(1890 - 1976)
Three Key Films: Metropolis (1927), M (1931), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Underrated: The Big Heat (1953). The title alone is enough to evoke a dozen dark black and white crimes. With a style lifted almost intact from early German expressionism and ported over to the troubled, post-War years, Fritz Lang seemed to have finally found his way in the often confusing town of Tinsel. With its simple story—cop taking on the syndicate that killed his wife—and a terrific cast, the director was able to influence the tone and tenure of every single cinematic aspect. From an intensity and an aggressiveness with the directing approach to the no holds barred brashness of the often brutal material, Lang loved this kind of creative conundrum. Unlike his earliest efforts which relied on oversized visuals and expansive ideas to sell his sentiments, this was a small movie made big by that man behind the lens. Decades later, after film noir had become a staple of film scholarship, many would praise this dour descent in the seedy underworld. For Lang, it had long been familiar territory.
Unforgettable: The birth of the robotic Maria. There are plenty of amazing moments in Metropolis, many of them as iconic and worthy of the motion picture mythology they tend to foster. From the clockwork hands of the city’s main machine to the towering pyramid-like skyscrapers, there is vision in abundance throughout. But for many, the moment when Maria, our feisty little revolutionary firebrand, is “imitated” by the ruling regime, stands as the significant turn in science fiction filmmaking. With F/X that still awe and amazing today (how they were done, exactly, is still a mystery) and a visual punch that adds power to an already strong story, few sequences in Lang’s oeuvre are as recognizable, or riveting.
The Legend: Before he made a single motion picture, Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang had already lived at least two lifetimes. He had attended finishing school and studied engineering and art in college. He traveled Europe, returning to his home country of Vienna when World War I broke out. He fought in Russian and Romania, and returned wounded and shell shocked. He then did a bit of acting before taking on a writing job at one of Germany’s most influential movie studios. Before long, he was behind the lens. After meeting his wife (and future collaborator) Thea Von Harbou, he attempted a string of films that would come to define his style and his lasting legacy. With Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) a four hour epic told it two parts and 1924’s Die Nibelungen (another massive undertaking), Lang established his reputation for narrative scope and storytelling vision. All of this would come directly to the fore with the creation of what many consider to be the first real masterpiece of science fiction filmmaking, 1927’s Metropolis.
Telling an allegorical tale of one man battling the oppressive regime of a massive, technologically advanced city, it remains a stunning work of both visual and narrative power. From the multifaceted architectural elements used to continually highlight human subjugation to the full blown special effects sequences which see robots turned into humans, machines transform into demons, and an entire underground apartment block flooded and destroyed, it was a tour de force that continued to suggest Lang’s larger than life designs. So, naturally, many were shocked when he his first official “talkie” went back to the crime thrillers he helmed during the first part of his career. Of course, no one could have expected the shocking severity of his brilliant M. From the subject matter (a child killer on the loose in the streets of Berlin) to the unusual approach to the story (it is the villains, not the police, who end up metering out justice), it marked a major turning point for Lang, both personally and professionally. As he started work on its follow-up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the Nazis rose to power. When his wife going the movement, Lang filed for divorce, saw his efforts banned by Hitler, and eventually fled to America.
Once in Hollywood, the filmmaker’s stern, strict on-set approach did not sit well with studios or stars. He was lumped into a cliched category of dictatorial directors, hard to work for and with little to show for his artistic tantrums. Over the course of his 27 years in Tinseltown (most working for MGM), he would continue to confuse his admirers. Sometimes, he’d hit upon quality material (his first US film, 1936’s Fury or 1944’s Ministry of Fear). Applying what he had learned during his days at the heart of German Expressionism, he turned the typical Western (The Return of Frank James, 1940) and the crime story into dark, disturbing variations of their former self. This was especially true of the latter, where Lang’s bravura black and white imagery would come to define the film noir genre. By the end, however, the filmmaker seemed spent and without true inspiration. His final effort, 1960’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse saw him returning to the famed underworld figure he had helped create four decades before. An odd fate for a man whose future shock scenarios and starkly contrasted cautionary tales remains viable cinematic staples today. Bill Gibron