Fritz Lang, Repost

Fritz Lang: A Retrospective

Fritz Lang started his career in film as a screenwriter at Ufa, the main German production company, before quickly moving into directing. Along with his then wife, Thea van Harbou, he made a series of increasingly expensive films as he met with continued success, capped with the one movie he’s truly known for: Metropolis, one of the most influential films ever made. The son of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, he watched as Nazism steadily overtook his home, including his wife who joined the Nazi Party, until his final film in Germany for more than twenty years, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned by the new Nazi regime in 1933.

However, both Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were huge admirers of Metropolis, and they didn’t want to throw someone as talented as Lang in prison. Goebbels invited Lang to his office where he offered the filmmaker complete control of the German film industry, including the assertion that he could “fix” Lang’s mother’s status as a Jew. Lang left Germany that night (at least according to how he liked to tell the story). After a brief stint in France, he landed in Hollywood, and Hollywood was happy to welcome another celebrated filmmaker fleeing German oppression. However, it quickly became apparent that Hollywood simply had no idea what to do with him.

Fritz Lang is known for Metropolis, but the film is actually something of an aberration in his filmography. I think people in Hollywood thought they were going to get the guy who made Metropolis, which is a fine assumption. However, what they got was the guy who made Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge.

The Destiny Machine

From Destiny in 1921 to The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang’s films are largely about what film scholars have called the Destiny Machine. The way I interpret that is a larger force (often technological like in Metropolis but not always) grinding down on the strength of the individual. A supposed realistic view of that would typically lead to the individual losing, and most of the time, Lang’s protagonists did. That could manifest in small ways, like a man losing everything and roaming the streets like a lost ghost, or it could manifest in large ways, like with an all-consuming fire.

It seems odd to say that a filmmaker’s most recognizable film isn’t actually indicative of who he was as a storyteller, but it happens (I asserted that about Martin Scorsese a while back). The thing about Lang is that I haven’t seen a director more consumed by the idea of the apocalypse since Andrei Tarkovsky. You can see this in things as varied as MScarlet StreetSecret Beyond the Door, and even The Big Heat. For a specific example, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge is the second half of a two-part film about the Germanic folklore hero Siegfried who is murdered at the end of the first part. Kriemhild is his wife, and she sets out to get vengeance upon the man, a close advisor to her brother, the king, no matter the cost. It’s a tale of obsession and fire that ends with pretty much everyone dead. That’s in stark contrast to Metropolis where a rebellion in a futuristic city by the underclasses gets solved with a handshake and the declaration that “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”

Metropolis asserts that man can come together to overcome the Destiny Machine. Almost everything else Lang made makes it clear that man is alone and it’s a losing battle. It was Metropolis combined with M, his expert procedural about the search for a child killer in Berlin, that Hollywood mostly knew him for when they brough him to Los Angeles to make a movie with Spencer Tracy called Fury. They didn’t realize what they had bought when they signed his contract.


Fury is a compromised work, mostly in that the ending ends happily rather than what it seems to be building up to: the main character burning everything down like in Kriemhild’s Revenge. By every indication, it was an ending forced on Lang by the studio (along with the casting of Tracy since Lang wanted to hire a black actor to play the role of an innocent man being lynched), and it showed that from the start, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with this German immigrant. After two more films that touched on themes he was obviously interested in that didn’t manage to light the box office on fire (both films that the female star of Fury, Sylvia Sidney, brought him onto), he started getting assignments from his studio bosses that don’t seem to make sense in retrospect.

The Return of Frank James is a sequel to Jesse James, a film made by Henry King. Western Union is effectively a John Ford film. Man Hunt is effectively a cross between an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and a plea to get America involved in the new war in Europe (released five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor). From 1936 to 1944, happy endings were almost everything Lang was delivering, almost like Hollywood was trying to force him into a genre director along the lines of Hitchcock. Instead of a filmmaker who could work across genres with a distinctive visual style who delivered crowd-pleasing entertainments (like Metropolis), Lang was more interested in using those same tools to tell stories to spoke to him. His life being colored with his half-Jewishness in 1920s and 30s Germany (which Billy Wilder said was only second to Vienna as the most antisemitic place he knew), Lang just simply didn’t have that kind of outlook. In his view, evil won more often than it lost.

