Film historian David Kalat once proposed rules for a Fritz Lang drinking game: Whenever a Lang film shows an angry mob or a woman in a nightgown, everybody takes a shot. Unlike many of the major auteurs of the first half of the 20th century, Lang didn’t bury his motifs for critics to unearth decades later. He moved the camera and used lighting expressively, and employed overt visual symbolism even after he transitioned from silent films to sound. Over and over, Lang made movies about the madness of crowds, the indelible stain of guilt, the influence of the powerful, and yes, the way people look beneath their clothes—literally and metaphorically.
Born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, Lang moved to Germany to begin his movie career, and proceeded to become one of the few filmmakers of the 1920s who was internationally known, thanks to a series of large-scale genre films that wowed audiences with images they’d never seen before. But the rise of the Nazi party chased Lang out of Europe, in part because he was half-Jewish, and in part because he tended to sympathize with the sort of “undesirables” that the Nazis abhorred. Like a lot of Europeans who’d had success on the continent in the silent era, he landed in Hollywood, where he found ways to sneak his visual artistry and thematic preoccupations into movies meant to be disposable entertainments.
The job became more difficult the longer Lang stayed in America, but he soldiered on, making Westerns, mysteries, war movies, and melodramas that nearly all show at least some sophistication and sting. Lang’s cinematic consistency is unusual for his era. It isn’t just that he rarely made a film that wasn’t worth watching; it’s that even while working within the parameters of studio assignments, Lang was able to portray society as he saw it: governed by corrupt, hypocritical institutions that defy individual will.
|0.0||Half Caste (LOST)||1919|
|0.0||The Master Of Love (LOST)||1919|
|2.5||The Wandering Shadow||1920|
|3.0||Four Around A Woman||1920|
After serving in the Austrian army in World War I, Lang tried his hand at writing screenplays, which brought him to the attention of the German studio UFA. Almost immediately upon arriving in Germany, Lang began directing as well as writing, trying out a variety of techniques in a variety of different genres, figuring out how to tell stories with pictures. Not all those early films have survived, and the ones that have are mostly interesting for how they hint at what Lang would become. Both 1919’s Hara-Kiri (a version of Madame Butterfly, about a Japanese woman who suffers social scorn when she has a baby with a European soldier) and 1920’s The Wandering Shadow (about a wanton woman seeking redemption at a mountaintop retreat) are mostly plain, stylistically, at least in the pieces that still exist. The latter film does feature stunning location footage of misty lakes, though, and both deal with the idea that human beings are so consumed with want, they will behave awfully, especially if allowed to do so anonymously.
Another case in point: 1921’s Four Around The Woman, starring Ludwig Hartau as a rich man investigating his wife’s possible infidelities. Beyond its occasional visual flourishes—including a remarkably theatrical opening shot of a rotating bar—the film presages Lang’s Mabuse series in its depiction of upper-class Germans who snoop around each other’s personal lives, like private detectives with no ethical standards. Similarly, while Lang’s incomplete adventure serial The Spiders looks like the kind of charmingly amateurish movie that geeky teenagers shoot in their back yards, its elaborate, globe-hopping story of an all-powerful criminal organization is a warm-up for how Lang would spend much of the next decade.
|4.0||Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler||1922|
|3.0||Woman In The Moon||1929|
After a couple of years of experimenting and throat-clearing, Lang got down to business with 1921’s Destiny (a.k.a The Weary Death, and Behind The Wall). Complex in structure and intent, Destiny is a triptych film built around the kind of tales told in taverns on chilly nights. A woman sees her partner taken away by a shadowy figure, and when she begs the spirit to save him, the dark angel reincarnates the couple through time, giving them chances to be happy in ancient Baghdad, Renaissance Italy, and Imperial China. Destiny is far from seamless: It’s slow to get to its premise, it has an adolescent notion of romance, and the historical re-creations lack the kind of depth that Lang brought to later films. But it’s an essential piece of cinema history: Like D.W. Griffith’s contemporaneous Hollywood epics, Destiny demonstrated how the medium could be used for stories with the richness of novels and the spectacle of magic shows. It’s a work of rare vision.
