Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Orson Welles: On Writing ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane (Directed by Orson Welles)
Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances... In a story by Chesterton — ‘The Head of Caesar,’ I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.  (Jorge Luis Borges)
The following extracts are taken from an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which Orson Welles discusses the writing of Citizen Kane:

Peter Bogdanovich: There’s a film written by Preston Sturges called ‘The Power and the Glory’ [1933] which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of ‘Kane’. Is that true?

Orson Welles: No. I never saw it. I’ve heard that it has strong similarities; it’s one of those coincidences. I’m a great fan of Sturges and I’m grateful I didn’t see it. He never accused me of it – we were great chums – but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him...

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife [the nine-year deterioration of their marriage is told through one continuing conversation over five flash-pans] –

OW:  – was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It’s a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family’s life –

PB: All at dinner –


OW: Yes, they’re all sitting at dinner, and they get old – people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and that life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I’d invented it. It wasn’t in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I’d unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?


OW: He was pleased...


PB: Just how important was [Herman J.] Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz’s contribution? It was enormous.


PB: You want to talk about him?


OW: I’d love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.


PB: Except for his part in the writing of ‘Kane’... Well, I’ve read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists – a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.


PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn’t like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible ‘writers’ buildings.’ The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second-class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun – when Hollywood, you understand, was still a funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank,... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.


PB: How did the story of ‘Kane’ begin?


OW: I’d been nursing an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure – couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script – the intricate flashback pattern – worked out between you?

OW: The actual writing came only after lots of talk, naturally,...  just the two of us, yelling at each other – not too angrily.

PB: What about the ‘Rashomon’ idea? It’s still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. ‘Rosebud’ was Mank’s, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn’t matter what it means  –

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.


PB: The reporter says at the end, ‘Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything...’


OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer – a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you’d started shooting. From the point of view of Kane’s character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you’re remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he’s very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm – besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people’s allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way such people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it’s done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?


OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.


PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or, just maybe, it was twice...


PB: Before shooting began, how were differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That’s why I left him on his own finally, because we’d started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all – who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz’s.

OW: It’s very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It’s very perverse, because actually he was a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he’s never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn’t write it...

PB: What was the influence of your guardian, Dr. Bernstein? And why did you give that name to the character in ‘Kane’?

OW: [laughs] That was a family joke. He was nothing like the character in the movie. I used to call people ‘Bernstein’ on the radio all the time, too – just to make him laugh... I sketched out the character in our preliminary sessions – Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us...


PB: Yes, that scene with the reporter [William Alland] –

OW: That was all Mank, by the way – it’s my favorite scene.

PB: And the story about the girl: ‘One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry... There was another ferry pulling in, and... a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on... I only saw her for a second... but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.’

OW: It goes longer than that.

PB: Yes, but who wrote it?

OW: Mankiewicz, and it’s the best thing in the movie. ‘A month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of that girl.’ That’s Mankiewicz. I wish it was me.

PB: Great scene.

OW: If I were in hell and they gave me a day off and said, ‘What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?’ I’d see that scene of Mank’s about Bernstein. All the rest could have been better, but that was just right...

PB: You once said about the editing of ‘Kane’, ‘There was nothing to cut.’ What did you mean?

OW: When I made Kane, I didn’t know enough about movies, and I was constantly encouraged by [cinematographer Gregg] Toland, who said, under the influence of Ford, ‘Carry everything in one shot – don’t do anything else.’ In other words, play scenes through without cutting, and don’t shoot any alternate version. That was Toland in my ear. And secondly, I didn’t know how to have all kinds of choices. All I could think of to do was what was going to be on the screen in the final version. Also, I had a wonderful cast...


PB: Why did you decide not to have credits at the beginning of ‘Kane’? No one had ever done that before.

OW: The script dictated that. Look at all the other things that go on at the beginning, before the story starts: that strange dreamlike prologue, then ‘News on the March,’ and then the projection-room scene – it’s a long time before anything starts. Now, supposing you’d added titles to all that. It would have been one thing too much to sit through. You wouldn’t have know where you were in the picture.

PB: In that prologue you just mentioned, why does the light in his bedroom suddenly go off – and then come on again after a moment?

OW: To interest the audience. We’d been going on quite a while there with nothing happening. You see a light in the window – you keep coming nearer – and it better go off, or a shadow had better cross, or something had better happen. So I turned the light off – that’s all.

