“My films show my preoccupation with violence, the pathology of violence.” – Fritz Lang
Dubbed the ‘Master of Darkness’ by the British Film Institute, Austrian-German-American Fritz Lang is revered throughout the world for his definitive masterpieces such as Metropolis and M to name but a few. A champion of German expressionism, Lang’s works helped pave the way for popular genres of today like sci-fi, serial killer films and, of course, film noir. His masterpieces have influenced generations of filmmakers, from Jacques Rivette and Jean Luc-Godard to Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg.
Lang said, “I was born in Austria…I became interested in the German human being and I wanted to make some films about the romantic German human being in Destiny, or the German after the First World War it was the Dr. Mabuse films, or the German of the legend it was the Nibelungs, or the German of the future it was Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. And then I became a tiny bit tired, and then there was something to do with my private life about which I don’t want to talk, and I got tired about the big films. And I tried to do something quite different and I made M.”
He also spoke of the nature of cinematic violence, “At the time when I did M, I had to show one thing—how a murderer rapes a child, right? Let us say he slits her up. Fine. Aside from the fact that it is very horrible to look at, and very tactless, it is only one way to show it and many people would look away. But if you don’t show it—if you just let the audience know what happened—then every single man and woman can imagine the most horrible things, correct? And then they help me. I don’t show any violence and I don’t have to show them the horrible thing of how a child has been raped.”
On his 130th birth anniversary, we revisit 10 essential works from Fritz Lang’s impressive filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
Fritz Lang’s 10 best films:
10. Spies (1928)
Lang’s penultimate silent film, this 1928 espionage thriller was co-written with his wife, Thea von Harbou, who also wrote a novel of the same name. It features Soviet espionage activity in London, spearheaded by a carnival entertainer called Haghi. Although no original negatives of the film survive, a high-quality nitrate copy is held at the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague.
In the 1967 interview, Lang claimed that Haghi was made up like Trotsky and that the film was inspired by recent events in London: the Soviet trade organization ARCOS (All Russian Co-operative Society) was suspected of being a spy ring, so its offices were raided by Scotland Yard in May 1927.
9. Die Nibelungen (1924)
Lang’s two part-series of epic fantasy films is criminally neglected and probably the most visually interesting entry on this list. Based upon the epic poem Nibelungenlied written around AD 1200, the film captured the unwanted attention of Hitler and Goebbels. Almost a century has passed since Lang made it but it is still studied by film scholars as a shining example of the potential of the cinematic medium.
Lang recalled, “After the war, after the First World War, there was an inflation, you know? And let me say, to give you an example, when a worker in the studio went home, let me say after six o’clock, we are shooting at six o’clock…He came home and all the shops were closed. And the daily money which he got, because it was inflation, he got his salary in daily money every evening. The next day he couldn’t buy anything, practically, out of it.
“In the Nibelungs I think I had one hundred and fifty knights, you know, the uniform would have cost a fortune, but when it came to paying it was no more than if he would have paid one knight at the beginning of the film. You know, it is something which is very hard to explain. It was the first time, I think, in history that a country had such an inflation.”
8. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
A sequel to Lang’s 1922 epic silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, this 1933 thriller is probably the best in his Mabuse series. It stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind who lays out a manifesto for a future empire of crime while he is locked in an asylum.
When his plans start materialising, it is up to Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) to connect the clues and find the solution. Critics have drawn comparisons between the figure of Mabuse and Hitler. There is some merit to this because the film was banned by Goebbels when Hitler came to power,
7. Ministry of Fear (1944)
Based on the 1943 novel by Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear is Lang’s American film noir which features a man who finds himself caught up in a dangerous Nazi spy plot after being released from a mental asylum. It stars Ray Milland as the protagonist.
Ministry of Fear is a crucial link in Lang’s filmography which connects his early anti-Nazi films with his later psychological thrillers. It has the hallucinatory imagery of the former as well as the controlled manipulation of the latter. Lang’s interpretation has significant deviations from the novel but it still remains a worthy adaptation.
6. House by the River (1950)
Another overlooked addition in Lang’s filmography, House by the River was made by Lang under serious budgetary restrictions. It is a well-crafted film which displays Lang’s masterful understanding of the criminal mind. The story follows a deranged writer who murders his maid after she resists his advances and lets his brother take the fall for it.
