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Lang before Lang

It’s good to be getting back to a normal schedule after several weeks of disruptions great and small. This week in the New York Times, I have a review of Kino’s new three-dvd set “Fritz Lang: The Early Years,” which contains the three pre-“Destiny” titles that have been circulating on the internet for years, but here in much better quality (the restorations are from the F.W. Murnau Stiftung) and with English subtitles. The films are “Harakiri” (1919), “Das wandernde Bild” (1920, here retitled “The Wandering Shadow” for reasons unknown) and “Vier um die Frau” (1921). Seen in order, they give a dramatic picture of Lang’s development, as his distinctive geometrical compositions and symmetrical plot structures gradually emerge over the course of three years.

On the subject of Lang, Bernard Eisenschitz’s “Fritz Lang au travail” is now the new benchmark — a luxuriously oversized volume filled with scrupulously researched accounts of the films and Lang’s life (no wild accusations of murder here), illustrated with magnificent stills and production sketches. Cahiers du cinema published it last year in conjunction with a Lang retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise, which means that an English-language edition may come out some day through Phaidon. In the meantime, it can be had through Amazon Canada for a mere $62.70 Canadian.

33 comments to Lang before Lang

  • Peter Henne

    Nicely said, Dave! Your concise appraisal of Lang is nothing short of breathtaking. Outside of THE SPIDERS and DESTINY, I haven’t seen anything by Lang this early. I eagerly look forward to watching the films in the Kino set. I am guessing that many of us are deeply desiring to go back to that Ur moment.

  • This is indeed a good article!

    Like Peter, the earliest Lang I’ve seen are THE SPIDERS and DESTINY. It is great news that these films are at last available.

    Things to look for:
    How much of the “world of Fritz Lang” is present? Most Lang movies are full of clocks and staircases. Do they show up in The Early Years?
    What about traps from which people escape? Liberal social comments? Sinister conspiracies? And all the rest.

    The greatest director of crime thrillers before Lang was Louis Feuillade. The influence, if any, of Feuillade on Lang is ambiguous and debated. Do these films show Feuillade approaches?

    How does Lang relate to 1910’s filmmaking as a whole? The 1910’s are increasingly seen as a key period in the development of film language, technique and film art. (The 1910’s also play a key role in classical music, abstract painting, and prose mystery fiction and science fiction.)
    Unfortunately, ordinary film lovers like me, without institutional connections, do not get to see as many 1910’s films as do scholars with archival access. DVDs like The Early Years set are a golden opportunity to fill in the gaps.
    Plus: a lot of 1910’s movies are just plain terrific to watch.

    PS. For my birthday last month, my relatives took me to see METROPOLIS on the big screen, with the Alloy Orchestra live. A great time was had by all. The richly geometric compositions of METROPOLIS really benefit from a big screen showing.

  • Johan Andreasson

    The best films of the 1910s are indeed a joy to watch. THOMAS GRAALS BÄSTA FILM by Stiller is to me still the funniest Swedish movie of all time, and one of the most modern as well.

    I think the biggest difference between Feuillade and Lang is Feuillade’s sense of humor. Another director close to Lang with the same advantage was Hitchcock. I can’t remember where I read this, but I think Lang himself at some time said that he believed that Hitchcock was the more successful of the two because his films were funny as well as suspenseful. As much as I like Lang (and I like him a lot), his own few attempts at humor tended to be pretty grim, like Slim Summerville’s repeated near self mutilation as the cook in WESTERN UNION.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed, the 1910s is a period which needs a great deal more research and analytical attention. Mike despairs at getting so few opportunites to see films from this decade. But frankly, unless you have devoted much of your attention to the period, I don’t think it is possible to understand whatever films you are looking at within an overriding artistic and historical context. When I see something like George Melford’s TENNESSEE’S PARDNER with its almost casual use of distant riders silhouetted on a hill, (a trope later associated with Ford), you become conscious of just how much you don’t know regarding where these films fit into an artistic time flow.

    In terms of European films, I believe that not enough attention has been paid (at least over here) to the effects of World War I. Not only did it disrupt the development of many national cinemas, but, it seems to me, also re-directed the mood and philosophy of the era. For instance, we often cite World War II as major influence on the noir cycle over here. Well, how much did World War I influence what we call German Expressionism in general and Lang’s viewpoint in particular over there?

