Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang, circa 1937
Fritz Lang, circa 1937

Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was a German-Austrian 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. His most famous films include 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, which is considered to be a precursor to the film noir genre.

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

Lang’s parents were of Moravian descent and practicing Roman Catholics. His mother was born Jewish, but had converted to Catholicism when Fritz was ten. His mother took this conversion seriously and was dedicated to raising Fritz as a Catholic. Lang frequently had Catholic-influenced themes in his films.

Lang called himself a Catholic clear to the last few years of his life.

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 World War I, Lang returned to Vienna and volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and fought in Russia and Romania, 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 films such as Der Müde Tod (“The Weary Death”) and popular 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 five-hour Die Nibelungen, the famous 1927 film Metropolis, and the 1931 classic, M, his first “talking” picture.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in their Berlin flat, 1923 or 1924

He produced a coherent oeuvre that established the characteristics, later attributed to film noir, with its recurring themes of psychological conflict, paranoia, fate and moral ambiguity, despite some of his films were considered to be simple melodramas by some critics.  Filmmakers that were influenced by his work include as different authors as are Jacques Rivette and William Friedkin.

Woman in the Moon. Frau im Mond. Germany. 1929. 156 Min. Black and White. 1.33:1. German, Silent.
Woman in the Moon. Frau im Mond. Germany. 1929. 156 Min. Black and White. 1.33:1. German, Silent.

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 added to the stereotype.

Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's "M"
Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s “M”

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 an incitement to public disorder. Testament is sometimes deemed an anti-Nazi film as Lang had put phrases used 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, 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. They soon divorced. Lang’s fears would be realized following his departure from Austria, as under the Nuremberg Laws he would be identified as a Jew even though his mother was a converted Roman Catholic, and he was raised as such.


Shortly afterwards, Lang left Germany. According to Lang, propaganda 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 stated that it was during this meeting that he had decided to leave for Paris – but that the banks had closed by the time the meeting was over. Lang has stated that he fled that very evening.

Lang left Germany in 1934 and moved to Paris after his marriage to Thea von Harbou, who stayed behind, ended in 1933.

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.

Hollywood career (1936–1957)

Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Lang joined the MGM studio and directed the crime drama Fury, starring Spencer Tracy as a man wrongly accused of a crime and then attacked by lynch mob who burn down the jail where he is awaiting trial and it is assumed they killed him in the flames, but did not. The film is a study in vengeance, justice and retribution. Lang became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939. He 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 unfavorably 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.

Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat" (1953)
Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953)

One of his most famous films noir 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 (1956).

Fritz Lang's "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" (1956)
Fritz Lang’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956)

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 expressed 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), so Lang abandoned his plans for retirement and returned to Germany in order to make his “Indian Epic” (consisting of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb). Following the production, Brauner was ready to proceed with his remake ofThe Testament of Dr. 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), whose success began the new Mabuse series of five sequels produced by Brauner (including the remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) which Lang hasn’t directed. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse can be viewed as the marriage between the director’s early experiences with expressionist techniques in Germany with the spartan style already visible in his late American work.  Lang was approaching blindness during the production, making it his final project.

Fritz Lang's "The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse" (1960)
Fritz Lang’s “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” (1960)

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.

Additional Resources


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