Austrian-born Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was one of the world's great film directors. He played a major role in shaping two national cinemas: the German during the 1920s and early 1930s (with films such as Metropolis and M), and the American during the 1940s and 1950s (with films such as You Only Live Once.
Born in Vienna, Austria, on December 5, 1890, to Anton and Paula (née Schlesinger) Lang, Fritz grew up in middle-class comfort. Always a visual person, his most important early impressions were of the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Fair) in his native city. He also loved the theater and read a great deal, both popular and more demanding literature and philosophy. Expected to take up his father's profession—he was a municipal architect—Lang enrolled at the Technische Hochschule of Vienna, but did not stay long. He soon left home altogether to study his real interest, painting, and to wander around the world (Russia, Asia Minor, Africa). By 1913 he was in Paris, supporting himself through fashion design, painting postcards, and drawing cartoons. At the outbreak of World War I he returned to Vienna where he was soon called up to join the Austrian army. While recuperating from wounds which would cost him the sight of one eye, he began to write film scripts and to act in the theater. In 1918 an invitation from Decla, the leading German film studio, brought him to Berlin.
German Films: 1919-1933
Little evidence remains of Lang's earliest work in Berlin. He scripted films for Joe May and Otto Rippert, acted in minor roles, and soon began directing as well. Halbblut (Half Caste), his debut, was quickly followed by Der Herr der Liebe (The Master of Love); Die Spinnen (The Spiders), Part One: Der goldene See (The Golden Lake); and Harakiri, all released in 1919. Lang was also being considered for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but had to give up participation in this eventually famous film for a sequel to his popular Spiders, Part Two: Das Brillanten Schiff (The Diamond Ship) (1920). His next films from the same year, Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and Vier um die Frau (Four around a Woman), were already written in collaboration with Thea von Harbou, who in 1921 became Lang's second wife and continued to coauthor all screenplays for his subsequent films until he left Germany in 1933. (She joined the Nazi party, stayed, and continued to write scripts for the cinema of the Third Reich.)
Lang's first major film was Der müde Tod (Destiny) (1921). Its theme, man's fight against fate, was to become central to all of his work. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler) (1922), one of three pictures Lang was to make about this master criminal, followed. Then came two very ambitious and very different projects, Die Nibelungen (Part One: Siegfried, Part Two: Kriemhilds Rache [Kriemhild's Revenge], 1924), a powerful rendition of the old Germanic myth, and Metropolis (1926), a striking vision of the city of the future and its social relations. These films showed Lang in full command of his theme and technique and established his reputation as a major director in Germany and abroad. In their tendency to abstraction, stylization of form, anonymity of character, and "architectural" use of human figures, they adopted elements of German Expressionism, but as a whole Lang had developed his own unmistakably individual style. He put his early training as an architect and painter to superb use and showed an attention to detail and a perfectionism which would remain characteristic of all his work, as would his ability to create a mood on screen. The French directors of the Nouvelle Vague would later admire him as the great master of "mise en scène."
Another story about a criminal, Die Spione (Spies) (1928), and another futuristic tale, Die Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) (1929), were Lang's last silent films. His first sound picture, M (1931), immediately made excellent use of the new medium to heighten atmosphere and tension and became a classic, the prototype of murder-mystery which, in addition to providing the suspense of a chase, also explores the mind of the killer and the problems of guilt and punishment.
Lang's second Mabuse film, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse (The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse) (1933) could not be shown in Germany. It suggested parallels between the criminal, who dominated others even from inside an insane asylum, and Adolf Hitler, the new ruler of Germany, which were not missed by the Nazis. Still, because of his earlier films which Hitler admired, Lang was offered an important position in the Nazi film industry. His response was to leave the country immediately for Paris. There he received an offer to do a film version of Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom (1934) and successfully transposed the setting from the original Vienna to Paris.