That was hard to accomplish under the Hays Code. Implemented in 1934, it was designed to streamline the whole censorship process in America which had, up to that point, been regional in nature, where Hollywood would have to cut movies to fit the requirements set out by places like Chicago or Mississippi but not others like New York, depending on the film and subject matter. One of the rules that the Hays Office set out was that antagonists needed to be punished and protagonists needed to win at the end. That didn’t coalesce with how Lang saw the world, but he did find a workaround. It was called film noir.

Film Noir

Heavily inspired visually by German expressionists like Murnau, Pabst, and Lang himself, film noir is, as describes it, “a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term was originally applied (by a group of French critics) to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1944-54 and to the work of directors such as Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder.”

That emphasis on pessimism and fatalism worked against creators at the time because of those Hays Code mandates. The solution was to essentially rob the films of protagonists, such as in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity where both Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson end up committing the murder of Phyllis’s husband. Lang first toyed with this in the same year as Double Indemnity with The Woman in the Window, the story of a man getting caught up in a murder committed by a femme fatale, but it all ends up a dream. He would immerse the audience in the full potential of the genre with his next film Scarlet Street, an adaptation of the French novel La Chienne about a middle-aged man given the opportunity for the pretty girl and an escape from his hateful wife as well as a chance at artistic success when the pretty girl uses him at the behest of her pimp boyfriend. The main character ends up in a hell of his own creation in the end, and you can see how the choice of material fed both Lang’s thematic obsessions and the needs of the Hays Office. The man turned bad, and he was punished for it.

The problem for Lang was that he was still a studio director. When he wasn’t quite able to twist other material to fit his vision as well, he seemed to know less of what to do with them. The spy genre seemed like a particular place where he couldn’t make things fit, his Cloak and Dagger matching his silent Spies as curious misses in the genre. He also dipped his toe more than once into gothic romances, mostly Secret Beyond the Door which is an obvious attempt to mimic the success of Hitchcock’s Rebecca to much less effect, though House by the River functions in a similar space and does it better.

The height of his American output was The Big Heat in 1953. Based on a serial printed in The Saturday Evening Post by William McGivern, it tells the story of the intersection of corruption in the halls of power in an unnamed American city with the criminal underground (this version of the destiny machine). Anchored by a pair of great performances by Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame and helped by a strong supporting cast, most notably Lee Marvin as the hood who throws a pot of boiling coffee in Grahame’s face, it’s some of the best noir ever put to film, helped in no small part by the attention given to Gloria Grahame’s character, Debby, making her more than a femme fatale and turning her into her own tragic figure. In the end, a blow is made against the corrupt system at the sacrifice of a good person’s life. Will it fix the city? Probably not, but a blow was struck nonetheless.

And…Lang’s career quickly sputtered out in America. He had four more movies in Hollywood (Marlon Brando decried the fall of Lang’s career by calling his next film, Human Desire, trash, a curious assertion since it was based on an Emile Zola novel, La Bete Humaine), the last two film very obvious and cheap B-movies in terms of their budgets and billing, and he said goodbye to the American filmmaking system to return to Germany in the late 50s.

Welcome Home

Lang restarted his German film career the way he probably should have started his American career. His American career began with Fury, a serious film about a social issue told in searing style. His first film back in Germany was a two-part story set in India (The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb) with bright colors and a sense of grand adventure, a callback to such silent films as Woman in the Moon and based on a script that he and Thea van Harbou had written for the 1920 silent version directed by Joe May. It’s unchallenging to the extreme, and Lang would later dismiss them as sugary confections. That they are, and they’re some kinds of delightful.

He only had one more film in him, and it was the final of three movies he made about the German literary villain Dr. Mabuse, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. It’s a return to the kinds of stories he obviously wanted to tell. It embraces the destiny machine in the use of a Nazi-era hotel built for diplomats filled with surveillance equipment that the eponymous doctor uses to gain leverage over the rich clientele. Mabuse extends as a metaphor for the German psyche as he had since the beginning of Lang’s treatment of him, with the first, Dr. Mabuse, being about Germany during the Weimar Republic, and the second, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, being about Germany during the rise of Nazism, thinly veiled as the rise of the “Empire of Crime”. Like Kurosawa after him, Lang was nearly blind by the end of production and stopped making movies, though he lived until 1976, 16 years after the release of his final film.


