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Fritz Lang Essay, Research Paper



Lang (1890-1976), an Austrian-born

film director, was one of the commanding figures of German and American

cinema. In a career spanning over four decades, he pioneered entire new

genres and modes of cinematic expression. From the distortions of German

Expressionism to the malignant brooding of American film

noir, Lang’s films depicted a fatalistic universe where all possibilities

are predetermined. Fascinated

by the psychology of violence, his movies were populated by murderers, thieves,

prostitutes, and spies. In films like Metropolis,

M, Fury, While the City Sleeps, and others, Lang

made immeasurable contributions to the technology of film making, and

the art of visual story telling.



Fritz Lang was born

in Vienna on December 5, 1890. His parents Anton and Paula were staid

and respectable members of the city’s middle class. Anton, a municipal

architect, believed his son would one day succeed him in his profession.

Yet early on it was apparent that Fritz was not at all like his father.

Free spirited and imaginative,

he loved to draw and read fantastic stories by Jules

Verne and other writers. As he grew older he became fascinated with

philosophy and the occult. Anton believed the discipline of school would

tame the boy’s wild mind. He enrolled Fritz in a technical high school,

and later sent him to the Vienna Academy of Graphic Arts where he studied

architecture at the College of Technical Sciences.

He did not easily settle

into his architectural studies, and much preferred to paint and draw.

He admired the work of painters Gustav

Klimt and Egon

Schiele, and envied the romantic life of an artist. He became something

of a Viennese bohemian, haunting cabarets and nightclubs; meeting women

and having casual affairs.

Cabarets were more

than amorous playgrounds for Lang. He earned his first professional pay

painting sets for small productions. When his father learned of Fritz’s

excursion into show business, he forbade him to continue. The pair argued

bitterly and without resolution.

"And since I could

not convince him that I would make neither a good architect or a successful

engineer," Lang wrote in his memoirs, "I ran away from home

— something every decent young man should do."


Young Artist Adrift

Leaving for Belgium

when he was twenty, Lang soon wandered half the globe. Drifting through

North Africa, Turkey, Asia Minor, Bali and the South Pacific, he returned

to Europe in 1913. Settling in Paris, he made a living selling hand-painted

postcards, paintings, and cartoons for German newspapers. With his spare

cash he diverted himself at the cinemas. Even though most of the picture

shows he watched were primitive and crude, Lang responded to the medium’s


"I already subconsciously

felt that a new art — I later called it the art of our century — was

about to be born," he recalled.


Vision: WW I & the Golden Age of German Cinema

When war broke out

in 1914, Lang was nearly arrested by the French police during a roundup

of "foreign enemies." He fled to Vienna and felt very lucky

to have avoided the conflagration that would soon engulf all of Europe.

He rented an art studio in the city and began to work as a painter. No

sooner was this enterprise under way, than he was drafted by the Austrian


Lang proved a worthy

soldier and eventually became a lieutenant. Wounded in battle four times,

his final injury left him blinded in his right eye. He was discharged

in 1916 and spent a year convalescing in a Vienna hospital.

As he recovered, he

began regularly visiting movie theaters. "I was preoccupied with

the new medium of film," he wrote. He started writing short stories

and film scenarios, and acted in Red Cross plays. He submitted his initial

screen effort, a werewolf tale, to several film companies but generated

little interest.

Two subsequent screenplays,

Wedding in the Eccentric Club, and Hilde Warren and Death

caught the attention of the German producer Joe May. He purchased the

scenarios from Lang and produced them under his own name. When the young

veteran saw his stories mangled and misinterpreted on screen, he determined

that one day he would direct his own films.

By the time he left

the hospital in 1917, he had sold several screen concepts to May and other

German directors. Moving to Berlin, he was hired as story reader and editor

for Decla-Bioscope, an independent production company. Lang soon worked

as a staff screenwriter and occasional actor in Decla productions.