  • Brian Dauth

    The interwar years have always fascinated me with my first exposure being the early mysteries of Agatha Christie (though when I read them as a teenager I did not realize I was learning about a specific historical time). But quite probably I was influenced since I later developed a strong interest in other writings of that period from Britain as well as in the Weimar Republic and its culture (again, I have no idea what attracted me so, but it is one of my favorite historical/cultural periods to learn about). In addition to Expressionism which Barry notes, Weimar had Brecht, New Objectivity and other styles. The influence of all these styles on subsequent Hollywood films is remarkable (with Expressionism being the most obvious).

  • Johan Andreasson

    The golden age of Swedish silent movies probably owes a lot to the fact that we did not take part in WW I and therefore had the time and money to develop filmmaking.

    Expressionism as an art movement existed before WW I, but isn’t there a connection between the German Weimar cinema and Film Noir simply in the fact that Noir was at least partly created by Weimar era directors like Lang and Siodmak who fled from Germany to the U.S. and found fertile ground for their dark visual style and bleak view of humanity?

  • Barry, there has been a fair amount of academic work on the relationship of war trauma to the films of the Weimar Republic (in Lang’s case, the relationship is quite direct — he was a decorated soldier who was discharged because of a “nervous disorder”). One of the key exhibits is Robert Reinert’s 1919 film “Nerven,” which compares the effects of the war on a factory owner (who goes mad when his workers go on strike) and a street preacher (who happily peddles opium to the masses). The film, which is available in an excellent restoration by Stefan Droessler from Edition Filmmmuseum, seems to have all the obsessions of Expressionism with none of the style, suggesting that form and content in this case were completely independent. Lang, of course, did not consider himself to be an Expressionist and even put a joke into “Dr. Mabuse” dismissing the movement as a fad.

    Johann, I’d venture to say that Weimar cinema and film noir were linked most meaningfully by the fact that both schools emerged in the immediate aftermath of devastating wars. All of that first hand experience of death and destruction had to come out somewhere, and as long as it couldn’t be dealt with directly (look at the censorship imposed on John Huston’s “Let There Be Light,” which has only recently been restored to its original 58 mins — a copy is downloadable here), the anguish came out in metaphorical form. (How that anguish metastasized in the 1950s is the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s fascinating “The Master,” which uses dialogue taken directly from the Huston film.)

  • Alex

    “Let There Be Light” (1946) is like an Ur-text for Krutnick’s carefully made, woefully neglected case for film noir as a genre that in its 1944-1949 prime was aimed at the WWII veteran audiences. (It’s an odd UR text of a heightened reality, rather than a grand myhthic fiction beneath the “everyday.”)

    The case is complicated by adaptations (e.g., “Double Indemnity”) with pre-War milieux, but it’s a case telegraphed from within the genre itself by such films as ‘The Blue Dahlia,’ ‘Dead Reckoning,’ ‘Out of the Past’ and ‘Ride The Pink Horse.’ The Krutnick case from In a Lonely Street differs from Schrader’s in his 1972 Film Comment “Notes On Film Noir” insofar as the former does not stress “disillusionment” with the War effort itself so much as sundry War and post-War readjustment traumas –all strikenly illustrated in Bill Maudlin’s neglected, 1947 “Back Home.”

    Dave K., Thanks for the link of “Let There Be Light” to “The Master.”

  • Johan Andreasson

    Thanks from me too to the link to the Huston film, and I’ll look out for THE MASTER, which is a 2013 release here.

  • Alex

    The great “The Master”:

  • Brian Dauth

    I also think that some of the post-war traumas centered on the emergence of new cultures and populations that were not interested in going back (or willing to) to pre-war social arrangements (which is a cultural phenomenon that fascinates me), adding to the traumas and anguish resulting from individuals having experienced war and its horrors. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS was powerful to me since my father was a WWII veteran (it occurred by my being adopted by parents old enough to be my grandparents). He would tell us war stores, but certain areas were off limits: he was part of the force that liberated Buchenwald, but he would never speak about what he saw — and my father was a gregarious man, even about his wartime experiences. At the end of his life, his dreams were populated by Army buddies he had lost during the war (he told my brother and me that he felt they were “coming back to him” in some very gruesome ways), so the stoic attitude that FOOF portrays I saw represented in my own family.

  • There were definitely Hollywood films, both after WWI and WWII, that looked at the dark side of war.
    The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921) was fiercely anti-war – and made Rudolph Valentino a star. Ingram went on to make Mare Nostrum, which is just as anti-war, but not as good a film, IMHO.
    Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929) looks at a disabled veteran and his problems.

