An undoubted master of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s-30s, Friedrich Christian Anton ‘Fritz’ Lang created works of such vivid imagination and grand ambition that they have influenced film of all genres ever since. From the towering skylines of Metropolis (1927) to the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried of Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang’s legacy can be felt in everything from Blade Runner (1982) to Game of Thrones. While he had a directing career that spanned over four decades, it is the films of his Weimar years that are the most significant.
Born in Vienna in 1890 Lang’s path to film-making was a circuitous one. After briefly studying civil engineering in Vienna he entered military service upon the outbreak of World War I and in 1918, after being discharged from the army, he was hired as a writer for Decla, the production company owned by the influential producer Erich Pommer. The same year, Lang directed his first film, Halbblut (‘Half-Blood’), which is now believed lost but which starred the actress Ressel Orla, who would also feature later in Lang’s two-part adventure story, Die Spinnen (‘The Spiders,‘ 1919/1920). In between Halbblut and Die Spinnen Lang directed the only other lost film of his, Der Herr der Liebe (‘The Master of Love,’ 1919), the story of which followed themes that would become typical of his later work, in particular those centred around his fascination with love and death.
In 1920 Fritz Lang met an ambitious young writer, Thea von Harbou, who at the time was married to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, an actor who would go on to adopt prominent roles in some of Lang’s most notable films, including Metropolis, Die Nibelungen and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Lang was also married when he met von Harbou yet little is known about his first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, who died around 1920 in suspicious circumstances, from a gunshot wound inflicted by her husband’s Browning revolver. Her death was considered suicide but rumours persisted that Lang had a hand in it. In 1922, two years after Rosenthal’s death and after Rudolf Klein-Rogge divorced from his wife, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou married, signalling the beginning of one of the most prolific creative partnerships in the history of cinema.
The first film written by von Harbou and directed by Lang was Der Müde Tod (‘Destiny,’ 1921), followed by the first in the ‘Dr. Mabuse’ series, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, a four-hour, two-part crime story based on the novels of Norbert Jacques and starring von Harbou’s ex-husband in the starring role. They followed this up with Die Nibelungen, an adaptation of the epic German folk-tale Nibelungenlied, a film which showcased Lang’s developing taste for elaborate set design and props and which featured a mobile mechanical dragon for the hero Siegfried to battle. It is also notable for the incredibly imaginative camera effects that Lang and his cinematographer Günther Rittau used to create their tangible fantasy realm, using superimpositions and multiple exposures to grant his characters superhuman strength, invisibility and, in one particularly striking scene, to turn some of them to stone before our very eyes. It is a grandiose, vividly realised fantasy film and even though some of its practical effects now appear rudimentary it still retains its ability to captivate.
Lang and von Harbou followed their folk-tale with a monument of science-fiction cinema, Metropolis. Costing nearly 5 million Reichsmark to produce – half of studio Ufa’s production budget for the whole year – it was unlike anything ever seen before, a prescient vision of the future that has informed films of the genre ever since. Initially written by Thea von Harbou as a novel, with the sole purpose of adapting it for the screen, the rapidly inflating budget allowed Lang to expand upon the visual trickery of Die Nibelungen to create extravagant sets and models of an entire city populated convincingly by the cast through his innovative photography. Despite the enormous resource behind its creation, however, the film wasn’t widely praised upon its release, drawing criticism from the most esteemed science-fiction author of all time, H.G. Wells. Metropolis is, on many levels, a flawed masterpiece, at once visionary yet naive. The central moral, that ‘the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,’ is over-enthusiastically delivered and the sentimentality that closes the film seems at odds with the tone of the preceding story.
Despite its flaws, Metropolis is the defining film of Fritz Lang’s career, a work full of imagery that has now passed into popular culture and which has undergone numerous changes since its initial release. Giorgio Moroder famously recorded an alternative score for the film in 1984, which featured music from many 80s icons, including Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and Freddie Mercury. Moroder’s Metropolis is a bold re-interpretation of Lang’s monolithic vision but it was not the last iteration; in 2008 a 16mm negative was found in Argentina which carried an original cut of the film and footage once thought lost was able to be restored. For a film that has undergone numerous cuts and changes over the decades since its release, this latest restoration, finally released in 2010, is by far the closest to Lang’s original, barely seen cut.
After such an enormous film it is no surprise that Lang’s next was comparatively low-key. Spione (Spies, 1928) is an espionage thriller that anticipated many of the paranoid themes of Cold War spy fiction and which was otherwise notable for the rumours of the director’s affair with actress Gerda Maurus and for the posters of Metropolis that are visible in one particular chase scene. Lang and von Harbou subsequently returned to science fiction with Frau im Mond (‘Woman in the Moon,’ 1929) before unleashing upon the public their most villainous, psychotic character to date, the child-murderer Hans Beckert in M (1931), a role which made a star of Lang’s fellow Austrian, Peter Lorre.
Lang’s first sound film, M is widely considered the director’s masterpiece, not as visually grand as Metropolis but utterly chilling in its examination of Lorre’s frenzied criminal creation. Unlike many other artists of the period, who struggled with the transition to sound film, Lang adopted the new technology effectively from the start, its most sinister application in M being the characteristic whistle of its villain, a refrain from Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ The new sound technology also allowed for Peter Lorre‘s climactic plea in front of a court of his criminal peers, a terrified defence of his compulsions that still remains one of the single greatest pieces of acting ever committed to film. It is speculated that Lang threw Lorre down a flight of stairs prior to filming this scene, in order to add to his beaten look, and whether or not that is true the actor’s demeanour is of someone who is not just battered but perplexed, exhausted and helpless. It is a shame that Lorre would be typecast as the mad villain for some time to come after M but it is understandable given how memorable his portrayal of Hans Beckert is.
