Fritz Lang had guessed it: cinema is a complex art that has enormous unexpressed potential. In just a century of life, what man was able to do with it was to reduce it to a freak commercial phenomenon. A circus animal locked in the cage to be released only when the paying audience has to entertain.
Fritz Lang like many other directors have tried to fight this trend and reveal the greatness of the film medium. Also, and perhaps even more, from within Hollywood, that the circus had invented it. And he was one of the main inspirers of all the great masters that cinema would have in the following years.
Don’t miss the homage that Jean Luc Godard wanted to pay him, convinced that Fritz Lang was “the cinema”, entrusting him with the role of himself in the legendary film “Contempt”. An iconic character who represents all the classic cinema from which modernity was born.
The early years
Born in Vienna on December 5, 1890, his father was an architect, his mother had Jewish descent. His brother was called … ironically … Adolf. His father tries to make him an architect but Fritz is not thrilled by his father’s lifestyle, is interested in painting and moves to the Academy of Graphic Arts. He also reads many books and is interested in literature.
In 1912 he begins to travel incessantly, living above all in Paris, where he too paints on the streets and gets to know the cinema. It was exactly what he was looking for: to animate his paintings, to give movement to his pictorial creations.
Fritz Lang at war
Called back to the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, Fritz Lang fights on the front lines and is wounded multiple times. Awarded medals for valor and no longer deemed fit to fight, in 1918 he took advantage of his hospitalization to write the script for Marriage to the Eccentrics Club and others. But when he goes to see the film at the cinema he won’t even find his name in the credits and he won’t like the film at all. Perhaps it is precisely that episode that will make him decide to redeem himself and become a film director, to create himself the visual language of the films that he had in mind. Meanwhile he also acts in the theater to earn something in a difficult period for everyone.
The first films
Many films are made in Berlin and he finally manages to get the job to make his first film as a director, Halbblut , which found himself shooting in the midst of episodes of Spartacist armed revolt.
he Then follows in 1919 a second film, Der Herr der Liebe. Both films have been lost. Instead, the following films have come to us: The spiders (the lake of gold), Harakiri and the second part of I spiders: The ship of diamonds.
Spiders are a success, but Lang is disappointed with the production which prevented him from making two films he was very fond of: The Indian Tomb and Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet which was instead entrusted to the last moment to Robert Wiene . So he goes in search of another production company that allows him to grow more.
Melies and most of the other film pioneers had already ended up selling sodas at station kiosks when Fritz Lang started to have success with his films.
His first film was called Destiny (1921), a macabre ballad inspired by German folk tales. Two lovers meet death in the vicinity of a cemetery where the souls of the deceased come back to life. Great success with critics and audiences, recognized as an expressionist masterpiece, full of innovative shots and lighting, gave Lang the reputation of a very talented director.
This was followed by the great success of The Nibelungs (1924), a saga about the history of the German people divided into two parts: Siegfried’s death and Crimild’s revenge. Mythical tale with the visual and architectural grandeur typical of the Metropolis director, shot on a huge budget.
The director’s last silent film is instead A Woman on the Moon (1929), certainly influenced by the short film by Meliès, is a journey of a group of people to discover the lunar soil that becomes an apologue on greed and lust for wealth.
Fritz Lang summoned by Goebbels
Famous director in Germany Fritz Lang, during the rise of Nazism, was summoned in 1933 by the propaganda minister Goebbels and thought he was doomed. His film The Testament of Doctor Mabuse has just been released and the director has put in the mouth of the protagonist Mabuse, a crazy psychopath who wants to dominate the world with his hypnotic powers, hate slogans uttered by Hitler himself.
Doctor Mabuse is a 1922 film that represented one of the pinnacles of German expressionism. The protagonist is a mad doctor who enriches himself by falsifying money or influencing the stock market with his powers. And it seems like a metaphor for Germany during the Weimar Republic, just as Mabuse looks like Hitler.
Receiving an invitation to appear in the Propaganda Ministry from Goebbels himself could have terrified any man in Germany at the time. It meant going to talk with the evil in person. It could have meant a death sentence.
Fritz Lang in the minister’s office
A bare and austere office that could have been that of an ordinary employee, Lang, while Goebbels talks to him with kindness and admiration towards him, looks at the clock out the window, sweats cold, his legs are shaking. He fears that the fear of him will betray him. He can’t wait to be out of that office and go to the bank to withdraw all of his savings to escape Germany.
While Lang fears he won’t make it and be doomed, Goebbels starts talking to him about his and Hitler’s admiration for his work and proposes them to become The Supervisor of National Socialist Cinema. He doesn’t even mention Dr. Mabuse’s insinuating phrases. Instead, he offers him the most important position ever for a director in Nazi Germany: he would decide which films should be made and which ones should not be made. Hitler had not seen in him an enemy but a great personality to convert to the values of National Socialism and enlist in his party.