American Films: 1936-1956
In 1934 Lang left Europe for Hollywood with a contract from Metro Goldwyn Meyer (MGM) already in his pocket. Yet the new start—and indeed Lang's whole career in the United States under the unaccustomed pressures of the American studio system and eventual blacklisting during the McCarthy era—were rocky. He had trouble getting to make his first film for MGM (Fury, 1936) and then moved from studio to studio, quickly gaining the reputation of being a difficult director—too demanding, too perfectionist. To avoid unemployment he was often forced to take whatever work he could get. Still, judged by the impulses it gave him and by the films it produced, Lang's American period was highly successful.
Fury was followed by You Only Live Once (1937), considered a model for Bonnie and Clyde, and You and Me (1938), both also illustrating the solid grasp of vital aspects of American life which the newcomer had taken pains to acquire. The next assignments were Westerns, The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941), to which Lang gave his own stamp. At the outbreak of World War II he turned to anti-Nazi films expressing his own hatred and disdain: Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). In 1950 Lang came out with one more war film, An American Guerilla in the Philippines, with the Japanese as the enemy, and in 1952 with one more Western, probably his best, Rancho Notorious.
With the exception of Moonfleet (1955, in its historical setting an unusual film for the American period), Lang concentrated all his energies during the last war years and the rest of the 1940s and most of the 1950s on his old interest in mysteries and the workings of the human psyche: The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), House by the River (1950), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). These films reflect Lang's social awareness and include some of his best American work.
German Films Again: 1959-1960
By 1956 Lang had become increasingly frustrated with Hollywood and decided to quit its studios. Thus the offer from a German producer to film Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Bengal) and its sequel Das indische Grabmal (The Hindu Tomb) (1959), based on a scenario he and The a von Harbou had written in the early 1920s, was most welcome. Their fairy tale splendor made these movies a popular success in post-war Germany, while French critics and directors (for example, Godard and Chabrol) admired their lucidity and formal perfection. Lang's last film as a director was Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) (1960), a new variation on his old master criminal. His last film altogether was Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt) (1960) in which he played the role of a film director by the name of Fritz Lang.
On August 2, 1976, Lang died in Beverly Hills where he had spent his final years.
Critical approaches to Lang's work have often tried to distinguish between his German and American periods, not only in terms of the obvious differences in look, image, and rhythm, but also in terms of artistic quality. Some maintain that only the German films up to 1933 deserve acclaim, others argue that these much discussed classics are too self-consciously artistic and therefore not as good as the leaner American films. Such discussions tend to overlook the basic continuity of Lang's work and his ability to adjust his talent to meet the changes in his environment. All his films became, in his own words, "somehow a picture of their time," and they are distinctly "Langian" in their formal symmetry, functional precision, and humane detachment. Although often called an "austere pessimist" Lang ultimately believed what he said in Le Mépris: "Death is no solution."
Further Reading on Fritz Lang
Lang thought that a director should express himself through his films and not through writing or speaking. Yet he wrote a number of interesting and revealing articles about himself and gave quite a few interviews, particularly later in his life. The most important articles are "Happily Ever After" (from 1948, reprinted in Film Makers on Film Making, edited by Harry Geduld, 1969) and "The Freedom of the Screen" (from 1947, reprinted in Hollywood Directors 1941-1976 by Richard Koszarski, 1977). There are also a few pages of "Autobiography," most accessible in Lotte Eisner's Fritz Lang (1977). In addition, this book, translated from the French, contains a detailed study of all of Lang's films by Eisner, a perceptive film critic and close friend of Lang's.
Other books on Lang and his work are Peter Bogdanovich, Fritz Lang in America (1967); Paul Jensen, The Cinema of Fritz Lang (1969); Robert Armour, Fritz Lang (1977); Frederick Ott, The Films of Fritz Lang (1979); Stephen Jenkins, editor, Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look (London, 1981), and E. Ann Kaplan, Fritz Lang: A Guide to References and Resources (1981), with thorough bibliographies and filmography and a synopsis of each of Lang's films.
Additional Biography Sources
Armour, Robert A., Fritz Lang, Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Schnauber, Cornelius, Fritz Lang in Hollywood, Vienna: Europaverlag, 1986.