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."
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 I, 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:
  • Die Spinnen (The Spiders), 1919-1920: An early adventure serial; only the first two parts out of four were ever filmed.
  • Harakiri, 1919: Based on the Madame Butterfly short story, indulging Lang's love of Japanese culture with a surprising lack of stereotypes.
  • Der Müde Tod (Destiny), 1921: Pure Expressionism.
  • Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), 1922: Introduces his recurring villain, Dr. Mabuse.
  • 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.
  • Frau I'm 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.
  • Fury, 1936. The first movie he made in the United States, starring Spencer Tracy.
Tropes created, typified, or recurring in his life and 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.
  • Creator Couple - Lang and von Harbou
  • Enforced Method Acting
    • In M, there is a shot where Peter Lorre is being chased by the mob, and we see a pair of hands reach out and shove Lorre down a flight of stairs. The hands were Lang's own, and the look of betrayal in Lorre's eyes is because he was not told that the director was about to shove him down a flight of stairs.
    • John Ford, watching a scene in "Western Union" where Randolph Scott tries to burn the ropes off his bound wrists: "Those are Randy's wrists, that is real rope, that is a real fire."
  • Executive Meddling - Happened a lot with his Hollywood films.
    • In Fury, for instance, he wanted the protagonist to be guilty of the crime the lynch mob attacks him for (which would have been suspiciously similar to M), but a sympathetic criminal protagonist wasn't allowable under the Hays Code.
    • Metropolis was famously eviscerated from 153 minutes to less than 90 by Paramount.
  • Eyepatch of Power - Pictured above.
  • High-Class Glass - Fritz never went anywhere without his monocle.
  • Hypnotic Eyes - His recurring character Doctor Mabuse is a VERY early example.
  • Prima Donna Director - Lang's perfectionism and cruelty to his actors was legendary. He allegedly threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs to give him a more authentic battered look and made him work until three in the morning on the set of M, and forced Brigitte Helm into uncomfortable and life-threatening situations while filming Metropolis. Oh, and he once threw a tantrum because an actress refused to shave her pubic hair.
  • Production Posse - Between 1921 and 1933, whatever Fritz Lang did always included Thea von Harbou as the screenwriter and, with only two exceptions (Peter Lorre for M and Fritz Rasp for Woman in the Moon), had Rudolf Klein-Rogge playing the villain.
  • 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, lynch mob justice in Fury. 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.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Lang is surrounded of outrageous rumours and claims, some of them spread by himself (like when he got an offer from Hermann Göring of becoming an "honorable Aryan" and propaganda filmmaker for Nazi Germany), others decidedly not (like when he and his star and lover Thea von Harbou murdered his first wife).
  • Unreliable Narrator - Lang about his own past, as alleged by biographer Patrick McGilligan. Also, he suggested this for the twist ending of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- and if he hadn't been working on The Spiders, he would have directed that film.