Beauty and the beast

Fritz Lang
June 19, 1998

The playful subtitle of Patrick McGilligan's brilliant biography of Fritz Lang is "The Nature of the Beast". Legend has it that nobody could be as beastly as Lang. On set he was tyrannical: he reduced actors and, particularly, actresses, to tears; he risked the lives of extras; he took credit for his collaborators' work; he demanded absolute loyalty without giving anything in return and he squandered money on an epic scale. (Of course, this could read like a job description for directors.) McGilligan confirms all this and adds, for good measure, that he was a fantasist and a compulsive self-publicist.

But this is not a hatchet job; this is a book for grown-ups. There is little simplification or closure; instead there are contradictions, lacunae and mysteries. By the end, McGilligan has helped us to understand the nature of the man and, despite his faults, which are as epic as his early films, we come to like and admire him.

For a man who never wanted a quiet life, who was determined to be at the centre of things and who sought every kind of professional and personal adventure, Lang chose the right place and time to be born: Vienna, 1890. McGilligan's account of the Habsburg capital before the Great War stands scrutiny as a piece of pure history. Lang was fully caught up in the city's extraordinary creative outpouring and its decadence. Against the advice of bourgeois parents, he trained to become a painter. He particularly admired Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, but he was only a mediocre talent. He had a creative urge, but I doubt we would have heard of him had cinema not been conveniently invented a few years after he was born. In any case, why should a film-maker have any other talent apart from that of film-making? It may be affected by the other arts but film-making is not a secondary extension of any of them - although certain pop singers, fashion photographers and cattle-picklers (such as Damien Hirst) may disagree.

Lang's talents as a sketch artist came in handy during the Great War when, as a young officer, he led an Austrian horseback patrol that operated near enemy lines to pinpoint fortifications and positions. Later, Lang was to elaborate on many real-life dramas and invent quite a few but, curiously, he was diffident about his war-time record: "I was wounded several times, and received some medals," he says tersely in Lotte Eisner's biography. In fact, he was particularly brave, often operating on his own, ahead of his troops. This showed a certain tendency. Directors are often compared to generals in command of armies; Lang, by contrast, was a loner. By temperament, he was unsuited to being a director. At play, nearly always in the company of women, he could be sociable and charming, and he loved the central European life of cafes and nightclubs. At work, he was a different man, who found communication difficult. He was also a perfectionist - obsessively so. Whatever the reasons, he gave colleagues a hard time. Actors were treated like puppets, technicians were underlings and extras cannon fodder. But he drove himself harder than anybody else.

After the war, Lang left Vienna for Berlin. By 1919 he was directing and soon making a reputation for himself. He had an eye and a way with images but the one thing that he could not bludgeon out of others, and could not do on his own, was screenwriting. He needed a collaborator. Nearly 50 years later he was to confess that his success came after his collaboration with Thea von Harbou a young actress turned writer. But first they became lovers and she left her actor husband, Rudolf Klein-Rogg (who later starred in many Lang-von Harbou films). Lang said that women were his best friends; most of these friends were also his lovers. He was addicted to sex and regularly used the services of prostitutes until he died at the age of 85.

Lang was already married to Lisa Rosenthal when he started the affair with von Harbou. Little is known about Rosenthal, and Lang often denied the marriage. The only certain thing is that she died from a bullet in her chest fired from a Browning revolver owned by Lang. Was it accident, suicide or murder? The facts are inconclusive, but Lang and von Harbou - whom he married a year or so after the event - always contended that it was suicide and the authorities went along with that. McGilligan is understandably captivated by the story. Lang's films are full of murder, suicide, betrayal, conspiracy and dark secrets. Are these fixations the result of Lang's guilt or remorse over Rosenthal's death? McGilligan believes that the murky incident was a determining factor. I think he overstates the case. The dark worlds that Lang describes have deep and ancient roots. The narratives are not about single devastating events but about the emergence of dormant forces of cynicism, sadism and evil.

In 1954, when Lang was in Hollywood, having just made his best and most successful American film, The Big Heat, he had this to say about the relationship with the audience: "The more the audience is absorbed in the story, and the more they forget the camera angles, the little sly tricks of direction, and the director's touch, the better the picture is." Either Lang had moved on or this is a breathtaking reinvention of himself. For between 1922 and 1931 Lang directed seven scripts by von Harbou and gave us some of the greatest examples of German expressionism: Dr Mabuse - The Gambler, The Nibelungs, Metropolis, Spies, Woman in the Moon, M and The Last Will of Dr Mabuse. He even assisted on pre-production for the quintessential German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. With the exception of M, what these films have in common is a visual style that demands to be noticed: tilted camera angles, exaggerated perspectives of sets, asymmetrical compositions and dramatic lighting with an emphasis on dark spaces. It is the vivid landscape of nightmare. Characterisation is stark, with demonic and omnipotent figures, passionate and wilful women, and masses moved by vast currents. Narrative is simple, with machinations and conspiracies, near destruction of idealism and betrayals of every decent thing - murder is the first and only option. The approach to the audience is not "softly softly'' but a knuckle sandwich.

Of course, Lang is best remembered for Metropolis, which came out in 19, at the very end of the silent era. In its production, it was the Titanic of its day. It took 310 days and 60 nights to shoot. Extras nearly drowned, sets collapsed, actors were injured, Brigitte Helm, the Janus-Maria character, nearly burned at the stake - and Lang had the time of his life. He liked to be in the thick of things. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, on this and other films, he wanted to be the one to fire the gun - yes, the same Browning that Rosenthal had used to shoot herself - lob the gas canister, light the fuse, ride the unruly horse, strike the match and start the fire.

