In 1997, St. Martin’s Griffin Press published Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast to widespread critical acclaim. Now, after several years of remaining out of print, the University of Minnesota Press has released a beautiful new paperback edition of the biography which Stanley Kauffmann called a “permanent resource” upon its initial release. Indeed, Patrick McGilligan’s nearly 500-page treatment of the elusive, demonstrative German director seemingly spares no detail, chronicling Lang’s entire life with a precision that transcends merely ticking off facts in chronological fashion and, more interestingly, revels in the director’s off-screen faults just as frequently as he applauds the on-screen brilliance. Such jarring juxtaposition is epitomized by the books epigraph, spoken by Lang himself: “My private life has nothing to do with my films.” McGilligan looks to test this claim throughout, detailing the life of a man dedicated to artistic integrity and meticulous detail while working, yet also capable of rampant adultery, giving numerous tongue-lashings to cast and crew, and, even, murder.
The final possibility is contained in the book’s most startling chapter; in 1921, Lisa Rosenthal, Lang’s wife, died from a single gunshot wound. According to Lang and Thea von Harbou (Lang’s writing partner and soon-to-be wife), Rosenthal surprised the pair while having sex in Lang’s office. Then, she went into the bathroom and shot herself. However, editor Hans Feld and cinematographer Karl Freund believed something far worse: that Lang had shot Rosenthal, incidental or not, and refused to take any blame for it. McGilligan treats this debate somewhat objectively, though his explanation of logical inconsistencies with Lang’s story suggests, like Feld and Freund, that there remains a reasonable doubt. With this passage, one must remember McGilligan’s opening words, that “Fritz Lang lived his life with the glinted eyes of a maniac.” These tensions drive McGilligan’s prose just as strongly as facts: the possibility that he might be discussing the films of a murderer.