He got his first chance

to direct in 1919 with The Half Breed, a tale about a spurned half-Mexican

mistress who gets even with her lover. The film explored the all consuming,

destructive power of revenge, a prototypical Lang theme.

Lang’s next film, a

two-part work called The Spiders established him as a commercial

success. Produced during 1919 and 1920, The Spiders concerned master

criminals plotting to conquer the world. This was a popular theme in post-war

German cinema. Audiences were captivated by visions of doom and pessimism.

It’s not surprising that Expressionism, an art movement that had silently

germinated since the late 19th century, now came into its own.

Robert Wiene’s The

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) uses Expressionistic design elements

to visually objectify a mad man’s state of mind. With its fantastically

distorted perspectives, dramatically contrasting light and shadow, and

extreme camera angles, Caligari set the standard for a whole new

cinematic genre.

Originally assigned

direction of Caligari by Decla’s chief executive Erich Pommer,

Lang was forced to bow out because of his commitment to The Spiders.

Before he left, he made a critical contribution to the film’s narrative

structure. Instead of simply recounting the nefarious acts of Dr. Caligari,

Lang suggested the tale be told from the perspective of a mad narrator.

Only at the film’s end does the audience learn that the story was a lunatic’s

paranoid delusion. Lang’s narrative framing device augmented the film’s

expressionistic vision and provided a twist that audiences loved.

In 1920, the year that

Decla-Bio merged with German film giant Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft

(UFA), Lang began a long partnership with screenwriter Thea

von Harbou. Their first collaboration, The Tired Death became

a classic of Expressionism.

Set in the middle ages,

this highly allegorical film tells the story of young woman who bargains

with Death for the return of her deceased lover. Thematically typical

of the angst-ridden genre, The Tired Death is most notable for

Lang’s distinct use of lighting as an element of design and composition.

Architecture played

a critical role in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), the story of

a criminal genius who leads a gang of thugs on a murderous rampage. With

its brooding shadows and moral ambiguities, Dr Mabuse was a direct

antecedent of the American film noirs of the 1940s and 50s.

Lang’s next two films,

Siegfried (1922-24) and Kriemhild’s Revenge (1923-24), were

lavish studio fantasies. UFA spared no expense for the productions. Mammoth

studio sets housed specially constructed mountains, forests, and a giant

fire-breathing dragon. Lang was free to realize his vision in minute detail.

He experimented with the geometrical relationships between people and

architecture. After finishing production in 1924, Lang and von Harbou

were married.


When Lang and von Harbou

began work on Metropolis in March 1925, UFA was the biggest and

best equipped studio in the world. When they finished filming in October

1926, the mighty studio was on the verge of collapse.

Though Metropolis

was not the first science fiction film ever made (that distinction belongs

to Frenchman Georges

M?li?s’s A Trip to the Moon, 1902), it set the precedent for

all those to follow. Despite its flaws, Lang managed to create a futuristic

vision that was coherent and believable. Technically, Lang pioneered an

array of special effects, many that are still in use half a century later.

Lang conceived Metropolis

during a visit to the United States in 1924. As his ship docked in New

York harbor, he stared in awe at the city’s imposing skyline. He imagined

a futuristic urban landscape where humans are swallowed in the gears of

their own creation. Lang told Thea about the idea and she wrote a novel

about a grim industrial dystopia. In 1925 they converted Thea’s book into

a screenplay.

Lang’s architectural

vision reaches an apex in Metropolis. The glittering, ultra-modern

cityscape contrasts starkly with the distorted, expressionistic underworld

of the workers. He emphasized this by introducing "architecturalized"


For a worker-riot scene,

Lang carefully choreographed the actors’ movements into bold geometric

patterns. These designs were closely linked to the set’s architecture

and the scene’s framing. Thus, even in rebellion the workers are still

a part of the machine.

Most of Metropolis’s

stunning visual effects were achieved by cinematographer Eugen Sch?fftan.