PB: Then you cut inside.


OW: That’s right. Maybe the nurse turned it off because it was getting in his eyes. Who knows? Who cares? The other answer is that it symbolized death. Got that? All right...

PB: What did you mean by the mirrors at the end, when Kane walks by and you see his image reflected many times?

OW: I don’t think a moviemaker should explain what he means. About anything. Leave it to the customers. Why spoil things for people who enjoy finding their own meanings?

PB: But you just explained the light going off –


OW: Next.


PB: The black smoke at the end has been said to symbolize the futility of his life...


OW: I don’t know – I hate symbolism.


PB: Fritz Lang said he dropped the use of symbols when he came to America because somebody at MGM said to him, ‘Americans don’t like symbols.’


OW: I’m one of those Americans. I never use it. If anybody finds it, it’s for them to find. I never sit down and say how we’re going to have a symbol for some character. They happen automatically, because life is full of symbols. So is art. You can’t avoid them; but if you use them, you get into Stanley Kramer Town.

PB: I know you hate to think up titles –

OW: No! I love to think ’em up, but can’t! Citizen Kane came from George Schaefer – the head of the studio, imagine that! It’s a great title. We’d sat around for months trying to think of a name for it. Mankiewicz couldn’t, I couldn’t, none of the actors – we had a contest on. A secretary came up with one that was so bad I’ll never forget it: A Sea of Upturned Faces.

PB: Can we talk about Leland’s betrayal of Kane?

OW: He didn’t betray Kane. Kane betrayed him.


PB: Really?


OW: Because he was not the man he pretended to be.


PB: Yes, but, in a sense, didn’t Leland –


OW: I don’t think so.



PB: I was going to say something else. Didn’t Leland imagine that Kane was one thing and then was disappointed when he wasn’t?


OW: Well, it comes to the same thing. If there was any betrayal, it was on Kane’s part, because he signed a Declaration of Principles which he never kept.


PB: Then why is there a feeling that Leland is petty and mean to Kane in the scene when he gets drunk?


OW: Because there he is – only there, because he’s defensive. It’s not the big moment. The big moment is when he types the bad notice afterward. That’s when he’s faithful to himself and to Kane and to everything.

PB: I wonder if that’s as simple as your answer is now, because if you were put in a position like
that –

OW: I’m not his character. I’m a totally different kind of person from Jed Leland. I’m not a friend of the hero. And he’s a born friend of the hero, and the hero turned out not to be one. He’s the loyal companion of the great man – and Kane wasn’t great; that’s the story. So of course he’s mean and petty when he’s discovered that his great man is empty inside.

PB: Well, maybe one feels that Leland could have afforded to write a good review.

OW: Not and been a man of principle. That Declaration of Principles Kane signed is the key to it. Leland couldn’t – no critic can. He’s an honest man. Kane is corrupt. I don’t think he betrays Kane in any way.


PB: Well, one has an emotional response to Kane in the picture, and I certainly felt that Leland betrays him – I felt that emotionally.

OW: No, he doesn’t. You’re using the word ‘betrayal’ wrong. He’s cruel to him, but he doesn’t betray him.

PB: Well, he betrays their friendship, then.

OW: He doesn’t. It’s Kane who betrayed the friendship. The friendship was based on basic assumptions that Kane hadn’t lived up to. I strongly and violently disagree with that. There is no betrayal of Kane. The betrayal is by Kane.

PB: Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?


OW: Because he likes principles more than the man, and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.

PB: Well, then, there you are.


OW: But that’s not betrayal. ‘Betrayal’ is a dead wrong word. He simply doesn’t have the humanity, the generosity of spirit, to have been able to endure Kane...

PB: Do you think that Thompson, the reporter, is changed by going through the Kane story? Is he altered?


OW: He’s not a person. He’s a piece of machinery –

PB: To lead you through.


OW: Yes.


PB: Was there any mystery before the Rosebud element? I mean, did you try anything else?


OW: Yes. And there was a scene in a mausoleum that I wrote – it was a quotation from a poem or something, I can’t remember – and Mankiewicz made terrible fun of it. So I believed him and just said, ‘All right, it’s no good.’ It might have been good – I don’t remember it, because I was so ashamed from Mankiewicz’s violent attack on it.

PB: Why did you begin and end with the No Trespassing sign?

OW: What do you think? Anybody’s first guess has got to be right.


PB: A man’s life is private.


OW: Is it? That should theoretically be the answer, but it turns out that maybe it is and maybe it isn’t...


PB: Is the name Kane a play on Cain?


OW: No, but Mankiewicz got furious when I used that name, because he said that’s what people will think. We had a big fight about that.

PB: The original name was Craig.


OW: Yes. And I said I thought Kane was a better name –


PB: Just because it was a better name –


OW: Yes. And Mankiewicz made the other point: ‘They’ll think you’re punning on Cain’ and all that, because we had a big murder scene in the original script. And I said they won’t, and he said they will, and so on. I won...


PB: Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from ‘Kane’?

OW: You couldn’t mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn’t in terms of story construction?


OW: No, the things that I valued didn’t seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: It seemed to me that your memory of your mother is reflected in the scenes with Kane’s mother.

OW: Not at all. She was so different, you know.

PB: I don’t mean the character, but the affection of Kane –

OW: Really no comparison. My mother was very beautiful, very generous, and very tough. She was rather austere with me.

PB: Well, the mother in ‘Kane’ was not a sentimental mother –

OW: It isn’t that. There’s just not any connection.


PB: It’s not so much the mother herself but the emotion of remembering a mother. As in the scene where you meet Dorothy Comingore and tell her you’re on a trip in search of your youth, and she has that line, ‘You know what mothers are like.’ And you say, in a sad, reflective tone, full of memories, ‘Yes.’ It’s one of my favorite moments in the picture.

OW: No, Peter, I have no Rosebuds.


PB: But do you have a sentiment for that part of your past?

OW: No... I have no wish to be back there... Just one part of it, maybe. One place. My father lived sometimes in China, and partly in a tiny country hotel he’d bought in a village called Grand Detour, Illinois. It had a population of 130. Formerly it was ten thousand, but then the railroad didn’t go through. And there was this hotel which had been built to service the covered wagons on their way west through southern Illinois (which is real Mark Twain country, you know, and people like Booth Tarkington). My father spent a few months of his year there, entertaining a few friends. They never got a bill. And any legitimate hotel guests who tried to check in had a tough time even getting anyone to answer that bell you banged on the desk. Our servants were all retired or ‘resting’ from show business. A gentleman called Rattlesnake-Oil Emery was handyman. One of the waitresses had done bird calls in a tent show. My father was very fond of people like that.

Well, where I do see some kind of Rosebud, perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies – a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life, with a country store that had above it a ballroom with an old dance floor with springs in it, so that folks would feel light on their feet. When I was little, nobody had danced up there for many years, but I used to sneak up at night and dance by moonlight with the dust rising from the floor... Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of. It really was kind of invented by my father. He’s the one who kept out the cars and the electric lights. It was one of the ‘Merrie Englands.’ Imagine: he smoked his own sausages. You’d wake up in the morning to the sound of the folks in the bake house, and the smells... I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from those short summers.

PB: It reminds me of ‘Ambersons’. You do have a fondness for things of the past, though –

OW: Oh yes. For that Eden people lose... It’s a theme that interests me. A nostalgia for the garden – it’s a recurring theme in all our civilization.


– From Peter Bogdanovich: Interview with Orson Welles. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane:  A Casebook (ed. James Naremore. OUP, 2004)

 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Richard Linklater: Young Mr. Welles


Me and Orson Welles is the latest film from director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused). Set in late-1930s New York, it’s both a nuanced, entertaining look at Orson Welles’s early career as founder of the Mercury Theater and a charming coming-of-age comedy about a stagestruck teen (played by Zac Efron) who ends up cast in Welles’s groundbreaking production of Julius Caesar. We posed some questions to Linklater regarding this somewhat unexpected new film, about his take on the genius at its center and the amazing acting discovery who inhabited him.

– Michael Koresky

What led you to make a film about Orson Welles, and specifically about his early years with the Mercury Theater?

It’s become a fairly obscure moment in his career, given the ephemeral nature of the theater and the more notorious work in radio and film that was just around the corner for him. In that way, I always referred to this as a sort of Young Mr. Welles: everyone knows what’s coming in his future, but it’s interesting to see the seeds of all the greatness, as well as the traits that might cause him some trouble in the future—it’s all there to be reflected on. He’s only twenty-two years old here, and you can feel he is pushing his own boundaries, and maybe discovering he really doesn’t have any, both artistically and personally. More than anything else, though, I saw it as a wonderful story about youthful ambition and creating art in a collaborative environment. I don’t know if I’ll ever do a film about making a film, but making a film about a theatrical production is pretty close to home.


You have a very different filmmaking style from Welles. Your films often have a casual, almost real-time feel, whereas Welles is known for grandness, even ostentation. Yet I feel there are certain shots—during the staging of ‘Caesar’ and the last shot—that go for a certain Wellesian flourish. Were you consciously trying to achieve this?

First off, you’d have to say that almost every filmmaker before or since has a very different style from Welles, not just me. Just watch Othello or Touch of Evil again, and you’ll always be reminded. One of the greatest joys and biggest challenges on this was the reimagining of the production itself. It was a lot of fun to attempt to re-create his very dramatic stage lighting. As I tend to bend toward the realistic, I doubt it will ever be appropriate for me to have such dramatic lighting in a movie of mine, but we were just taking our cues from what Welles had done in this production. There was the upward lighting from a series of holes in the stage, where he was trying to capture the feeling of a fascist rally, like something you might see in Triumph of the Will, or the way he flooded the audience with light from behind the conspirators as they each stabbed Caesar—very cinematic. We had some pictures and descriptions to go off of, but a big rule was to avoid any specific references to shots in any of his films—that was in his future, and wouldn’t have been appropriate. If you think about it, this movie is closer to a screwball comedy in its pacing and banter than a film Welles himself would have made or even appeared in as an actor. I don’t think he saw himself as comedic, but the largeness of his personality and the energy whirlwind around him actually lend themselves quite naturally to a more upbeat tone and tempo. On a historical side note, the story goes that Greg Toland saw this particular Mercury production of Caesar, and when he heard Welles was off to Hollywood to make a movie, he set up a meeting with him. He was so impressed with what Welles had done with his lighting that he said he wanted to work with him, so the greatest director-DP collaboration in film history really starts here.


The actors employed as Welles’s Mercury crew are each note perfect, but Christian McKay as Welles indeed towers over them. His embodiment of Welles is uncanny, even effortless. How did you find him?

It’s ironic that Christian was the actor with the least amount of film experience, and here he is lording over everyone else with such authority. Christian’s performance, when you think of what’s required and the degree of difficulty, is an utter wonder. You mention effortless, which in my book is the ultimate compliment to a performance, but Christian was pulling off a hell of a transformation. First off, if you saw him walking down the street just now, I assure you you wouldn’t say, “There goes Orson Welles.” When you’re looking for it, you see a resemblance, but every cast and crew member can tell you about the first time they witnessed this incredible transformation. Here’s this upbeat British gentleman at one moment; then the voice deepens and changes accent, the eyebrows narrow just a bit, the head turns at a slight angle to make a point, there’s a subtle, all-knowing, self-satisfied smirk. He really becomes this other person, and it goes so much further than mere technical imitation—it’s a full embodiment, which on paper seems nearly impossible when it’s Welles you’re trying to be. I mean, who the hell can believably be like that?


I think the key to Christian’s performance is that he brings himself to it, which any actor would try to do naturally, but what Christian possesses that so few have is the absolute self-confidence and elevated air of someone who has lived their entire life with an extraordinary gift. In Welles’s case, he was famously identified as a genius at a very young age and could never think of himself as anything else. Christian’s gift is musical—he’s a world-class pianist, traveling the globe, playing with various orchestras . . . He’s that good and always has been. He came to acting a little later professionally, and has been primarily a stage actor up until now. He’s an incredible talent, truly one of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet, and I hope he gets his due for this performance...

Is there a particular film in the Welles catalog you feel the strongest affinity for—and why?

No one particular film, though if I could watch one right this minute, it would have to be Chimes at Midnight. It’s a CRIME that it’s not more readily available. Welles’s daughter Chris talks about how his performance as Falstaff brings tears to her eyes. In Me and Orson Welles, he’s Prince Hal—one wonders if he knew he would age into Falstaff. Anyway, there should be a cinematic mandate that this film be fully restored and available to all.

– Young Mr. Welles: An Interview with Richard Linklater

Full article here

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

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.