    Shadow in the Sky (Fred Wilcox, 1952) stars a shell-shocked veteran and his mental problems. IIRC, The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1946) has a similar subplot.
    Hollywood indeed seemed willing to tackle some rougher themes.

    Fritz Lang’s own Cloak and Dagger and An American Guerilla in the Philippines have some rough stuff on war.

  • DESTINY is for me the first Fritz Lang masterpiece, and it is a key work in film history because it changed the life of Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau and Georges Franju. I have never seen a good print of DESTINY, although some sequences still look fine such as the Venetian episode, but I heard from a Finnish old-timer how it had fascinating colour in its original release version. Although the previous Fritz Lang films are far from the level of DESTINY, they are irresistible to watch every now and then, THE SPIDERS: THE GOLDEN LAKE and THE DIAMOND SHIP, HARAKIRI, THE WANDERING IMAGE, and FOUR AROUND THE WOMAN / STRUGGLING HEARTS. There are so many motifs there already which Lang kept developing to the very end.

    Interesting are also some of the movies where Lang was just a screenwriter, such as the first version of THE INDIAN TOMB, directed by Richard Oswald, with Conrad Veidt and Mia May. The resurrection of the yoghi (Bernhard Goetzke) is unforgettable.

  • david hare

    Anti, yes, but for me a big auteurist problem arises where I find the movies directed by Oswald (in particular) far more interesting than those directed by Lang himself, at least before 1920 and Die Mude Tod.
    Oswald is an amazing and totally neglected director.

  • DESTINY was also a film that greatly impressed the young pre-director Alfred Hitchcock.
    And one wonders if its multi-part structure, with characters taking on different-but-related roles, influenced TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
    DESTINY is certainly a major film.

    Antti, I had no idea that DESTINY was once in color!

    The only Richard Oswald I’ve had a chance to see is Anders als die Andern §175 / Different from the Others (Paragraph 175). This 1919 film is the original Gay Liberation drama, with personal appearance by gay lib pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld, no less. The film mixes fiction and documentary elements in ways that seems strikingly modern.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, Richard Oswald’s son Gerd Oswald is also almost totally neglected. So it must run in the family.

  • “Richard Oswald’s son Gerd Oswald is also almost totally neglected.”

    That’s regrettably true. Gerd Oswald has at least three brilliant pictures to his credit, “A Kiss Before Dying,” “Screaming Mimi,” and “Brainwashed.”

  • Alex

    Micke Grost, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Walk in the Sun and The Naked and the Dead (plus From Here to Eternity, if granted War Film status), are all quite dark –so long as their ironies are not seen as humor in any light sense.

    Paths of Glory is plain dark, though Krubrick’s finds ironies throughout Full Metal Jacket.

  • david hare

    If it’s any help for Gerd’s reputation there are wonderful recent DVDs of Valerie, Screaming Mimi and Crime of Passion in great transfers from Sony and MGM VOD. These titles used to be staples at our old University Film Soc in the 60s. But so were a lot of things I guess.

  • Barry Putterman

    Yes, VALERIE, CRIME OF PASSION and especially FURY AT SHOWDOWN should be added to x’s list. It is truly sad that of all of the worthy directors who were in Sarris’ third group, Gerd Oswald seems to remain the most anonymous.

    Also sad is the fact that war films are rousingly nationalistic while a country is engaged in war and much more bitter and pessimistic after the conclusion of the war. Regardless of whether the country was victor or vanquished and whether the war is viewed as justified in retrospect.

  • Michael Kastner

    Have to agree that Oswald is still one of the great Sarris sleepers. The above features are all wonderful & I may be a one man fan club for his “disaster” Bunny O’hare. It’s dated & pretty silly but well acted and touches on some still real issues. Plus it also has Joan Delaney in a wonderful role. I never could figure out why she wasn’t a star.
    On the T.V. side many of his Outer Limits are great but Don’t Open Til Doomsday is pure genius

  • Another Gerd fan here. I love BRAINWASHED and his “O.B.I.T.” episode for THE OUTER LIMITS best, although I have much still to see. THE BRASS LEGEND, which is on Netflix, is also worthwhile.