Lang’s next film, a return to his Dr. Mabuse character in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) continues his exploration of criminal madness as we find the doctor committed to an insane asylum, from which he still manipulates those outside its walls to further his machinations. Das Testament… was Lang’s final film in Germany. Invitations from Joseph Goebbels to take up a prominent position at Ufa could not dispel his concern with the growing influence of the Nazi party; his fears of persecution led to his divorce from Thea von Harbou, who had already affiliated herself with the Nazis, and his emigration from the country. After a brief stop in Paris, during which Lang directed the critically-derided religious fantasy Liliom (1934), he landed in the United States. Peter Lorre, incidentally, followed an identical path to the US soon after.
Initially partnering with MGM, Lang directed a string of genre films from 1936 onwards, beginning with crime thrillers like Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937) and You and Me (1938), before moving on to Westerns with The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941) and film noir, in Moontide (1942), Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Ministry of Fear (1944), among many others. Lang’s Hollywood years were inarguably productive, yet the quality of his films varied considerably. None approached the extravagant vision of Metropolis and measured against M and Peter Lorre‘s unforgettable performance as Hans Beckert his crime films appear somewhat insubstantial.
Eventually becoming disenfranchised with the restrictive Hollywood system Lang returned to Germany to direct his final three films for producer Artur Brauner, the first being The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), a re-working of a film that he and ex-wife Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay for way back in 1921. It is a poignant full-circle which continued with his next film, the second part of his ‘Indian epic,’ The Indian Tomb (1959) and concluded with a return to his Dr. Mabuse character with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Brauner would go on to mine the content of Lang’s films for further adaptations, including a series of Mabuse films and a remake of Die Nibelungen, a project that Lang refused to participate in.
Despite his contribution to the early film noir of the 1940s and 1950s it is Fritz Lang’s Expressionist period that remains his most enduring body of work and it is testament to his imagination and his vision that these silent films overshadow any of Brauner’s cynical remakes. Being interviewed by the director William Friedkin in 1974, two years before his death, Lang eloquently and succinctly expressed his own opinion on the qualities that make a good film-maker: ‘His films should speak for him,’ he said simply. Even by his own standards then, Fritz Lang is a director of the highest class. His films have spoken for him, clearly and expressively, for almost a century.
Metropolis (1927) – Costing nearly 5 million Reischsmark to produce, Metropolis is the most iconic achievement of Fritz Lang’s career, a monumental work that has gone on to inform dystopian science-fiction ever since, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s equally adored Blade Runner (1982). It is not without its flaws, its idealism and sentimentality chief among them, but it is a film of incredible imagination and ambition, a shining light of the silent era. It has undergone extensive restoration over the last decade after the discovery of reels once thought lost.
M (1931) made a star of Peter Lorre, which became something of a poisoned chalice for him as he was regularly typecast to play the eccentric outsider after his performance as the psychotic child-murderer Hans Beckert. Fritz Lang took full advantage of the recent employment of sound film, using Lorre to deliver a frenzied defence of his compulsions in front of a kangaroo court made up of his fellow criminals, a passionate performance that in itself was enough to make M and its lead actor unforgettable. Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake doesn’t come close to the suspense of Lang’s original.
Die Nibelungen (1924) – Lang’s interpretation of the traditional German folk-tale anticipated the trends of future fantasy cinema in the same way that Metropolis did for science fiction. A four-hour epic split into two parts, it tells the story of the noble warrior Siegfried, his rise and fall and the violent quest of revenge his wife Kriemhild embarks upon. The striking geometry of the art-deco inspired visuals, the ingenious practical effects and trick photography combine to once again show that Fritz Lang was a visionary director.
Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) – Fritz Lang would eventually create a trilogy of films about the arch-criminal Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler being the first of them. Not too far removed from the criminal premise of M, in this film the titular doctor sets out to make his fortune by psychically influencing a naive millionaire during a game of cards. Like Die Nibelungen, the film runs at more than four hours yet is merely an introduction to the genius and the mania of Mabuse, one of the most vivid character creations of Lang’s career.
If you’re a fan…
Spies (1928) – Spione was Fritz Lang’s next film after Metropolis and after the exorbitant amount of money spent on the sci-fi epic the director’s budget was reduced considerably. Even without the vast sums of money Lang’s storytelling is precise and, in its tale of government agents and femme fatales, an antecedent of post-war noir and Cold War spy fiction. Interestingly, it seems that Metropolis may have still been much on Lang’s mind during the filming of Spione, judging by the posters for the film that are visible in one particular chase scene.
And the rest
Journey to the Lost City (1960)
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
The Tomb of Love (1959)
Tiger of Bengal (1959)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
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… (1947)
Cloak and Dagger (1946)
Scarlet Street (1945)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
Ministry of Fear (1944)
Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
Moontide (uncredited) (1942)
Confirm or Deny (uncredited) (1942)
Man Hunt (1941)
Western Union (1941)
The Return of Frank James (1940)
You and Me (1938)
You Only Live Once (1937)
The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Woman in the Moon (1929)
Vier um die Frau (1921)
Das wandernde Bild (1920)
Die Spinnen, 2. Teil – Das Brillantenschiff (1920)
Die Spinnen, 1. Teil – Der Goldene See (1919)
Der Herr der Liebe (1919)
Years active: 1919-1960
Accolades: Venice Film Festival Critics Award Special Mention (Hangmen Also Die!), Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame