - Ein Bild der Zeit (1922) ... aka Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler
  • Der müde Tod (1921) ... aka Destiny
  • Vier um die Frau (1921) ... aka Four Around a Woman
  • Das wandernde Bild (1920) ... aka The Wandering Image
  • Die Spinnen, 2. Teil - Das Brillantenschiff (1920) ... aka The Spiders, Part 2: The Diamond Ship
  • Harakiri (1919)
  • Die Spinnen, 1. Teil - Der Goldene See (1919) ... aka The Spiders, Part 1: The Golden Lake
  • Der Herr der Liebe (1919) ... aka Master of Love
  • Halbblut (1919) ... aka The Half-Caste