  • As a visual artist I am interested in how the development of film may have been influenced by (or influenced) the Modernist experiments in Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. Hearing of Lang’s studies in Paris and his acknowledgement of Schiele provides some evidence that this influence was not purely cultural background noise. The description of post-war Germany as being one of, “discontinuity, fragmentation and paranoia” suggests even deeper/closer affinities with the concerns of artists of that period, such as Braque and Picasso, especially their Cubist collage work, (though I would not characterize their early collage work as encompassing elements of paranoia). However, the language of collage does seem to embody qualities of discontinuity, fragmentation, juxtaposition; the push and pull of contradictory feelings. While these words seem to suggest disruption and breakdown, the method of collage also implies a synthesis of seemingly unrelated – even discordant elements – into a new unity. In this respect I see the Cubist experiment as extending beyond the confines of the historical style of Cubism (or even its immediate spin-off influences on movements as wide-ranging as Futurism, Constructivism/Suprematism and Vorticism) and perhaps suggesting a language that encompasses our present experience. My question is this, if any of you could point out some interesting sources on the influences (like we have here with Lang) between the visual arts and film, especially in the early decades of the 20th century, I would greatly appreciate it. I realize the main topic for this week is Lang, so I don’t want to hijack the conversation. However, if you have any side-bar comments on my question, again, it would be appreciated.

  • patrick henry

    Oswald’s amazing OUTER LIMITS episode The Forms of Things Unknown impressed me when I saw it way back when. I’ve looked at it recently and it still impresses as a beautiful, enigmatic film. One of the things I couldn’t understand when I saw it as a kid was that Scott Marlowe, an unappealing, apparently crazy beach bum, should have two beautiful mistresses (Vera Miles and Barbara Rush), who both seem smarter and classier than he. Maybe I was just jealous. And in So. California it’s got to be a whole different culture, different values.

  • Nicolas Saada

    I remember seeing HARA KIRI and VIER UM DIE FRAU in 1988 and reviweing both films for Cahiers.
    HARA KIRI made a strong impression then. It ‘s interesting that you should mention Lang’s war experience. I think it defined the energy and the dryness of his films. I always compare two very similar films by Hitchcock and lang : CLOAK AND DAGGER and TORN CURTAIN. Both deal witha scientist in a foreign country, and both have a pivotal murder/fight scene. But the differences between the fight scene in CLOAK and the fight/Murder in TORN CURTAIN mark also the differences between a directors who experienced physical violence with that of a director that is in awe and fascination for this violence. I always thought that Lang’s was both lucky and unloucky to be able to illustrate violence in such a blunt way in his films. He never stylized it whereas Hitchcock, who had an almost abstract relationship to violence was able to build it into almost visual ballets.
    Gerd oswald’s A KISS BEFORE DYING actually stands right in the middle point between Lang’s straightforward approach to violence and Hitchcock’s dark romanticism. It’s odd that his name came in the conversation ! He was a terrific and underrated director, and his style reminds me of Richard Fleischer’s.

  • William,

    IIRC, the book The cubist theatre (1983) by Joseph Garrett Glover deals with plays, ballet and films influenced by cubist design.

    Aelita, Queen of Mars (Jacob Protazanov, 1924) is full of costumes based on Soviet Constructivism. They are by the famed artist Alexandra Exter, among others. These Martian scenes are some of the fullest interpenetration of Constructivism into the movies.

    Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers – Screen Deco (1985). This book is a gorgeous look at Art Deco art direction in 1920’s and 1930’s Hollywood.
    The young hero’s apartment in METROPOLIS is full of furniture that seems inspired by the Art Deco movement, then scarcely two years old in Paris. His bed, his lamps, his living room chairs, are all highly geometrized, in the Deco tradition. The elevators leading into the Eternal Gardens also seem in Deco mode. The entrance to the Yoshiwara night club is also in a rich geometric style. This is a year before the film usually regarded as the beginning of Art Deco in Hollywood, Harry Beaumont’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928), with its sets by Cedric Gibbons. The geometric patterns on the hero’s apartment wall also seem Deco. So, to a degree, are the geometric designs on the walls of the father’s office, and in his carpet, although these have a quality that is a bit more De Stijl.

    By contrast, the large standing objects in the father’s office seem more Constructivist that Deco. These objects are in pairs along the walls, and are full of complex round solids, mixed in with long straight poles. They are full of 3D geometric forms, that in general terms recall the Constructivist costumes in Aelita. It is not clear what these objects are: lamps? electrical equipment? abstract decorations? Like the dream objects in Secret Beyond the Door, they are both visually striking, and mysterious in nature.
    “Wasp’s Nest” (1991) is an adaptation of Agatha’ Christie’s 1928 Poirot short story. It is part of the British POIROT TV series. Many episodes of POIROT are shot on historic Art Deco locations in Britain. One character in “Wasp’s Nest” is a sculptor, whose main work is clearly a version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-1920), and whose other works are Constructivist facial portraits in the style of Antoine Pevsner. I also like the sculptor’s Art Deco house.