Lang’s next film showed off that vision to fuller extent. Part one of the two-part Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is subtitled “A Picture Of Our Time,” which is no exaggeration. Based on Norbert Jacques’ novel about a master criminal who controls a network of operatives via hypnosis, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is a thrill-packed four-hour game of cat-and-mouse between a shadowy supervillain (played with hammy gusto by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and the dogged lawman who tries to track him down. But it’s also a journey through a post-war Europe gripped by greed and paranoia, where it didn’t take much for one clever man to manipulate the masses through the power of insinuation. Here, just two years after The Spiders, Lang made a movie that was more mature in every conceivable way: in its matter-of-fact scenes of Jazz Age decadence, with men inflamed with passion by the semi-nude dancers in their favorite nightclubs; in its thoughtful art direction, where even the flower arrangements resemble giant brains, controlling the characters; and in its use of pulpy conceits to describe the world as it is.
Lang then left the cold, hard world of today for the haze of yesteryear in Die Nibelungen, a two-part, five-hour adaptation of an ancient poem about the warrior-prince Siegfried and his vengeful wife Kriemhild. Inspired in part by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Die Nibelungen was intentionally grandiose, with mammoth sets, state-of-the-art special effects, and armies of extras. Lang shot majestic waterfalls and bloody battlefields as though he were a time-traveler who’d brought a camera with him back to the age of dragons, dwarves, and sorcerers, but he also fit all that fantasy frippery into what would become his recognizable point of view, making Die Nibelungen ultimately about people and kingdoms threatened by all-consuming lusts.
Die Nibelungen was a massive undertaking. Lang’s next film, the heavily allegorical 1927 science-fiction romance Metropolis, was even more ambitious, even though its running time is half as long. Co-written with Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife at the time, and his collaborator on every film from The Wandering Shadow through the remainder of their marriage, which ended when he left Germany in 1933), Metropolis builds a futuristic world out of familiar parts. Lang dwells on the mechanisms of the modern age, from the look of the skyscrapers he’d seen on his first trip to New York a few years earlier to the socialist fervor that was beginning to sweep the world in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. There’s even more of an elemental fairy-tale quality to Metropolis than there is to Die Nibelungen, as Lang and von Harbou track the potentially society-changing relationship between a privileged young man and a working-class activist. But while the story is simple, Metropolis’ look is far from it. The movie’s conception of hellish machine rooms, glamorous urban nightspots, and sexy (but tragic) robots offered a new way of visualizing the future that continues to influence writers, filmmakers, and commercial artists.
Having made the most expensive and exhausting film of his first decade in the business, Lang downshifted a little for his final two silents: 1928’s Spies and 1929’s Woman In The Moon. At the time, the expressionist era in German art was giving way to what was known in some quarters as “The New Objectivity,” and while Lang never fully signed on to the ideal of depicting real life with documentary-like clarity, he did move away from the more florid touches of Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. Spies is another film about international criminal conspiracies, like The Spiders (but much more polished) and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (but much less complex); and it features some of Lang’s most gripping setpieces, including a classic final scene where the main villain performs a comical shooting exhibition before an audience that doesn’t understand how much danger they’re actually in. But Spies is more matter-of-fact than Mabuse, just as Woman In The Moon is less wild than Metropolis. Woman In The Moon is a space-travel saga that deals just as much with the realistic grind of rocketing to the stars as it does with adventure. The science in Woman In The Moon is laughably far-fetched at times—particularly when the traveling party lands on the dark side of the moon, and determines that the air is breathable—but it’s all treated respectfully, and the result is a movie that’s drier than Lang’s earlier science-fiction/fantasy pictures, while remaining impressively imaginative.