Lang, Fritz: Genius Director, Master of Film Noir

One of the most influential directors in world cinema, Fritz Lang is all but forgotten today.

Fury (1936): Lang’s First American Film

Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Robert Siodmak or Fred Zinnemann, Lang had never been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and none of his Hollywood film was particularly successful at the box-office.

At his prime, he was an innovator in a number of genres.  He invented the sci-fi genre with “Metropolis” in 1927.

He launched  the spy feature with “Spies” and “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler.”

No director had worked within the genre of film noir more consistently or more brilliantly than Viennese born German filmmaker Fritz Lang.

Bringing to the screen an obsessive and fatalistic world populated by a rogues’ gallery of strange and twisted characters, Lang staked out a hostile corner of the cinematic universe; despair, fatalism, isolation, helplessness–are major themes in his work.

A product of German Expressionist thought, he explored humanity at its lowest ebb, with a distinctively bold visual sensibility that virtually defined film noir long before the term was even coined.
Born Friedrich Christian Anton Lang in Vienna, Austria, on December 5, 1890, he initially studied to become an artist and architect.
He served in the Austrian army during World War I, earning an honorable discharge after being wounded four times.
He first entered the German film industry as a writer of horror movies and thrillers beginning with 1917’s Hilde Warren Und Der Tod.
In 1919, he and director Robert Wiene teamed up on the script of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and although Lang exited in the pre-production stages to begin work on another project, his contribution to the story–a framing device revealing the story line to have been a dream–ranks among the most imitated structural techniques in history.
As a director, Lang debuted in 1919 with the now-lost Halbblut. Upon completing 1920’s two-part The Spiders, his early rise to fame culminated with 1922’s Doktor Mabuse der Spieler, which marked the emergence of his striking Expressionist aesthetic and introduced his popular Mabuse character.
Another two-part epic, Die Niebelungen, followed two years later, and in 1927 he filmed the science fiction landmark Metropolis.
M
Lang’s transition from the silents to sound began with his masterpiece M (1931). Written by wife Thea von Harbou, as were most of his films of the era, M documented the crimes of a deranged serial killer (Peter Lorre) preying on the children of Berlin. The film exerted tremendous influence on the work of filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, and Jacques Tourneur.
The success of M positioned Lang as a leading figure of the German film industry, but its power may have been too great.  Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels offered Lang the opportunity to direct films for Adolf Hitler, unaware of the director’s own Jewish heritage.
According to legend, Lang– already stinging from a government ban on his recent Die Testament des Dr. Mabuse–fled the country that same evening, without the pro-Nazi von Harbou.
 
Hollywood Career
After briefly stopping in France to shoot Liliom, he landed in Hollywood, earning immediate acclaim with 1936’s Fury, an indictment of mob mentality.
Lang spent the next several decades in America working in a variety of styles and genres, including the Western (among his more notable efforts being 1940’s The Return of Frank James and 1952’s Rancho Notorious).
Grim Thrillers
Lang’s greatest achievements during the period of the 1840s and 1950s was a series of grim thrillers which defined the look and texture of film noir.  They include pictures like 1944’s Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window, 1945’s Scarlet Street, 1953’s The Big Heat, and 1956’s While the City Sleeps.
The all offer bleak, gripping depictions of life on the edge of desperation, exploring in haunting detail recurring themes of obsession, vengeance, and persecution.
Lang’s film world lacked detail and verisimilitude, and his screen characters were not defined by deep or precise psychological traits.
However, by the mid-1950s, Lang had become disenchanted with the Hollywood system. After completing 1956’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, he briefly stopped in India to film 1958’s Die Tiger von Eschnapur before returning to Germany after an absence of decades.
Upon completing 1959’s Indische Grabmal, he directed one last Mabuse picture, Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, before announcing his retirement from filmmaking.
Acting in Godard’s Contempt
After appearing in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 feature Contempt as himself, Lang returned to the U.S. to live out his remaining years.
Lang died in Los Angeles of stroke on August 2, 1976 at age 85.

Filmography

1919–1933: 16

Halbblut (1919)

Der Herr der Liebe (1919)

The Spiders, Part 1 (1919)

Harakiri (1919)

The Spiders, Part 2 (1920)

The Wandering Image (1920)

Four Around a Woman (1921)

Destiny (1921)

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924)

Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924)

Metropolis (1927)

Spione (1928)

Woman in the Moon (1929)

M (1931)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

 

1934–1956: 24 features (23 in Hollywood)

Liliom (1934, made in Paris

Fury (1936)

You Only Live Once (1937)

You and Me (1938)

The Return of Frank James (1940)

Western Union (1941)

Man Hunt (1941)

Moontide (1942)

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Ministry of Fear (1944)

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Scarlet Street (1945)

Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Secret Beyond the Door (1948)

House by the River (1950)

American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950)

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Clash by Night (1952)

The Blue Gardenia (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Human Desire (1954)

Moonfleet (1955)

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Later

The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959)

The Indian Tomb (1959)

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)