“Lang makes you want to puke. Nobody in the whole world is as important as he imagines himself to be. I completely understand why he is so hated everywhere.”
— Kurt Weill, in a 1937 letter to his wife Lotte Lenya (as quoted in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan)
The man born Friedrich Christian Anton Lang in Vienna on December 5, 1890 claimed to have studied art and architecture in Vienna, Munich, and Paris. But according to biographer Patrick McGilligan (Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast), this was just one of several Fritz Lang legends that the director carefully cultivated over the years. In reality, Lang dropped out of Vienna’s Technische Hochschule (technical college) after only two years.
At the age of 21 Lang left home for his traditional Wanderjahre (“wander years” — a coming-of-age tradition), or so the legend went. In fact, he seems to have returned home several times and not to have traveled as extensively as he claimed. He did spend time in Paris, but a contemporary has said that the budding artist was more interested in women than painting. About six months after the outbreak of war, in 1915, Lang enlisted and served in World War I as an artillery officer and was wounded at least three times. It was during the last year of the war that he met Erich Pommer — who would later produce films directed by Lang and others.
Less than a year after the war, Lang was working in Berlin as a film director. For most of his Berlin films, including Metropolis, he collaborated with his wife, Thea von Harbou (1888-1954), who wrote the script or story for most of his films. (They had married in 1922. Lang’s first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, committed suicide under mysterious circumstances in 1920.)
Following Metropolis, the Lang-von Harbou team went on to make another science-fiction movie for Ufa in 1929. Less successful than Metropolis (partly because it was silent just as sound was taking hold), Frau im Mond (“The Woman in the Moon” – now on DVD) was also based on a story written by von Harbou. The film is probably most notable for inventing the rocket launch countdown.
With the advent of sound, Lang made the classic M, probably his best film. M features the Austrian actor Peter Lorre in the role of a big-city child molester and murderer. Both the film’s camerawork and sound technique were remarkable, especially considering it was Lang’s first “talkie” and that one of Lang’s most notable quotes is, “To begin with, I should say that I am a visual person. I experience with my eyes and never, or only rarely, with my ears—to my constant regret.”
After the Nazi takeover in Germany and the banning of some of his films, Lang left for Hollywood via France in 1933. (He was Catholic, but his mother was Jewish.) Lang’s wife, von Harbou, got along famously with the Hitler regime. She remained in Germany (after divorcing Lang), working for the Nazi-controlled Ufa studio of the 1930s.
Although he adapted to Hollywood and made several very respectable films there, Lang felt stifled and frustrated by the US studio system. He came to dislike Hollywood as much as Hollywood disliked him. (Lang had a well-deserved reputation for being arrogant and dictatorial.) Being blacklisted in the McCarthy era (for his work with Bertolt Brecht and some other communists) didn’t help. His US film work, including Fury (1936), Western Union (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944), Rancho Notorious (1952, with Marlene Dietrich), and The Big Heat (a classic 1953 film noir), ended in 1956 when he left for India to do a picture that was never produced. After a brief return to Germany in the late 1950s, where he made a few more films, Lang spent his retirement in California until his death. His Metropolis cameraman, Karl Freund (1890-1969), a fellow Austrian who had left Germany years before Lang, was very successful in working behind the camera on countless Hollywood productions, including Dracula (1931) and Key Largo (1948).
In his later years, Lang was in poor health and legally blind. Despite his reputation for being difficult, Lang had a group of friends (including film critic Lotte Eisner) who stuck by him in these difficult times. His wife, Lily Latté, cared for him at their home on Summit Ridge Drive in Beverly Hills, but she would later be criticized for how she handled Lang’s estate, destroying many documents in an odd effort to protect his legacy. (Although there is no official record of their marriage, the Jewish, Berlin-born Latté had been with Lang in the US ever since she arrived from Paris in 1935. She had first met him in Berlin around the time of M and became his mistress while still married to her second husband.)
On August 2, 1976 Fritz Lang suffered a stroke and died at the age of 85. He was buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery, which was once the legendary Nestor Ranch filming location during the silent era.
The Films of Fritz Lang
Films made in Germany
Fritz Lang made two films in Germany that can be considered his grand masterpieces: the sound film M (1933) and the silent Metropolis (1927).
Erich Kettelhut’s Metropolis set designs and drawings helped director Fritz Lang create the unique imagery of this science-fiction classic. Some critics consider the film’s architecture symbolic of the power relationships — power versus oppression, freedom versus subjugation — in the story. Six months after a visit to New York City, Lang imbued his film with a vision of skyscrapers of the future.
The silent film classic Metropolis was created in Germany in 1925-26 by the Austrian director Fritz Lang in collaboration with his wife, Thea von Harbou. This science-fiction film, so admired today, was not a big box-office success in its time and the production costs almost put the Ufa film studios out of business. But Fritz Lang’s Metropolis continues to fascinate viewers today, and for many decades has influenced Hollywood and world cinema — from music videos (“Radio Gaga,” “Express Yourself”) to films such as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element.
Although based on a story written by von Harbou, some claim it actually stems from Georg Kaiser’s 1920 “Gas Trilogy.” In any case, Metropolis is really more memorable for its fantastic imagery than its story, which is a bit vague and confusing, at times even plain silly. (Note: A copy of 30 minutes of missing Metropolis footage found in Argentina in 2009 may help change this perception.) But even today, there is something fascinating about the futuristic scenes shot by the camera team of Karl Freund and Günther Rittau.
Ironically, in light of the respect accorded the film today, Metropolis nearly bankrupted the Ufa studio (the legendary German film production company). In production for almost two years, Metropolis required vast resources — 37,633 performers, including 1,000 men (FX-multiplied by six) with their heads shaved for the Tower of Babel sequence alone. The stop-action scenes of cars zipping along freeways and airplanes zooming past skycrapers required six days to shoot, but only make up about one minute of the finished film. At 5.3 million marks, the film ended up being the most expensive ever produced in Germany up to that time. The mounting expenses almost closed production early, and the film failed to make money. But even the modern viewer can see where the all the money went. Some of the scenes and special effects in Metropolis are as impressive today as they must have been in 1927.
The film’s reception at the time of its release in various countries was mixed. The London Times and The Spectator gave generally positive reviews, but in the US, Time magazine’s review of Metropolis ended with this unkind comment: “Ufa might better have shut the eyes of its great cameras than permit them to reflect nonsense in such grandeur.” In his later years Lang himself seemed to be one of the film’s biggest detractors. In 1958 he said, “I don’t like Metropolis. The ending is false. I didn’t like it even when I made the film.” (This from the director who was such a perfectionist, he required three days to shoot a brief love scene in the film between Brigitte Helm and Gustav Fröhlich.) One can only speculate on how much of Lang’s negativity stems from his past association with ex-wife Thea von Harbou, the film’s co-writer and a big Nazi sympathizer.
The Metropolis that moviegoers and reviewers of the 1920s saw varied from country to country and place to place. Lang’s cut was no doubt far too long to begin with, but the American version was severely cut to ten reels from the original 17, seriously disturbing the film’s rhythm and making it impossible for US viewers to make any sense out of the already convoluted plot. One unfortunate result of all this snipping: some segments of the film may have been lost forever, with some scenes today existing in restorations only as still shots (but see the note above about the recent Argentinian find). Nevertheless, enough of the Expressionist film masterpiece remains to allow us to appreciate Lang’s cinematic craftsmanship — despite his own words.
The Hollywood Films of Fritz Lang
Although Fritz Lang is best known for the films he made in Germany before Hitler came to power, many of his Hollywood films were also worthy achievements.
Lang in Hollywood
Fritz Lang made his first Hollywood film in 1936, only three years after leaving Nazi Germany. Fury became a critical and box-office success that established Lang as a Hollywood director. But for a long time Lang had found it difficult to get an American studio to give him a film assignment. His one-year contract with MGM began in 1934, but the scripts or treatments he presented (at first in German translated into English) met with little enthusiasm.
In addition, Lang’s reputation had preceded him. Many of the people he had once worked with in Germany were now also in Hollywood and few were eager to work with the Austrian director again. (And many resented his fame.) He also faced the challenge of the language difference. He had a bilingual secretary to help with his work, but he needed time to absorb the American language and way of doing things. (He read a lot of newspapers and comic strips.)
Accounts vary as to who found and adapted the story of lynch mob that became the script for Fury, but the project arose just as Lang’s contract at MGM was running out. Studio writer Norman Krasna had proposed the story of an innocent man cornered by an enraged mob, based on an actual 1933 mob incident in San Jose, California that had been reported in newspapers. Joseph L. Mankiewiecz liked the idea and developed Krasna’s treatment into something he could direct. However, Louis B. Mayer wanted Mankiewiecz as an MGM producer instead, and Lang was given the job of directing Fury. It was also Mankiewiecz who put Spencer Tracy in the lead role of Joe. Bartlett Cormack, who had just joined MGM, was given the job of producing a final script. Despite friction on the set (cast and crew upset with Lang), the director produced a good picture. It became a high standard to which Lang was compared for his future films, even when he later moved to Paramount and other Hollywood studios.
Fritz Lang FILMOGRAPHY
Fritz Lang showed his mastery in both the silent and sound era. M, one of the first “talkies” ever produced, displayed Lang’s talent for using sound effectively. In his silent classic, Metropolis, he was a visual virtuoso. In Hollywood, he became a master of film noir.
Selected Films (Germany)
Die Spinnen 1 | The Spiders 1 (1919)
Die Spinnen 2 | The Spiders 2 (1920)
A two-part epic starring Lil Dagover and Carl de Vogt. The secret organization known as “Die Spinnen” is after Inca gold (The Golden Lake, Part1) and a huge diamond (The Diamond Ship, Part 2).
DVD > Buy Die Spinnen (Parts 1 & 2)
Der müde Tod | Destiny (1921)
“Weary Death” (literal translation) was released in the US as Destiny, Between Two Worlds and Beyond the Wall.
DVD > Buy Der müde Tod
Dr. Mabuse der Spieler | Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
Stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse.
DVD > Buy Dr. Mabuse der Spieler
Die Nibelungen | The Nibelungen (1924)
A two-part epic (Siegfried and Kriemhild) based on Germanic mythology.
DVD > Buy Die Nibelungen
This Criterion restored version of Lang’s sci-fi flick includes the original music score.
DVD > Buy Metropolis (restored version)
Spione | Spies (1928)
Agent No. 326 is ordered to stop a spy-ring, but he falls in love with one of the spies, Sonya, and tries to find the head of that organization. Stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Gerda Maurus.
DVD > Buy Spies
Die Frau im Mond | The Woman on the Moon (1929)
Lang invented the launch countdown for this film. Variously titled “By Rocket to the Moon,” “The Girl in the Moon,” and “The Woman on the Moon” in the US. Gold is discovered on the moon, and that’s when the trouble begins.
DVD > Buy Die Nibelungen
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse | The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Lang’s sequel to his flamboyant 1922 Dr. Mabuse film, this time adding subtle use of sound to the creepy effects developed for the silent version. Stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke and Gustav Diessl.
DVD > Buy The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – 2-Disc Set – Criterion Collection
Der Tiger von Eschnapur | Das indische Grabmal
The Tiger of Eschnapur | The Indian Tomb (1959)
Lang’s two “Indian Epic” films were made in West Berlin and India after he quit Hollywood. In color. With Debra Paget and Paul Hubschmid.
DVD > Buy Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic (DVD set with English and German versions)
Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse | The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
Lang’s very last film (made in Germany) is a spy thriller that combines elements of film noir, horror, and science fiction. Stars Dawn Addams, Peter van Eyck, and Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger) as police commissioner Kras, trying to uncover the sinister secret of the mysterious Hotel Luxor.
DVD > Buy The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
Selected Hollywood Films
Lang’s first US movie. The story of an innocent man (Spencer Tracy) who escapes a lynch mob and then orchestrates his apparent murder at their hands. Stars Tracy and Sylvia Sidney. Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay (but not for the director).
DVD > Buy Fury
You Only Live Once (1937)
An above-average Depression-era gangster pic with Henry Fonda, Sylvia Sidney and Ward Bond.
DVD > Buy You Only Live Once
Western Union (1941)
A Technicolor Western with Robert Young and Randolph Scott.
Hangmen Also Die (1943)
About Hitler’s Nazi henchmen.
The Woman in the Window (1944)
The first in a series of Lang film noir movies.
Ministry of Fear (1944)
A good film noir with Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds. Stephen Neale (Milland) is released into WWII England after two years in an asylum, but it doesn’t seem so sane outside either.
DVD > Buy Ministry of Fear
Scarlet Street (1945)
A film noir starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. A box-office hit in its day (despite being banned in three states), Scarlet Street is perhaps Lang’s finest American film. Now restored by Kino to its former glory.
DVD > Buy Scarlet Street (Remastered edition)
Rancho Notorious (1952)
A Western with Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Kennedy.
The Big Heat (1953)
A respected film noir with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. The story revolves around the suicide of a crooked cop, and the subsequent struggle of an honest detective, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), to navigate between a corrupt city government and a ruthless mobster to uncover the truth.
DVD > Buy The Big Heat
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
A good Lang film noir with Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Raymond Burr, Ann Sothern and Nat ‘King’ Cole. Inspired by the notorious Black Dahlia murder case.
DVD > Buy The Blue Gardenia
A swashbuckler with Stewart Granger and George Sanders.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Lang’s last US picture, and not one of his best, stars Dana Andrews.
Next | Featured Biographies
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Berlin City Guide – The sights and history of the German capital, where Ballhaus was born
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
FRITZ LANG BOOKS
- Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick-McGilligan (Kindle, hard cover, paperback)
- Fritz Lang: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers) – Barry Keith Grant, editor (paperback)
- Fritz Lang by Lotte Eisner. An examination of his films. (paperback)
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