Monday, 26 March 2012

The Violent World of Fritz Lang

M (Directed by Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang was born in fin-de-siècle Vienna in 1890, the son of a construction magnate. He abandoned art school to serve in the Austrian army during WWI, after which he joined the burgeoning German film industry. He thrived in silent film creating a sensation with ‘Dr Mabuse, the Gambler’ (Doktor Mabuse, Der Spieler) in 1922 – a pulpy gangster serial inspired by Al Capone and presaging the rise of Adolph Hitler. He went on to direct the dystopian ‘Metropolis’ in 1927 - a disastrous flop at the time which bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of the Weimar Republic. Adjusting to the coming of sound, Lang created probably his finest work ‘M’ (1931) with Peter Lorre in the role of the hunted killer. Allegedly inspired by the tale of an actual child murderer, it explored the typical Langian theme of empathy for compulsive criminal behaviour.

His next film ‘The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse’ (Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) (1933) was pulled from circulation by Joseph Goebbels due to parallels with the thuggish rise to power of the Nazis. His admiration for the director undiminished, Lang was called into the Reichsminister’s office and offered the position of studio head of the new production company the Nazis were planning to establish. Lang immediately resolved to leave Germany, in part because of his Jewish heritage.

Lang settled in America, where in the late 1930s, he made several films including ‘Fury’ (1936) and ‘You only Live Once’ (1937) dealing with outcasts scapegoated by society. In the 1940s Lang directed two significant film noirs with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in the leading roles: ‘Woman in the Window’ (1944) and ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) in which Robinson played a respectable man driven to murder through desire for a femme fatale. His next notable achievements were a series of late film noir classics, ‘The Blue Gardenia’ (1953), ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) and ‘Human Desire’ (1954), marked by expressionist visuals and tortured protagonists.

Lauded by the French new wave for his versatility, thematic focus and technical mastery, Fritz Lang was a legend by the time he was interviewed about his life and work in a 1967 BBC interview with film critic Alexander Walker:

You Only Live Once (Directed by Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang: The director, in my opinion, is the one who keeps everything together. Primarily, the basic element for the film in my opinion is the script, and the director has to be the servant to the script – he shouldn’t make too many detours. In the last years, the part of the producer has taken over certain things that I think a director should do. I think a producer could be a very good friend of a director if he keeps away from him things which hamper him in his tasks, but usually, as it is now in most studios, the producer tells him what he must do. In this case I call the director a ‘traffic cop’.

Alexander Walker: Is it correct that you took the story of M from the newspapers about the story of the Dusseldorf murders?

So many things have been written about M (1932), it has become so to speak the motion picture. I made it 37 years ago, and it plays constantly in Switzerland, France and even the States. If a film survives so long then there may be a right to call it a piece of art.

The story came out of the fact that I originally wanted to make a story about a very, very nasty crime. I was married in those days and my wife, Thea Von Harbou, was the writer. We talked about the most hideous crime and decided that it would be writing anonymous letters and then one day I had an idea and I came home and said ‘how would it be if I made a picture about a child murderer?’ and so we switched. At the same time in Dusseldorf a series of murders of young and old people happened, but as much as I remember the script was ready and finished before they caught that murderer.

I had Peter Lorre in mind when I was writing the script. He was an upcoming actor, and he had played in two or three things in the theatre in Berlin, but never before on the screen. I did not give him a screen test, I was just absolutely convinced that he was right for the part. It was very hard to know how to direct him; I think a good director is not the one who puts his personality on top of the personality of the actor, I think a good director is one who gets the best out of his actor.

So we talked it over very, very carefully with him and then we did it. It was my first sound film anyway, so we were experimenting a lot.

Metropolis (Directed by Fritz Lang)
How did you come to leave Germany at the height of your career and seek refuge outside the country?

I had made two Mabuse films and the theatre had asked me if I could make another one because they made so much money. So I made one which was called The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1932).

I have to admit that up to two or three years before the Nazis came I was very apolitical; I was not very much interested and then I became very much interested. I think the London Times wrote about the fact that I used this film as a political weapon against the Nazis – I put Nazi slogans into the mouth of the criminal.

I remember very clearly one day, I was in the office and some SA men came in and talked very haughtily that they would confiscate the picture. I said if you think they could confiscate a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany then do it, and they did. I was ordered to go and see Goebbels, and they were not very sympathetic to me, but I had to go, maybe to get the picture freed, so I went.

I will never forget it – Goebbels was a very clever man, he was indescribably charming when I entered the room, he never spoke at the beginning of the picture. He told me a lot of things, among other things that the ‘Fuhrer’ had seen Metropolis (1927) and another film that I had made – Die Niebelungen (1924) – and the ‘Fuhrer’ had said ‘this is the man who will give us the Nazi film.’ I was perspiring very much at this moment, I could see a clock through the window and the hands were moving, and at the moment I heard that I was expected to make the Nazi movie I was wet all over and my only thought was ‘how do I get out of here!’ I had my money in the bank and I was immediately thinking ‘how do I get it out?’ But Goebbels talked and talked and finally it was too late for me to get my money out! I left and told him that I was very honoured and whatever you can say. I then went home and decided the same evening that I would leave Berlin that I loved very much.

Mirrors and their reflections are always ominous features of Lang's movies; the mirror image is his dramatic metaphor. In ‘M’ the criminal underworld is clearly a reverse image of bourgeois society. In his films the individual wages a fight on the side of goodness and order against the very act of forces of evil and chaos as embodied in the diabolical ‘Dr. Mabuse’ (1922), or the lynch mob in ‘Fury’ (1936) or the gangland boss in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953).

Scarlet Street (Directed by Fritz Lang) 
But the fight is psychological too: each Lang hero is a prey to forces inside himself that he cannot control. Forces that may drive him to murder in spite of himself, like Peter Lorre in ‘M’ (1931), or Edward G Robinson in ‘Woman In the Window’ (1944) and ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945). The fight is one that is fixed in advance by fate, the director looks literally down on his actors like an ironical Greek god, his characters are like rats in a maze driven along by his set ups, by his camera movements and by the relentless logic of his editing to a destiny which is pre-ordained and from which even Lang can’t save them.

The theme of theme of man and his destiny and of man trapped in an inimical kind of fate runs right through your work?

I am quite sure that this is correct. It would be very interesting if a psycho-analyst could tell me why I am so interested in these things.

I think from the beginning, one of my first films, the fight of man against his destiny or how he faces his destiny has interested me very much. I remember that I once said that it is not so much that he reaches a goal, or that he conquers this goal – what is important is his fight against it.

It must be very difficult to make films about destiny and God in that sense today, when people don’t believe in heaven or hell in the vast majority. Do you substitute violence or pain?

Naturally I don’t believe in God as the man with a white beard or such a thing, but I believe in something which you can call God in some kind of an eternal law or eternal mathematical conception of the universe. When they said in the States that God is dead, I considered it wrong. I said to them ‘God has only changed his address – he is not really dead.’ That seems for me to be the crux: naturally we cannot believe in certain things that have been told us over the centuries.

The Big Heat (Directed by Fritz Lang)
When you talk about violence, this has become in my opinion a definite point in the script, it has a dramatogical reason to be there. After the Second World War, the close structure of family started to crumble. It started naturally already with the first one. There is really very, very little in family life today. I don’t think people believe anymore in symbols of their country – for example, I remember the flag burning in the States. I definitely don’t think they believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail and therefore they do not believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was: what are people feeling? And the answer is physical pain. Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people really fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts.

– Fritz Lang interviewed by Alexander Walker, BBC Online.

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