His innovative trick-shot technique allowed miniatures and live action

sequences to be seamlessly combined. Sch?fftan used specially made magnifying

mirrors to pick up reflections of miniatures. The mirrors were then secured

at 45 degree angles from the movie camera. This way the camera would see

the reflected miniatures but not photograph itself.

Next, Sch?fftan made

a kind of matte by scrapping away the reflective surface, revealing clear

windows to the sets and live action behind the mirror. Captured in two

dimensions on film, the miniatures, life-size sets and actors are combined

in one frame.

Metropolis also

introduced the kind of eye-popping visual effects that are staples of

contemporary science fiction films. In a memorable sequence, the mad scientist

Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) transforms a robot into a beautiful woman.

Audiences were mesmerized as they watched the robot, bathed in floating

orbs of electricity, metamorphosize into an evil replica of the beautiful

Maria (Brigitte Helm). Lang achieved this effect through in-camera dissolves

and an early form of optical printing.

For shots of cars and

airplanes gliding above the city’s skyline, Lang and crew employed stop-motion

animation techniques. These sequences, lasting barely a minute on film,

took six days to film. In another pioneering segment, John Fredersen (Alfred

Abel), the master of Metropolis, talks to his chief foreman Grot

(Heinrich George) on a giant telescreen. This effect was one of the earliest

known examples of rear-screen projection.

Metropolis was,

at the time, the most expensive film in European history. The production

drained the studio’s resources and crippled its output. UFA was forced

to borrow over four million dollars from two American studios, Metro-Goldwyn

and Famous Players. Despite the loan, UFA still owed the Deutsche Bank

forty million marks. Though millions of viewers around the world attended

the film, box office receipts could not save the sinking studio. In 1927

UFA was taken over by Alfred Hugenberg, a newspaper mogul with close ties

to the Nazis. The golden age of German cinema was at an end.


Mabuse and the Third Reich

Lang left UFA and started

his own production company. He made two more silent films, Spies

(1928), and The Girl in the Moon (1929), a science fiction film

where he coined the concept of the rocket-launch countdown.

Though Lang’s films

often explored the most gruesome aspects of human behavior, the director

deplored the depiction of violence. Consequently he devised many visual

strategies that suggest violence without actually portraying it. His first

sound film, M (1930), was Lang’s favorite and a masterful example

of metaphorical storytelling.


Lorre plays a tormented psychopath who relentlessly stalks and murders

little girls. Though he desperately wants to stop, he can’t resist the

primal compulsion to kill. In the end it is criminals, not police, who

track the murderer down.

Although sound films

were barely two years old, Lang demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of

the medium. In M he juxtaposes sound and images to create scenes

of compelling emotional resonance.

In one segment, a mother

is heard calling for her little girl. On screen there is a succession

of stark imagery: a desolate stairwell; a dark shadowy basement; and finally

an empty place setting at the family dinner table. Sound and image conjure

a terrible sense of foreboding about the little girl’s fate.

Another clever device

Lang used to create suspense was the murderer’s recurrent whistling before

each homicide. Unlike many film makers of the early "talkie"

period, he realized that sound was much more than dialogue. Artfully employed,

sound evokes powerful emotions.

Though Hitler was not

yet in power, the Nazi influence was increasingly pervasive, particularly

in the media. During Alfred Hugenberg’s tenure, UFA became a production

and distribution center for Nazi propaganda films. Many of the newsreels

and shorts UFA produced were intensely anti-Semitic. Lang, a liberal of

Jewish descent, sensed that Nazi venom was more than empty rhetoric.

In 1933, the year Hitler

assumed control of the government, Lang completed The Last Will of

Dr. Mabuse, a sequel to Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In the fervently

anti-Nazi film, Lang’s most wicked characters spew Nazi slogans. The Nazis

immediately banned Last Will. However, in a strange twist, the

director was invited to meet with Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda.

Goebbels did not mention the ban, but said that Hitler was a big fan of

the director’s work, particularly Metropolis. The Furher was offering

Lang a position as Artistic Director of UFA, a post later assumed by Leni


Lang was astounded

and horrified by the offer. Now reality seemed as twisted and distorted

as an Expressionistic film. Even his wife Thea seemed a stranger to him.

When the Nazis came to power she joined the party, and began churning

out propagandistic screenplays.

He didn’t trust Goebbels,

and suspected that Goebbel’s offer was some kind of trick. Certain he

might be arrested at any moment, he departed Goebbel’s office and caught

a train to Paris that evening. He had little money and only the possessions

he could carry. He and von Harlou were divorced shortly after Lang fled.

She went on to write and direct many films for the Nazis.


The Hollywood Years

Lang spent a year in

Paris and directed one film, Liliom (1934), the ethereal story

of an angel trying to earn his wings. Escapist fantasy seems a natural

outlet for a man who had just lost everything to the Nazis. Yet Lang did

not long remain in the clouds. Meeting American producer David O. Selznick

in London, he signed a one-picture deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM),

and set sail for Hollywood.

Lang spent most of

1935 learning English and working on screenplays, but his early efforts

were flatly rejected by MGM. He traveled across American, hoping to learn

more about the culture and people of his adopted home. Frequenting small

backwaters and villages, Lang came to know the American soul. He developed

a keen understanding of the nation’s conflicting virtues and inequities.

In Fury (1936)

he returns to the terrain of intense psychological dramas like M.

Spencer Tracy plays

a young man who is wrongly accused of kidnapping, and then is nearly lynched

by a vengeful mob. This penetrating study of scapegoats and crowd hysteria

draws subtle parallels with the fascist movements swallowing Europe.

You Only Live Once

(1937) and You and Me (1938) completed Lang’s series of brooding

social critiques. The former tells the story of an ex-convict who has

mended his ways, but is still persecuted by society. In You and Me,

a department store owner hires an ex-con, but soon suspects him of foul


The films received

a passing reception, but did not do as well as Fury. Lang, used

to complete artistic freedom, was increasingly frustrated by autocratic

studio rule. Signing a contract with 20th Century-Fox, Lang embraced American

mythology with The Return of Frank James(1940), an entertaining

sequel to Henry King’s acclaimed Jesse James (1939). Western

Union (1941), though not as successful, cemented his reputation as

a master of the time-honored genre.

America’s involvement

in World War II turned Nazis into standard box-office villains. Lang gladly

launched his part in the war effort with a series of anti-Nazi films.

Man Hunt (1941), finds a British assassin stalking Hitler while

he, in turn, is hunted by the Gestapo. Here, he returns to the fatalistic

themes that marked so many of his German films. Espionage thrillers like

Hangmen Also Die (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak

and Dagger (1946) rounded out this cycle.


in the Shadows: Film Noir

Toward the end of the

war, and for some years after, Lang revisits the mystery-suspense themes

of his earlier career. Psychological thrillers like The Woman in the

Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the

Door (1948), and House by the River (1950) epitomized the emerging

American genre that French critics named film noir.

Like M and the

Dr. Mabuse before, these films were marked by somber, shadow-filled

tones, often set in what film critic Gavin Lambert described as "an

anonymous, melancholy urban world." They portrayed an American landscape

where heroes and villains were sometimes difficult to distinguish.

Lang turned away from

mobsters briefly and made one last western. Rancho Notorious (1952),

is a psychological tale about a cowboy turned vigilante after the murder

of his girlfriend. Though the film was eventually ranked among his more

important works, critics and audiences rejected it at the time.



Lang’s next films reclaimed

the shadowy realm of crime. Clash by Night (1952), set during the

Depression, considers how social turmoil can transform a peaceful man

into a murderer. Shortly after the film was finished in 1951, Lang was

swept up in the growing turmoil of the cold war.


Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities branded

Lang a "potential communist." This charged stemmed from the

director’s association with "left-leaning" screenwriters like

Berthold Brect and Ring Lardner Jr. Blacklisted, Lang was unemployed for

over a year.

In 1953 Harry Cohn

of Columbia Pictures testified before McCarthy’s

witch-hunting committee that Lang was not a communist. The director

was immediately hired to work on Blue Gardenia (1953), the story

of an innocent young woman accused of a ghastly murder. This marginally

successful film was followed by The Big Heat (1953), one of Lang’s

best crafted and evocative noir thrillers.

In The Big Heat,

a young detective battles a ruthless mobster who controls a small town.

The film shocked both audiences and critics alike with its brooding intimations

of violence, and moral ambiguity. Lang depicts a world where corruption

is the norm, and honesty is a laughably naive ideal.

Human Desire

(1954), a remake of Jean Renoir’s La B?te Humaine (1938) explored

the destructive power of lust. Lang departed from contemporary criminal

themes in Moonfleet (1955), a gothic melodrama about an orphan

enlisted by a gang of smugglers.

Lang’s last American

masterpiece was also one of his personal favorites. While the City

Sleeps (1956) concerns three newspaper reporters whose ruthless news

gathering tactics rival the horror of the murder they are investigating.

Arguably the darkest of his crime thrillers, Lang casts a scathing critique

of America’s cutthroat business culture.

Beyond a Reasonable

Doubt (1956) marked a disappointing conclusion to Lang’s American

career. Although the idea was intriguing — a novelist masquerades as

a murderer to expose inequities in the judicial system — the production

was a mechanical exercise in excess. Not even the film’s unexpected twist-ending

restores its potential.



Professionally, Lang

wearied of zealous studio chiefs meddling with his productions. He longed

to direct films where artistry was not compromised by commercial considerations.

He traveled to India in 1956 and did research for an independent project

called Taj Mahal. Not far into the planning stages, he abandoned the project

and returned to the United States.

In a last attempt to

work with Hollywood studios, he pitched a story idea concerning illegal

telephone tapping by the FBI. Still reeling from McCarthy-era paranoia,

the premise was flatly rejected. After twenty years of feuding and frustration,

Lang abandoned Hollywood forever.

In 1957 a German production

company offered him a chance to direct a two-part story, The Tiger

of Eschnapur (1959), and The Indian Tomb (1959). The scripts

were closely based on scenarios written by Lang and Thea von Harlou in

1921, and held great personal significance for the director.

Lang stayed in Germany

and made one last film, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). His

directorial swan song was a finely crafted update of his Mabuse series.

After a series of grisly murders, the Berlin police suspect the killer

may be a high-tech copycat of the evil Dr. Mabuse. Taut and suspenseful,

the film delivered a polemic against the dangers of over reliance on technology.

In 1963 Lang played

himself in Jean

Luc Godard’s Contempt. A film about the making of a film, Contempt

is also a glowing tribute to the career of Fritz Lang. Godard and other

French New Wave film makers were among the first to recognize the director’s

profound influence on modern cinema.

Lang returned to the

United States in his late years, and lived in Beverly Hills, CA. He died

on August 2, 1976 after a long illness.


films, Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) are

considered masterpieces of cinematic propaganda.


Bibliography for Fritz Lang


Armour, Robert,

Fritz Lang, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Cook, David

A., A History of Narrative Film, New York: W.W. Norton & Co,


Eisner, Lotte

H., Fritz Lang, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Katz, Ephram,

The Film Encyclopedia, New York: HarperCollins, 1994

Mast, Gerald

and Kawin, Bruce, A Short History of the Movies: Fifth Edition,

New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.


Hawkins, Erika,

"Fritz Lang and Metropolis: The First Science Fiction Film,"

Metropolis Homepage, January 1997.

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