Describing “the formidable industrial machine known as Hollywood,” Jean Renoir once delineated the situation often faced by émigré auteurs in the American studio system: “Some people manage to be just as strong as it, others are broken by it.” As illustrated in the 22 films screened in Film Forum’s extensive “Fritz Lang in Hollywood” retrospective, not only was Lang (1890-1976) not broken by this machine, he for decades wielded it as a sharpener for his personal moral vision. An exacting architect of mankind’s many traps, he had established himself as one of Germany’s guiding cinematic lights long before any invitations came from across the pond: From Destiny (1921) and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) to Metropolis (1927) and Spies (1928), the first stage of his career connects the young medium to the nation’s artistic traditions of Romanticism and Sturn und Drang while providing a veritable flowchart of the Weimar Republic’s heady, increasingly ominous elements. By the time he came to M (1931), Lang’s first talkie and arguably his meisterwerk, his dark worldview—in which authorities and criminals operate with interchangeable ruthlessness and a child killer becomes the quivering human center of a geometric nocturnal city—was already fully formed, and attracting the attention of the Nazi Party.
Lang’s flight from Germany in 1933 would become the stuff of cinephiliac lore, with the director in later interviews describing his meeting with Joseph Goebbels as if it were a particularly shuddersome scene from one of his films. After a brief stopover in France (the fruit of which was 1934’s Liliom, an under-seen tragicomedy that accentuates the fatalism underneath the fanciful rubric of Ferenc Molnár’s original play), he made his American debut with Fury (1936). Depicting the beastliness that lurks not only within a frenzied lynching mob, but also inside its own wronged protagonist (Spencer Tracy) as he becomes engulfed by vengeful wrath, this ferocious scald could scarcely be more different from the postcard America envisioned by MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who accordingly failed to renew Lang’s contract. His independent follow-up, You Only Live Once (1937), continued his examination of a society closing in on people like a steel vise. Following two young fugitives (Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney) through a landscape of endless rain and night, it lays the groundwork for Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and confirms Lang’s genius for cinematically transposing the Teutonic nightmare of persecution into his new land.
Both Fury and You Only Live Once contain visual symbols clearly linked to Lang’s years of expressionistic experimentation, be they a dissolve from gossipy matrons to noisy geese or police searchlight beams that threaten to snatch the disoriented characters like ghostly arms. His Germanic formalism is at its most rampant in You and Me (1938), a very odd mallard of a film that lacerates capitalism, spikes the champagne of romantic comedy with the menace of the gangster genre, and, boasting songs by Kurt Weill, is more Brechtian than Brecht himself. Something like a popular front anti-musical, it contains a scene that conveys the fragility of happiness as sharply as any in Lang’s oeuvre: George Raft and Sylvia Sidney touching hands for a fleeting, furtive moment while riding on separate ways in an escalator, a moment made all the more powerful by an earlier, radically different image of hands as a hood sadistically grinds his heel into the palm of the hero’s sidekick. The movie’s failure damaged the director’s momentum in Hollywood, and its experimental indulgences may have been instrumental to the stylistic rigor that progressively characterized his films as he entered the 1940s. More and more, the imagistic flamboyance of the German silents would give way to a severity as concentrated as Dreyer’s. Beneath the Americanized naturalistic surface, the original nightmares still boil: Siegfried, Kriemhild, and the Dragon from the Die Nibelungen saga still materialize in the American films, only here they’re cops, molls, and kingpins.
Lang’s first two 1940s films, The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941), find the most Germanic of filmmakers contemplating the most American of genres, distilling westerns to their conflicts in ways that often anticipate Anthony Mann’s own neurotic sagebrush journeys. It’s only fitting that he’d follow them with a string of anti-Nazi thrillers that addressed the pervasive destructive forces that his earlier films foresaw and had by then become reality. Man Hunt (1941) opens like a fairy tale in an enchanted garden that turns out to be the Wolf’s Lair where Der Führer himself lurks. Hangmen Also Die! (1943) throbs with communal dread as even theater audiences are depicted as potential victims to fascist scrutiny. By the time Ministry of Fear (1944) rolls in, the protagonists are as bewildered by treacherous appearances (a secret capsule stashed inside a cake, an enemy agent disguised as a blind man, an exploding suitcase) as the characters in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Informed by a no-doubt personal concern, these films are far from simplistic propaganda: War is depicted not as a tug of war between virtuous and evil figures but as situations that tragically allow the barbaric side inherent in human nature to take center stage. For all we know, Lang seems to say, Alexander Granach’s malicious Nazi detective in Hangmen Also Die! might have once upon a time been Otto Wernicke’s benevolent Inspector Lohmann.