#26 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
It seems as though when Fritz Lang fled Germany to France he ended up in a situation where his producer, Erich Pommer, started up a new production company with two films and two directors. There was this, and there was Max Ophuls’ A Man Has Been Stolen. Ophuls would later go on to say that Pommer had assigned the wrong projects to the wrong directors, feeling that Liliom more easily fit his own sensibilities while A Man Has Been Stolen more closely fit Lang’s. Well, I haven’t seen A Man Has Been Stolen, but I have seen a handful of Ophuls’ films (most notably Madame de…), and Liliom does feel more like a Ophuls film than a Lang film. In fact, it would fit more comfortably in Jean Cocteau’s or even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s bodies of work than Fritz Lang’s. There are still motifs that Lang pursued here, especially regarding the police as a tool of the destiny-machine, but, especially the ending, feels much more ephemeral and light-hearted than Lang had produced up to this point.
It is the story of the titular character Liliom (Charles Boyer), a carnival barker who runs the local carrousel, being brash with the men, tender with the attractive women, and singing songs as they go round in circles to great success. He’s such a success that the woman who runs the place, Madame Moscat (Florelle), who has a thing for the attractive young man, can’t bring herself to limit Liliom’s actions until he goes too far in holding the waist of Julie (Madeleine Ozeray) one night. It blows up, she fires him, and he walks off with Julie, ready to move on with his life. She’s an innocent who’s completely consumed by her affections for this bad boy instantly, telling him that she’s willing to give him everything she has (very little though she has) even though she doesn’t love him.
They move into a shack on her aunt’s property where she is a photographer for well-to-do middle-class businessmen. The aunt, Madame Menoux (Maximilienne) dislikes Liliom completely and often tries to convince Julie to leave the young man when he disappears all day, never gets a job, and only occasionally comes home at night. She wants Julie to marry the carpenter coming to have his picture taken instead, but Julie is too smitten with Liliom to leave him. It all nearly comes crashing down when Madame Moscat shows up one day to try and entice Liliom back to the carnival with tales of how the carrousel is not doing as well as it had been, an obvious excuse to get her favorite eye candy (and perhaps more) back into her own clutches. Liliom is ready to go, but Julie lays a new development on him that convinces him to stay.
He can’t be a lay about anymore. He has to make something of himself, so he agrees to go along with a friend to rob a payroll clerk of sixty-thousand francs, an exercise that goes poorly, ending with Liliom on death’s door. Now, this film had some bit of controversy at the time because the Catholic Church objected to the silly nature of the vision of heaven. It is definitely silly (the largely theological and moral problem comes in the film’s final moment), but entertainingly so. It reminded me of the later take on heaven from Powell and Pressburger in A Matter of Life and Death, but not nearly as ornate and expensive.
The ideas behind the film involve justice, namely the justice meted out to the lower rungs of society. When Liliom and his friend wait outside a policeman’s office for hours, they talk about how if they were to ever die, they’d never see God, for God would only relegate his time for the higher ups, just like in that police station where Liliom has to wait hours to see a low-level flunky but a well-dressed man gets right through to the inspector’s office without waiting. That gets mirrored in heaven (feeding a small idea of mine that the movie never really explores that the whole Heaven scenario is just in Liliom’s dying mind) where the setup is the same, using the same actors. It’s amusing and light.
The weird final moment, where Julie explains that hitting without hurting is fine feels like it was written by a man who abused women and thought it was okay. It’s really weird, and it’s also the final five seconds of an otherwise charming little film.
This has the feel of a cheap and somewhat rushed production. It was the only film Lang made in France during this period, much like Billy Wilder, quickly moving on to America where he would land firmly and quickly, within a couple of years making his first American film (unlike Wilder who languished for a few years). It’s on a limited number of sets with a small cast and the heaven stuff is charming but small. It’s a transition picture for Lang as he tried to figure out how he was going to work in a strange, new world where he wasn’t welcome at his home after having been shuffled around a bit in his final years there. It’s not quite the right fit for Lang, though he does it well enough, showing off his ability to work within different genres and tones. It was also reportedly Lang’s favorite of his films, and that difference from the rest of his work could explain it to some degree.
Still, I liked it. It was nice. It had a surprising edge around the middle regarding Liliom himself. The heaven stuff is delightful. The very, very end is weird and off-putting, though.