“Why does the crime of murder have such a potent clutch on the imagination of all human beings? I freely admit that I don’t quite know, this after years of studying murder from the viewpoint of the dramatist,” Lang believed.
“The fascination of murder and violence for the human psychology is probably inherent. […] Gradually, and at times reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that every human mind harbours a latent compulsion to murder.”
5. Fury (1936)
Adapted by Bartlett Cormack and Lang from the story Mob Rule by Norman Krasna, Fury was Lang’s first American film. It is a stunning exploration of the potentially murderous results of de-individuation, telling the story of an innocent man who narrowly escapes being lynched by an angry mob.
“In Fury, there was a four-page outline, the filmmaker recalled. “And in this outline was only one thing that interested me, for example. It was my first American film. It was that one could make a film about lynching. But the outline, itself, puts the emphasis on something else.
“So when I found this in the chests of MGM—and they have a very good writer, Bartlett Cormack—we [talked about] what I wanted to do. And I said ‘Look, there is one idea—we can make a picture about lynching in the United States.’”
4. The Big Heat (1953)
Based on a serial by William P. McGivern that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Glenn Ford stars in Lang’s 1953 film noir as a Police Sergeant. He descends into the criminal underworld after starting an investigation of an alleged suicide committed by a corrupt cop. Calling it “one of the great post-war noir films,” the film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.
Lang said of star Glenn Ford, “Glenn Ford is a very, very clever actor, and he knows exactly his limits. When you talk with him the first time there are no limits, he can do everything. But so you find out what the limits are. And he knows exactly how to fight, you know. So you rehearse, slowly, everything, you know, and then either you do it in one shot or you do it in ten shots, that depends. But you rehearse it exactly.”
3. Scarlet Street (1945)
A cinematic adaptation of the French novel La Chienne (The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardière, Scarlet Street stars Edward G. Robinson as Chris Cross, a timid amateur painter and cashier who rescues a young woman Kitty (Joan Bennett). Kitty manipulates and leads Cross to the depths of human depravity, a world of lust and betrayal. The film was banned in three cities (New York, Milwaukee, and Atlanta) because of its “questionable” central themes.
According to Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang, The Nature of the Beast: “Edward G. Robinson recalled a time during the filming of Scarlet Street when the director spent an hour ‘rearranging the folds in Joan Bennett’s negligee so she would cast a certain shadow he wanted.’
“Editor Marjorie Fowler recalled another day ‘where Bennett was lying across a bed, and Fritz was fascinated. He had to have a particular take that showed the rise of her breasts. And he was very articulate about it! That was the take we were going to use, and we were going to play the hell out of it.’”
2. Metropolis (1927)
Regarded as a pioneering work of the sci-fi genre, Metropolis is set in a beautifully bleak dystopian future where the privileged live in luxury but the mistreated workers reside below the surface. An example of Marxist dialectics in cinema, it follows Freder, the wealthy son of the city master, who attempts to bridge the vast gap between the elite and the working class. Metropolis is now recognised as one of the most influential films ever made, the first film to be inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
In an interview with the film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, in 1965, he admitted, “I have often said that I didn’t like Metropolis. I cannot accept today the leitmotif of the message of the film.”
He reflected later, in 1976, the final year of his life: “Yet, today, when you speak with young people about what they miss in the computer-guided establishment, the answer is always, ‘The heart!’ So, probably the [screenwriter], Mrs. Thea von Harbou, had foresight, and therefore was right and I was wrong.”
1. M (1931)
M is Lang’s haunting arthouse crime drama and his celebrated magnum opus. In this 1931 film, Lang constructs a deeply unsettling labyrinth of corrupt moralities where the binaries of “right” and “wrong” mean very little. Greatly influenced by German Expressionism, Lang employs a foreboding chiaroscuro of lights and shadows to create a film noir atmosphere.
Even though almost 90 years have passed since the film was released, M is still a compelling melodrama that never fails to come across as anything less than striking. This was the film that exposed American audiences to the German master’s works and solidified his status as one of the greatest filmmakers.