Metropolis was a financial disaster and German reviews were mixed. Most agreed it was a technical and cinematic tour de force, but its substance and meaning were something else. McGilligan refers to the film's allusions as "borrowings, woven dissonantly together, from H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, Karl Marx and the Bible". Wells himself called it "the silliest film" comprising "almost every possible foolishness, cliche, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality". In 1965 Lang said that he did not like the film because it "is absurd to say that the heart is mediator between the hands and the head, that is to say, of course, between employee and employer. The problem is social and not moral."

German, American and other European distributors quickly cut the original version of Metropolis. But even in its mutilated version, it makes one gasp. It is imaginative and bold, and one of the few silent films that has a modern stamp. But Lang is right: it is intellectually flawed, as are all his silent films - with the exception of M. McGilligan describes his German films succinctly and accurately as a mixture of "low-life and high-art". One could add "big-theme". The trouble was that Lang and von Harbou did not often get the balance right. Maybe because they were only observers of low-life: or maybe because Lang was more taken with images, special effects and spectacle than with ideas. He was strong on research and obsessed with getting the details right, but often they did not add up. He tried to hammer things into place. The flow is not easy or natural.

Everything fused properly in M. It was Lang's favourite film, and, to my mind, it is flawless. Depravity fascinated him. M was the perfect subject: a story of a child murderer who is eventually hunted down by beggars and gangsters. Its photographic style is integral to the story rather than apart from it, with restrained lighting and unemphatic compositions. The murderer, played by Peter Lorre, is both chilling and pathetic; and the film inspires both horror and pity. Lang does not flinch. There is no sentimentality, no evasion and no attempt to comfort the audience with professions of revulsion. No other film gets us so close to a psychotic.

In 1933, The Last Will of Dr Mabuse was banned by Joseph Goebbels. McGilligan's account of Lang's relationship with the Nazis is perhaps the most complex in the book. Lang's films uncannily anticipate their coming, aims, means, symbols and, most of all, absorption in death. In fact there is an uncomfortable feeling that he understood them only too well. The Nazis certainly liked his films, and he was left well alone while Jewish colleagues were sacked and threatened. But the real controversy is to do with Lang's origins: although he was baptised, and brought up a Catholic, his mother, Paula Schlesinger, was Jewish. Even during the darkest days of anti-Semitism Lang did not go out of his way to acknowledge his roots; but there is no evidence that he ever denied them. There are two possible responses to racism: one is to proclaim, defiantly, where you come from; the other is, equally defiantly, to resist defining yourself primarily in terms of race. Lang probably belonged to the latter group. He himself claimed that he was "sleepwalking" at the time. McGilligan suggests that he was half-blind and totally absorbed in his films.

Things came to a head when, according to Lang, Goebbels offered him the job of running the Nazi film industry; he fled (without von Harbou, who had gone Nazi and also taken an Indian lover, Ayi Tendulkar, who revered both Hitler and Gandhi). Lang gives a wonderful and vivid account of his meeting with Goebbels, including the latter's dismissal of the small problem of Lang's Jewishness ("Mr Lang, we decide who is Jewish"). McGilligan examines the evidence and concludes that the offer was never made, the meeting never took place. Lang was inventing a new persona - and preparing the ground for his journey to Hollywood.

In Germany, Lang was the complete insider - inside its culture, inside its film industry, inside its very unconscious. In Hollywood, he was on the outside - outside the system, outside the language, outside its very reason for being. In Germany, film-making was a collective enterprise ruled by the director; in Hollywood, it was a business where the producer ordained story conferences, production meetings, screenings and edits. Between 1936 and 1956 Lang made 22 US features. He had lost the control he had in Germany, so how much of himself could he insinuate into these films? Among critics there seems to be a hunt-for-Lang in Lang's films, to find out to what extent he was auteur, craftsman or hack. Jean-Luc Godard, perversely enough, prefers the American films, but the key question is: what would German cinema, and silent cinema as a whole, be like without him? Different and impoverished, is the answer. Most of Lang's Hollywood films were generated by the studios. In his absence, many of them would have been made by someone else. Whether better or worse, it is impossible to say. A handful of his films, though, would have been sorely missed: Fury, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, The Big Heat and Moonfleet.

Making films was only part of his engagement with Hollywood. There was also the matter of the House Committee for Un-American Activities. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Lang had to face the paler shade of fascism during Senator McCarthy's anti-Communist witch-hunt. The story of the period, with its betrayals and destruction of careers and lives, is well told. Lang comes out of it quite honorably, but what impresses is how fleet of foot he was. But then, he had been practising.

McGilligan's book will stand as the definitive biography of Fritz Lang for a long time to come. He has given us the man, his films and the turbulent cultures and times he lived in. What I miss, though, are the magnificent stills from Lang's films that decorate Eisner's hagiography. Those stills alone, without the words, tells us how innovative, powerful and daring was Lang's contribution to the history of cinema.

Mamoun Hassan is director of editing, International Film and Television School, Cuba. As a film-maker he produced the series Movie Masterclass for Channel Four.

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

Author - Patrick McGilligan
ISBN - 0 571 19175 4
Publisher - Faber
Price - £16.99
Pages - 548

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