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Creator / Fritz Lang

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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."

Friedrich Christian Anton "Fritz" Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an Austrian-German 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 I, as both a writer and actor before becoming a director. In the early 1920s, he met his second wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, with whom he collaborated on all his films over the following decade. This period included Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, the Dr. Mabuse series, and M, which are probably his most famous works and made him the most famous, influential and celebrated director of the Weimar era.

Lang left Germany when Hitler came to power – often claiming that he left the same night Goebbels asked him to join the Nazi party, although all available evidence disputes this – and started over in Hollywood.note  While he made significant contributions to the Film Noir and Western genres there with such films as You Only Live Once, Fury, Western Union, The Woman in the Window, and The Big Heat, Lang 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-1960s.

Even if you've never seen any of 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 die 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.
  • Der müde Tod (Destiny), 1921: Pure Expressionism.

Tropes created, typified, or recurring in his work include:

  • As Himself: Portrayed himself as the director of the Film Within a Film in Contempt, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (who was a great admirer of his).
  • Canon Welding: M and the Dr. Mabuse films take place in a Shared Universe due to the presence of Inspector Lohmann in both.
  • 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.
  • Film Noir: Has been called the "father" of noir, for his having played a central role in introducing German Expressionism to Hollywood—without which, noir would probably never have truly existed.
  • Hostility on the Set: Lang had a reputation for being hard to work with, and he often put the stars of his films through very rough treatment. Two notable examples:
    • For Metropolis, a robot suit was made using a moldable synthetic wood putty, sculpted onto a plaster body cast of Brigitte Helm. Lang insisted that she wear it for the scene in which Rotwang presents the robot to Fredersen and shot nine days' worth of takes, even though the suit pinched and scratched Helm whenever she moved. She eventually asked Lang why she had to play the robot, since no one would ever know whether or not she was in the suit. Lang simply replied, "I'd know."
    • For M, Lang shot more than 20 takes of the scene in which Hans Beckert is dragged into the distillery to face a "trial" by the criminals who have been hunting him. By the last one, Peter Lorre (the actor playing the character) was begging him to stop. Lang shot Beckert's monologue scene immediately afterward, with Lorre drawing on how shaken and unnerved he was.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: One of his favoured tropes. Played very straight e. g. in M, where you can pinpoint the switch to the moment when Hans Beckert discovers the chalk "M" on his shoulder. Often used in its inversion (the hunted becoming the hunter) starting with Die Spinnen, where the hero spends the first part evading the attacks of the conspiracy and then assumes the role of the hunter in the sequel.
  • Plucky Girl: Lang is usually not given credit as a women's director, but his films abound for a lot of strong roles for women in various gender-neutral settings.
    • This is especially the case in Destiny, Die Nibelungen (which makes Kriemhild and not Siegfried the hero), Spione, while his film Frau im Mond shows women astronauts far before rocket science, space travel, and gender barriers would make it happen in the Soviet Union and the United States.
    • Even in his American films, he often had this archetype, especially his Thirties films with Sylvia Sidney. Later examples include Joan Bennett, Gloria Grahame, Anne Baxter, and Ida Lupino. Lang's favorite actress to work with in Hollywood was Barbara Stanwyck, although they made only one film together.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • The Rival: Considered Alfred Hitchcock as such, though it may have been one-sided on Lang's part. While Hitchcock admired Lang's movies (enough that he visited Lang on the set of Metropolis while preparing his own first movie) and readily admitted to his influence, Lang resented the younger director's fame as "the Master of Suspense," feeling Hitchcock had unfairly stolen the title from Lang by copying themes and motifs originated by Lang. Which didn't stop Lang from enjoying at least some of Hitchcock's work; he once named Rebecca among his favorite movies and admitted that it influenced his own Secret Beyond the Door....