Lang hides his fear, pretends to be quiet, but continues to dribble sweat. He accepts the job and greets the minister by hurrying to the bank to collect his savings. But he finds it already closed. By now everything is clear from his mind: his future in Germany no longer exists. He is in grave danger. The minister’s proposal meant a definitive crossroads: either stay with us, or you’re done.
That same evening the director takes all the savings he had at home and leaves Germany to go to Paris.
Life and cinema experiences
Up until that point, Lang had made films that mirrored his dramatic experiences during the First World War. Small odd jobs to survive, sometimes spying on behalf of the secret service police, fighting in the trenches in the First World War. Wounded several times, he was able to write several scripts during his convalescence, and reached great success in Germany and Europe with the Nibelungen saga. Thanks to the success of that film he was able to make the blockbuster that consecrated him in the history of cinema, Metropolis.
The idea for the film became when he took a trip to New York and understood what the urban and social future of the West was. The dystopian city of Metropolis, subject to strict social rules, is inspired by New York. A city where men are transformed into machines and machines become human. The theme of the automaton taking power over men many years before 2001 A Space Odyssey.
One of the most grandiose colossals of the time that strangely manages to impress even today more than the great contemporary blockbusters. Because the Metropolis images have something great that goes beyond the budget, the costumes, the extras and the special effects. It is the grandeur of Lang’s vision and his figurative genius that embodies our fears of a chilling future. A future that, in part, was then realized. A spectacular visual symphony where in the basement the proletarian world suffers and loses its humanity while the dance parties and entertainment continue on the upper floors.
Catastrophic failure, with an ambiguous interpretation of the revolt of the working class, which seems to be at the mercy of itself without a guide, Metropolis was not well received by the public or critics of the time. To remedy the commercial failure, several versions of different durations were made. But it took decades for people to understand the greatness of this film.
M – The Düsseldorf Monster (1931)
M, the monster of Dusseldorf, is Fritz Lang’s first sound film and is the one he has had the opportunity to shoot with greater freedom. Perhaps the film where his vision, his characters, his favorite themes are affirmed with greater authenticity.
It is a frantic and ruthless manhunt in a German city dominated by an evil and sick atmosphere, without humanity. Although the protagonist is a killer of children, he does not appear more evil than the criminal organizations and the police who are hunting him.
The killer will actually turn out to be a banal person, like so many others. Much more terrifying than him seems the court that judges him in the extraordinary final scene, a Kafkaesque court filmed with impressive expressionist shots, where a crowd is ready to lynch the monster played by Peter Lorre, who begs for forgiveness in a heartbreaking final monologue: blame it is not his, he says, but of a diabolical possession which induces him to commit crimes.
Fritz Lang in Hollywood
The director moved to Hollywood in the United States in 1934 and became a US citizen in 1939. He Begins to work for the MGM studio making many successful films, with relative artistic autonomy foreseen in the contracts.
Social themed films are Fury (1936), You only live (1937) and once and You and me (1938). Stories of marginalized characters who are no longer able to integrate into society. He then shoots two westerns: The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). Films related to the political context follow, such as Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear, Cloak and Dagger.
Fritz Lang and Noir
In the 1940s he became the forerunner of the noir genre: The Woman In The Window , Scarlet Street , Secret beyond the Door and House by the River. The following decade continues to shoot melodramas, suspense films and film noir: Clash By Night (1952), Human Desire, (1954), The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat (1953), While The City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
Back to Europe
All films that tell the world of mass media that are gaining more and more importance in modern society. Back in Europe Lang feels nostalgia for his roots and decides to return to Germany in the late 1950s and there he makes two adventure films set in India, The Tiger of Eschnapur (1958) and The Indian sepulcher (1960), which achieved good success with the public.
The latest film is The diabolical Doctor Mabuse (1960), a sort of testament film with which he confronts in key contemporary with the mythical character of Dr. Mabuse created many years earlier. His dystopian vision of a totalitarian dictatorship abandons the violence and oppression of the Nazi era and meets Orwell’s vision of “technological surveillance”.
For sixteen long years he didn’t accomplish anything, until he died on August 2, 1976 in his Beverly Hills home.
In all of his films the themes of Destiny recur, his characters are always fighting against fate. His films, even the most commercial and entertaining ones, are nightmares steeped in ominous omens and violence, anguish and death. He has stated several times that they are characters that he found in the deepest dark side of him, with whom he was able to establish an extraordinary relationship of empathy.