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Fritz Lang

Lang in the 1950s
Born Friedrich Christian Anton Lang
December 5, 1890(1890-12-05)
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died August 2, 1976 (aged 85)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Occupation Film director, film producer
Years active 1919-1960
Spouse(s) Lisa Rosenthal (1919-1921)
Thea von Harbou (1922-1933)
Lily Latté (1971-1976)

Friedrich "Fritz" Christian Anton Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an Austrian-German-American filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor. One of the best known émigrés from Germany's school of Expressionism, he was dubbed the "Master of Darkness" by the British Film Institute.[1] His most famous films are the groundbreaking Metropolis (the world's most expensive silent film at the time of its release) and M, made before he moved to the United States, his iconic contribution to the film noir genre.


Life and career

Early life

Lang was born in Vienna as the second son of Anton Lang (1860–1940)[2], an architect and construction company manager, and his wife Pauline "Paula" Lang née Schlesinger (1864–1920). Fritz Lang himself was baptized on 28 December 1890 at the Schottenkirche in Vienna.[3]

Lang's parents were of Moravian descent and practising Catholics, his mother having born Jewish and converted to Catholicism when Fritz was ten. His mother took this conversion seriously and was dedicated to raise Fritz as a Catholic. In later life, Lang never had an interest in his Jewish heritage and identified as Catholic. Although he was not a particularly devout Catholic, he "regularly used Catholic images and themes into his films.[4]

After finishing school, Lang briefly attended the Technical University of Vienna, where he studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to see the world, traveling throughout Europe and Africa and later Asia and the Pacific area. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, France.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Lang returned to Vienna and volunteer for military service in the Austrian army. He fought in Russia and Romania during World War I, where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries and shell shock in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films. He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at Decla, Erich Pommer's Berlin-based production company.

Expressionist films: the Weimar years (1918-1933)

His writing stint was brief, as Lang soon started to work as a director at the German film studio Ufa, and later Nero-Film, just as the Expressionist movement was building. In this first phase of his career, Lang alternated between art films such as Der Müde Tod ("The Weary Death") and populist thrillers such as Die Spinnen ("The Spiders"), combining popular genres with Expressionist techniques to create an unprecedented synthesis of popular entertainment with art cinema. In 1920, he met his future wife, the writer and actress Thea von Harbou. She and Lang co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including 1922's Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), which ran for over four hours in two parts in the original version and was the first in the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, 1924's Die Nibelungen, the famed 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, and the 1931 classic, M, his first "talking" picture.

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in their Berlin flat, 1923 or 1924

Although some consider Lang's work to be simple melodrama, he produced a coherent oeuvre that helped to establish the characteristics of film noir, with its recurring themes of psychological conflict, paranoia, fate and moral ambiguity. His work influenced filmmakers as disparate as Jacques Rivette and William Friedkin.

In 1931, after Woman in the Moon, Lang directed what many film scholars consider to be his masterpiece: M, a disturbing story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre in his first starring role) who is hunted down and brought to rough justice by Berlin's criminal underworld. M remains a powerful work; it was remade in 1951 by Joseph Losey, but this version had little impact on audiences, and has become harder to see than the original film. Lang epitomized the stereotype of the tyrannical German film director such as Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger; he was known for being hard to work with. During the climactic final scene in M, he allegedly threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs in order to give more authenticity to Lorre's battered look. His wearing a monocle that added to the stereotype.

At the end of 1932. Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, and by March 30, the new regime banned it as as an incitement to public disorder. Testament is sometimes deemed an anti-Nazi film as Lang had put phrases usesd by the Nazis into the mouth of the title character.

Whereas Lang was worried about the advent of the Nazi regime - partly because of his Jewish heritage[4], his wife and screen writer Thea von Harbou had started to sympathize with the Nazis in the early 1930s and joined the NSDAP in 1932.


On the set of The Woman in the Moon, 1929.

Shortly afterwards, Lang left Germany but the circumstances of his emigration remain controversial: According to Lang, prograganda minister Joseph Goebbels called Lang to his offices to inform him that The Testament of Dr Mabuse was being banned but that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang's abilities as a filmmaker (especially Metropolis), he was offering Lang a position as the head of German film studio UFA. Lang had been, unbeknownst to Goebbels, already planning to leave Germany for Paris, but the meeting with Goebbels ran so long that the banks were closed by the time it finished, and Lang fled that night without his money, not to return until after the war.[5][6]

This account is problematic as many portions cannot be verified, while those that can, run counter to other evidence: Lang actually left Germany with most of his money, unlike most refugees, and made several return trips later in the same year. There were no witnesses to the meeting besides Goebbels and Lang, but Goebbels's appointment books, when they refer to the meeting, mention only the banning of Testament. No evidence has been discovered in any of Goebbels's writings to affirm the suggestion that he was planning to offer Lang any position. Jean-Luc Godard's film Contempt (1963), in which Lang appeared as himself, presents a bare outline of the story as fact.