Fritz Lang’s legacy will always be first and foremost Metropolis followed by his help in creating the film noir genre. I just find it interesting that the two are diametrically opposed to each other. Metropolis is optimistic while film noir is naturally not. Lang’s heart was in the pessimistic, though. Probably colored by the inside view of Germany falling to Nazism, his best work reflected a certain apocalyptic view of the world, where everything was going to burn. That prevented him from working naturally in Hollywood during the 30s, 40s, and 50s where rosier endings were all but mandated. He mimicked Alfred Hitchcock more than once, and I think Hollywood was hoping for another master of suspense from their European imports.

It wasn’t to be, though. Lang’s predilections just didn’t gel with the needs of mass entertainment. He had successes, for sure. He wasn’t like John Carpenter, meeting almost nothing but financial failure, but Lang was never able to make Hollywood his playground. His voice got muted in Hollywood, to a degree, but he kept on in a professional manner, putting out roughly a film a year for the entire two decades he was there.

Still, M is the blueprint for how to make a serial killer movie. He helped create film noir. Metropolis continues to be referenced explicitly to this day. Christopher Nolan modeled his version of the Joker on Dr. Mabuse, specifically his ideology as presented in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He made one of the first spy movies. He’s had an incredible effect on film, especially popular film, despite the fact that most of his career felt like he was operating under someone else’s thumb.


7 thoughts on “Fritz Lang: A Retrospective”

  1. I don’t think it’s solely “Metropolis” that will be Lang’s legacy. As you note, “M” has been incredibly influential (as well as a great film). “The Big Heat” is a devastating film in so many ways. Plus, to my limited knowledge, no one else has made a Dr. Mabuse film. And, to finish, whenever a comedy needs an imperious director, it’s always a German guy with a monocle, right? Gotta be Lang there. He made an impact in a lot of ways.


    1. Dr. Mabuse became something of a German franchise through the sixties, a trend kicked off by Lang’s final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. There were five more in that decade, and it seems to have been picked up from time to time in the ensuing decades by different producers though, it seems, none of them are particularly worthwhile.

      Mabuse is probably my favorite villain, though. I’m pretty sure he was a direct effort to imitate Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty, but this is one of those cases where the imitation stands greater than the original.

      The imperious foreigner with a monocle icon probably took hold in the minds of Hollywood not just because of Lang but because of Erich von Stroheim as well. Lang yelled at actors, but von Stroheim imported wildly expensive carriages from Europe to put the finishing touches on his recreation of Vienna. The combination of the two obviously planted something in the minds of Hollywood creators for decades.


  2. Good essay, again.

    I still am not convinced by the interpretations of Lang’s creative output though. The concept of the ‘Destiny Machine’ is present only in a few of his works, though you can take a step back from that and say Lang talks about Fate a lot. That I’ll agree with. Much like Kobayashi, I think Lang was concerned with injustice, how it’s inflicted and by whom, how it bends men and women. But we also have many examples of dark fates brought about by the actions and decision of the main character. In those cases, justice works against the protagonist inflicting righteous punishment.

    Likewise, I’m not sure apocalypse is a theme that runs through all his work or even a majority. It’s in Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, but we can’t say it’s a theme in Western Union or M.

    Speaking of M, this was a great excuse to revisit that movie after…um…30 years. And likewise I got to see several movies I had no idea Lang was involved in, like the aforementioned wonderful ‘Western Union’….and the terrible ‘American Guerrilla in the Phillipines’. There was less of an authorial impact on many of these films but there was usually some flair in camera work, staging or lighting…not dominating it, but a little treat here and there.


    1. The apocalypse is more of a motif, and I think it very much makes an appearance in Western Union with the large fire. It’s not about a literal end of the world, but a violent ending of everything the character knows. So, M is Peter Lorre facing the end of everything in that courtroom, pleading for his soul, his sick, twisted soul.

      But, at the same time, his years as a contract director in the US studio system really obfuscated a lot. It felt like his voice was diminished until he got in with Republic Pictures, and even then, his movies just had to keep getting smaller and smaller as they met limited commercial success.

      I do wish for a clearer portrait of Lang as an artist and storyteller.


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