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"I should say that I am a visual person. I experience with my eyes and never, or rarely, with my ears... to my constant regret." — Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was an Austrian director known for his trope-making films in the Golden Age of German and Hollywood cinema. After trying first to be an architect and then a painter, Lang got into the film industry after serving in World War One, as both a writer and actor before becoming a director. In the early 1920's he met his second wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who he collaborated with on all his films for the next decade. This period included Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, the Dr. Mabuse series, and M, which are probably his most famous works.Lang left Germany when Hitler came to power - often claiming that he left the same night Goebbels asked him to join the Nazi party, though available evidence disputes this - and started over in Hollywood. Though Lang made significant contributions to the film noir and western genres with films like You Only Live Once, Fury, Western Union, The Woman in the Window, and The Big Heat, he felt stifled by the restrictive studio system and returned to postwar West Germany, where he continued to make films until he went blind in the mid-1960's.Even if you've never seen one of Fritz Lang's films, chances are that you've seen a reference to or parody of one of them, most likely Metropolis or M.
Films by Fritz Lang include:
Halbblut (Half-Blood), 1919: directorial debut, now a Lost Film. A European man vacationing in Mexico falls for an opium-addicted prostitute and marries her. Once in Europe, she overhears a conversation between her husband and his best friend, where they are making racist comments about her mestizo (half-blood) ancestry. She swears revenge and starts conspiring to ruin the lives of both men.
Der Herr der Liebe (The Master of Love), 1919: Second film, also lost. Another tale where a man's love and devotion to a woman brings him ruin.
Die Spinnen (The Spiders), 1919-1920: An early adventure serial; only the first two parts out of four were ever filmed. Currently the earliest surviving work of Lang. A Message in a Bottle reveals the existence of a Lost World and its treasures. A sportsman from San Francisco embarks on a treasure-hunting expedition, but has to compete with the eponymous criminal organization to get there.
Harakiri (Madame Butterfly), 1919: Indulging Lang's love of Japanese culture with a surprising lack of stereotypes.
Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image , 1920: A woman attempts to flee a loveless marriage and a life of misery. Her husband comes in pursuit with a single-minded determination.
"Vier um di Frau" ("Four Around a Woman"), 1921: A jealous husband lures the supposed lover of his wife to his residence, planning violent revenge. One of his friends and a local con-man also turn up for visits, several plot twists follow.
Die Nibelungen, 1924: Lang's five-hour-long adaptation of the Nibelungenlied. Covers two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild's Rache.
Metropolis, 1927: The most famous silent film of all time and codifier of countless tropes. Its influence can be seen everywhere from Superman to Blade Runner.
Spies (Spione), 1928: Spy Fiction film, one of the earliest hits in the genre. Haghi, the secret head of a Nebulous Evil Organisation, learns that opposing Agent No. 326 has been tasked with bringing down his entire group. He assigns his top operative Sonja Baranikowa to gain the trust of 326, but he fails to anticipate that the two would genuinely fall for each other. Now Haghi has to get personally involved in the struggle against 326.
Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), 1929: Lang's final silent, a journey to the moon with uncanny resemblances to the actual Apollo missions.
M, 1931: His first talkie and one of his most famous films, about a serial child killer. He's the hero.
Tropes created, typified, or recurring in his work include:
Creator Cameo: Supposedly his hand appears in close-up shots in most of his films; also, because Peter Lorre couldn't whistle, Lang whistled the "Hall of the Mountain King" leitmotif in M.
Epic Movie: Fritz Lang was a pioneer in this with films such as Die Nibelungen though he stated that it was something he wanted to move away from when sound arrived, as he felt that the greater realism of Sound made such films very hard to make convincingly.
Reality Is Unrealistic: When discussing taking inspiration from news stories (see below), Lang said: "All the newspapers report human tragedies and comedies ... so fantastic, so accidental and romantic ... that no dramaturgist for a big corporation would dare to suggest such material lest he be confronted with a resounding chorus of derisory laughter at the improbable, chance, or kitschy conflicts. That's life."
Reality Subtext: Many of his films with Thea von Harbou cast her ex-husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge (whom she left to marry Fritz) as the villain. A major plot point in Metropolis is the work-obsessed control freak Joh Fredersen taking the wife of mad scientist Rotwang (played by Klein-Rogge). The statue of the (dead) wife bears suspicious similarities to Thea von Harbou, so... yeah.
Ripped from the Headlines: The child serial killer in M was based on real German serial killer Peter Kuerten. Also, lynch mob justice in Fury (based specifically on the Brooke Hart incident). And You Only Live Once (1937) was based on Bonnie And Clyde, who had been gunned down just three years before that film hit the theatres.
Unreliable Narrator: Lang had a tendency to paint his own life as more eventful than it probably was. Lang's famous story of Joseph Goebbels offering him control of Germany's film industry, only to flee that same evening, has been proven to be embellished if not outright invented.