Whatever the details, Lang did in fact leave Germany in 1934 and moved to Paris.[7] His wife Thea von Harbou stayed behind and the two were divorced in 1933.[citation needed]

In Paris, Lang filmed a version of Ferenc Molnár's Liliom, starring Charles Boyer. This was Lang's only film in French (not counting the French version of Testament). He then went to the United States.[7]

Hollywood career (1936-1957)

Upon his arrival in Hollywood in 1936,[citation needed] Lang joined the MGM studio and directed the crime drama Fury. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939. Lang made twenty-one features in the next twenty-one years, working in a variety of genres at every major studio in Hollywood, occasionally producing his films as an independent. These films, often compared unfavourably by contemporary critics to Lang's earlier works, have since been reevaluated as being integral to the emergence and evolution of American genre cinema, film noir in particular.

One of his most famous film noirs is the police drama The Big Heat (1953), noted for its uncompromising brutality, especially for a scene in which Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee on Gloria Grahame's face. During this period, his visual style simplified (owing in part to the constraints of the Hollywood studio system) and his worldview became increasingly pessimistic, culminating in the cold, geometric style of his last American films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957).

Lang found it harder to find congenial production conditions in Hollywood and his advancing age left him less inclined to grapple with American backers. The German producer, Artur Brauner, was expressing interest in remaking The Indian Tomb (a story that Lang had developed in the twenties that was ultimately taken from him by studio heads and directed instead by Joe May),[8] so Lang abandoned his plans for retirement and returned to Germany in order to make his "Indian Epic". Following the production, Brauner was ready to proceed with his remake of Das Testament des Doctor Mabuse when Lang approached him with the idea of adding another original film to the series. The result was The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), made in a hurry and with a relatively small budget. It can be viewed as the marriage between the director's early experiences with expressionist techniques in Germany as well as the spartan style already visible in his late American work. Lang was approaching blindness during the production, making it his final project.

Death and legacy

While his career had ended without fanfare, his American and later German works were championed by the critics of the Cahiers du cinéma. Lang died in 1976 and was interred in the Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.[9]


Pop culture

In the animated movie Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa, Lang serves as an ally of the series' protagonist Edward Elric. He is depicted as the parallel counterpart of King Bradley, who is ironically a major antagonist of the series, and is confronted by Edward upon their first meeting for this very reason. In search for inspiration for his next movie, he heads towards an abandoned castle with Edward to find a dragon. The dragon, who turns out to be the homunculus Envy, attacks Edward but is shot down and captured by the Thule Society. Afterward, Lang provides exposition about the Nazi party, and helps Edward attack the Thule's villa. He later becomes interested in science fiction and plans to move to America.

Lang appears as himself in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Le Mepris.


  1. ^ "Fritz Lang: Master of Darkness". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2009-01-22. 
  2. ^ "Architekturzentrum Wien". Retrieved 2010-03-06. 
  3. ^ Vienna, Schottenpfarre, baptismal register Tom. 1890, fol. 83.
  4. ^ a b "The religion of director Fritz Lang". Retrieved 2009-01-22. 
  5. ^ Michel Ciment: Fritz lang, Le meurtre et la loi, Ed. Gallimard, Collection Découvertes, 04/11/2003. The autor think that this meeting has, in fact, never happened.
  6. ^ Havis, Allan (2008), Cult Films: Taboo and Transgression, Univeristy Press of America, Inc., page 10
  7. ^ a b David Kalat, DVD Commentary for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. New York City, United States: The Criterion Collection (2004).
  8. ^ Plass, Ulrich (Winter 2009). "Dialectic of Regression: Theador W Adorno and Fritz Lang". Telos 149: 131. 
  9. ^ "Fritz Lang, Film Director Noted for 'M,' Dead at 85". New York Times. August 3, 1976. Retrieved 2009-01-22. "Friz Lang, the Viennese-born film director best known for "M", a terrifying study of a child killer, and for other tales of suspense, died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 85. He had been ill for some time, and had been inactive professionally for a decade." 

Further reading

  • Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s; New York: Harper & Row, 1986; ISBN 0060156260 (See e.g. pp. 45–46 for anecdotes revealing Lang's arrogance.)
  • McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast; New York: St. Martins Press, 1997; ISBN 0312132476
  • Schnauber, Cornelius. Fritz Lang in Hollywood; Wien: Europaverlag, c1986; ISBN 3203509539 (in German)
  • Youngkin, Stephen (2005). The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813123607.  - Contains interviews with Lang and a discussion of the making of the film M

External links

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