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Fritz Lang in Hollywood

Violence was always an integral part of Fritz Lang’s art, yet few other filmmakers were as scrupulous about what should be shown and what shouldn’t on the screen.

Fernando F. Croce

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Fritz Lang in Hollywood
Photo: Photofest

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.

The 1940s saw not only the rise of the war thriller, but also the spread of film noir. The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) are often viewed as textbook examples of the deterministic genre, though the truth is that, despite the filmmaker’s fascination with fate’s inexorably turning gears, his protagonists are rarely lambs pushed around by malign forces beyond their control. In contrast to, say, the societal pressures of You Only Live Once, here the protagonists themselves are the ones who kick into motion the mechanisms that ultimately destroy them. For Lang, as for Hitchcock, civilization is precariously erected over long-suppressed urges, and in both films Edward G. Robinson portrays meek, petit-bourgeois men whose brutal impulses are aroused by encounters with women played by Joan Bennett. When such impulses are suddenly unleashed, who can say when murder is self-defense or when it is premeditated? Equipped with the same actors and similar narrative points, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street make for an extraordinary double-bill of studies in dreamlike helplessness and culpability, in which gentlemen incriminate themselves while trying to hide the blood in their hands, the wrong people get skewered by justice’s sword, and Lang’s unyielding gaze dares us to separate the innocent from the guilty.

Scarlet Street, a remake of Renoir’s 1931 classic La Chienne, was not the only time Lang crossed paths with his illustrious Gallic colleague. Human Desire (1954) reworks the sordid triangle of La Bete Humaine (1938) as a striking welter of grids, train tracks and entrapping camera angles, but the most telling comparison between Lang and Renoir (surely cinema’s two grand pillars) might be in their contrasting use of water in mid-career films made within a year of each other. In The River (1951), Renoir uses the continuous ebb and flow of the eponymous torrent to embody the overflowing turmoil of life, while the stream in Lang’s House by the River (1950) circles the characters until their insidious desires float by like an animal’s carcass. Lang’s first film of the 1950s, House by the River is a largely unheralded cavalcade of icy delirium where a hack novelist (Louis Hayward), energized by the murder he’s accidently committed, becomes delighted by the ghoulish resuscitation of his writing and sense of self. As in the ironic Bluebeard retelling Secret Beyond the Door (1947) before it or the outré frontier pipedream Rancho Notorious (1952) after, it showcases the director’s unerring mix of often surreal situations and cool ethical schemas, a combination that would continue throughout the decade whether in a prestigious Odets adaptation like Clash by Night (1952) or a shoestring drop of venom like The Blue Gardenia (1953).

People may not believe in heaven or hell, Lang once said, but they do believe in pain. Violence was always an integral part of his art, yet few other filmmakers were as scrupulous about what should be shown and what shouldn’t on the screen. Think of the ball rolling out of the bush in M representing a little girl’s murder, or the physically and spiritually charred Tracy in Fury grimly recalling his own lynching (“I could smell myself burning”). Even American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950), possibly Lang’s worst film, contains a staggering image of heightened mortality as a shot Japanese soldier screams in close-up. The ultimate Langian treatise on violence is in his Hollywood masterpiece The Big Heat (1953), a crime thriller that pulls together his themes (underworld networks, human duality, the horrific purity of revenge) into a magnificently unsentimental moral study. Glenn Ford’s widowed, obsessed rogue cop may be the film’s implacable motor, but it is the inimitable Gloria Grahame who, as the gangland mistress who’s painfully made aware of her own potential for retribution and compassion after her face is hideously disfigured by boiling coffee, gives it a soul. The gruesome act takes place off screen, yet Lang’s mise-en-scène makes sure that every viewer feels the sting in a manner that led Robin Wood to rightfully compare the sequence to the branding of the slaves in Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

Lang’s final American films carry his career-long themes to virtually abstract peaks of concentration and detachment. Moonfleet (1955) is the kind of unique venture (a Gothic period fable shot in Cinemascope) that at the time could only be appreciated by the Cahiers du Cinéma gang (Jacques Rivette claimed it as one of his all-time favorites), and While the City Sleeps (1956) revisits M’s sex killings as part of a withering look into the manipulation among a group of reporters. Dana Andrews, who plays one of the unscrupulous journos, also stars in the brilliantly bleak Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), which takes a cold scalpel to the very notion of a heroic protagonist in this corrupted world. Rather than autumnal mellowness, in these films one finds the chilling clarity of an artist who has witnessed and understood a century’s worth of struggles and traumas, a medium pioneer whose work remains resolutely modern (surely one of the reasons Godard invited Lang to play himself as a sagacious old Tyrannosaurus in Le Mépris). Appropriately enough, his career ended back in Germany with his bifurcated 1959 serial epic (The Tiger of Eschnapur, The Indian Tomb) and a return to one of his most famous creation in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), the last image of which (a resurrection and an embrace) posits a surprising sense of hope for an auteur who so consistently saw the world through a monocle, darkly.

“Fritz Lang in Hollywood” will run for two weeks, from January 28 to February 10, at New York City’s Film Forum. For details, including ticketing information, click here.

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