Biographer Patrick McGillian Tries to Tame Fritz Lang

Biographer Patrick McGilligan plants seeds of doubt in his biography about Fritz Lang, forcing us to look beyond what many assumed was true.

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
Patrick McGilligan
June 1997

Patrick McGilligan’s biography of iconic German director Fritz Lang seems to have been founded on the idea of disproving a quote attributed to the visionary filmmaker: “My private life has nothing to do with my films” he once said, and the thorough McGilligan traveled across continents and looked back in time to prove that Lang was not being quite truthful. Mostly known for his epic science-fiction extravaganza Metropolis (released in 1927), Lang became one of the most influential filmmakers in history, despite having lived a controversial life that included the very mysterious death of his first wife, his affiliation with the Nazis despite being a Jew himself, and a strange Hollywood career that might have denied us of his pure genius.

In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, McGilligan, whose biography of Alfred Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light remains one of the definitive bios of recent times, digs deep into the life of a man who otherwise had chosen to remain very much like a puzzle. “Fritz Lang lived his life – and cultivated his legend – with the glinted eyes of a maniac,” writes McGilligan, in his usual style through which he borrows elements of the genres his subjects excelled at and transforms them into somehow objective biographical prose. “He was determined to carry his secrets to the grave” he continues, “the true story of his life, he believed, was nobody’s business.” Lang considered his private affairs something that wouldn’t interest the regular moviegoers who should instead have been focusing on the effects of his work.

Beginning with the circumstances within which Lang was born, McGilligan spends most of the time planting seeds of doubt, forcing us to look beyond the “facts” many assumed were true about Lang’s life. He first questions how for example his mother Johanna, came into an inheritance that would provide for the son she had with a man that remained unknown to him (he was raised by Anton Lang who inspired the severe father figures that appear in his films). How was the mother able to not only come into money but effectively legitimize her son within a conservative society that condemned women who brought illegitimate children to the world? The author suggests that Lang was very “liberal” with the way he chose to tell his life’s story, mostly trying to turn every single event into something worthy of a film of its own, and in the case of his early life, there are little records from which to gather straight facts.

McGilligan elaborates on how Lang’s most famous story was his escape from Nazi Germany in 1933. Despite having been an admirer of Hitler (who some have called “the Fuhrer’s favorite film”) and a Nazi sympathizer (he and his first wife Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party in 1932), Lang was of Jewish descent and would have most likely been tried under the Nuremberg Laws despite practicing Catholicism.

After the Party banned the director’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse due to its anti-Nazi undertones, minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels met with the filmmaker not to attack him, but to offer him the position of head German filmmaker (he would’ve been in charge of running UFA Studios). Terrified by what seemed like the imminent discovery of his roots, Lang fled to America in what McGilligan calls “his crowning concoction, replete with details a novelist would relish: an office with swastika decor, the clocks of an enormous clock ticking towards a fateful hour, the director’s pockets sewn with escape money.” If anything, Lang was born to tell stories.

His escape from Germany is most conflicting because there are documents showing that he’d been in talks of moving to Hollywood and becoming a contract director, since around the time when Metropolis came out. Added to this is the fact that Lang kept journals in which he wasn’t entirely truthful, either. Was the filmmaker a joker who wanted to have the last laugh?

This notion sets the mood for McGilligan’s strange closing lines, which imagine Lang in Heaven passing judgment on the book about him. The author obviously tries to be humorous, or reverential even, but mostly comes out sounding trite and dishonest. But that’s not enough of a flaw to keep one from realizing that McGilligan also gave himself completely to the auteur and page after page, seems to be deriving pleasure out of telling this story.

The chapter covering the making of M is among the most delightful in the book, especially because, like the most interesting of biographers, McGilligan displays a familiarity with concepts that go beyond mere fact-stating and allow him to interpret the elements of Lang’s work in contrast to his life experiences. It’s illuminating, for example, to see how the author draws a parallel between Lang’s early Expressionistic works and his probable early memories of growing up in Vienna, a city full of shadows and sharp angles that might’ve haunted little Fritz’s nightmares.

For all its effort in unmasking Lang as a man who wasn’t as excused from succumbing to good old fashioned Freudian interpretation as he thought he was, McGilligan has empathy for his subject, and chapters in which he discusses his success in America glow with the pride of someone who has contributed to these efforts. He is defensive at times and extremely suspicious at others, but it’s impossible not to realize how, by the end, the author, too, has come to the conclusion that despite his best efforts, Fritz Lang was a beast that could not be tamed.