  • Robert Garrick

    The Eisenschitz book on Lang sounds like a must, though there been several strong books on Lang, including one by Lotte Eisner, whose works on German expression were a big influence on me back in college.

    I’m wondering (after reading Dave’s intro above) about Eisenschitz’s treatment of Lang’s first wife. It’s one of those mysteries of film history, and for some years now there have been questions about whether Lisa Rosenthal committed suicide or was murdered. Did Eisenschitz go back into the primary materials and thoroughly debunk the dark stories? Or did he just ignore them?

    Some background here, for those who are unfamiliar with this:

    Lang was, without question, a difficult character, given to unusual behavior. I have heard some stories from people who knew him that I consider reliable, but I’m not going to repeat them here.

  • Mike,

    Thanks for all the suggestions; I’ll be sure to follow-up on your references.


  • The Bernard Eisenschitz book looks great, which was published in France to coincide with a “Metrpolis” exhibition at the French Cinematheque. I’m crossing my fingers that it comes out in English. About it: a lot of the source material comes from the documents that Lang deposited to French Cinematheque in the 50s and other libraries around the world (the research done for this seems really thorough).
    Eisenschitz says that he was satisfied, that compared to the McGilligan biography, “which is rather sordid,” from his experience with Lang’s documents he knew more of Lang’s private life, and did not feel like he had any reason to use it, preferring to talk about the films themselves.
    Eisenschitz was interviewed in Cahiers du Cinema (N.671) around the time the book came out, and what he says about it is interesting. Here is my favorite of his comments :
    There is an anecdote of Howard Vernon acting in “Dr.Mabuse” and he did not know how to use a gun. Lang screamed at him, “Stop! You don’t know how to use a gun? What’s that about? Didn’t you do your service?” Vernon apologized, and explained he was from Switzerland and didn’t have to. And after hearing this, Lang broke down, “You can’t believe how lucky you are.”

  • William (November 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm): besides the magnificent Metropolis exhibition there have been also others covering Lang’s influences in visual arts, for instance “Fritz Lang. Filmbilder. Vorbilder” that was circulated by Goethe-Institut in 1993. Those catalogues are worth checking out.

    McGilligan is a talented writer, but perhaps the publisher pushed him a bit too heavily to write the Fritz Lang biography from the “dark side of the genius” angle to make it a better seller. The distaste and the lack of comprehension towards the subject are striking. And to write about Fritz Lang and his German period without knowing German… need one say more.

    I think Fritz Lang was profoundly shocked by the suicide of his first wife, and it affected his whole life and oeuvre.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘to write about Fritz Lang and his German period without knowing German… need one say more.’

    That is similar problem when Western critic writes about Japanese movie history without knowing Japanese language. It is possible to write personal response to particular movie without knowing original language, but scholars writing about Japanese movie production or about director’s personal life should know source language.

  • In connection with a Lang retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, the Film Museum Berlin/Deutsche Kinemathek published another monumental volume of Lang studies, “Fritz Lang: His Life and Work,” which contains German, English and French text. It contains quite a bit of detailed information about Lang’s art studies in Paris (there is a photograph of young Fritz hammering away at a sculpture) as well as his war experience. The authors devote several pages to “Der Fall Elisabeth Rosenthal” (aka, the first Mrs. Fritz Lang) and reproduce several documents, eventually coming to the semi-conclusion that, while there is no evidence at all of murder, it is impossible to know whether her death was a suicide or due to an accident, as the police ruled (“accident” being a common euphemism for suicide in that particular time and place). The authors go on to state that “Lang maintained absolute silence” on the subject of his first wife “for the rest of his life” — although Eisenschitz provides several examples of Lang speaking quite openly of it. But there’s no doubt that the event profoundly affected his life and art: it was then, Eisenschitz notes, that Lang began his lifelong habit of keeping a diary, carefully documenting his daily whereabouts in case he should ever again find the need to provide an alibi.

  • In 1972, along with a friend, I had the privilege of interviewing Fritz Lang. A transcription (abbreviated) was not published until relatively recently (“Movie Maker Magazine”, February 2004) and is available online. The full interview (audio version) can be downloaded from my website ( Note: It comes as a freebie with purchase of my book, “Surrealism and the Cinema: Open-eyed Screening (revised).”