“The central theme of my work is the struggle of the individual against circumstances.” Fritz Lang repeated this phrase in many of the interviews they did with him during his career. A statement that could also be applied to his own existence, very marked by the historical events in which he lived. The Austrian director had to flee three times in his life: from Paris, because of the First World War; from Berlin, for the rise of Nazism; and Hollywood, as a result of the Cold War.
At least Lang loved to travel. His taste for knowing the world and his restless character helped him overcome these difficulties. Since his birth in Vienna in 1890, the future filmmaker has not stopped moving. After interrupting his studies of architecture, which he carried out at his father’s wish (he was the son of a Vienna public works chief architect), and leaving those of Fine Arts unfinished, his true vocation, Lang spent several years, from 1909 to 1913, leading an itinerant and bohemian life..
He traveled through Europe, Russia, North Africa, China, Japan … He worked as a painter of postcards, a cartoonist for the press and a cabaret presenter. In 1913 he settled in Paris determined to become a painter.. Lang admired his compatriots Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. But fate, like that of the characters in his movies, had other plans.
The Great War begins
In the summer of 1914 the First World War broke out. Overnight, Lang found himself living in an enemy country. From the cafes of Montmartre he passed to the vast expanses of the eastern front. He fought with the Austro-Hungarian army in Russia and Romania, being wounded four times. The filmmaker liked to say that he lost his right eye in the war (Lang is one of Hollywood’s “four-eyed”, along with John Ford, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray), although it seems that it was in a less epic way: in a simple accident while filming El doctor Mabuse (1922).
In 1916, during one of his convalescence, Lang began writing ideas for movie scripts. He had been interested in cinema in Paris, and saw it as a good career option. In addition, he had met Joe May, producer and director of the UFA (the main German film company), who encouraged him to follow that path. After managing to sell several scripts, and once the contest was over, moved to Berlin willing to become a filmmaker.
It didn’t take long to get it. German cinema, in the process of expanding to compete with Hollywood, was in need of new talent. Lang began directing his first films in 1919. Two years later he had already made his first masterpiece, Tired death (also known as The three lights), a film that gave birth to the vocations of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock or Luis Buñuel.
A strange suicide
Tired Death was the first film he worked on with his second wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou. The first, Elisabeth Rosenthal, whom he married in 1919, died under strange circumstances. According to Patrick McGilligan in his biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (2013), Rosenthal was found dead at her home, shot in the chest after having caught her husband committing adultery with Von Harbou. The shot had been fired from the pistol Lang kept from his wartime days.
Suicide? Accident? Homicide? Although the former was determined, some doubts remain. The first, the unusual thing about committing suicide by shooting yourself in the chest. And the second, the behavior of the couple. The lovers notified the police with a long delay.
Before doing so, they had called in the powerful producer Erich Pommer, who supposedly made sure that the investigation was closed and the event, which seems to be taken from a film by Lang himself, disappeared from police files. However, it did not disappear from the filmmaker’s mind. According to those who knew him, it was a trauma that deeply affected him and influenced the fatalistic tone of his cinema.
The lovers ended up getting married in 1922. Together they formed one of the most fruitful artistic couples in world cinema. All the great films of Lang’s German period – the monumental epic of The nibelungs (1924), the enormously influential Metropolis (1927), the pioneer of the serial killer thriller M, the vampire of Düsseldorf (1931) …– They are written in collaboration with his wife, most of them based on arguments devised by her.
The last movie they made together was The testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). At that time they were already emotionally estranged, but soon they would be physically. With Hitler in power the film was banned by Joseph Goebbels for his critical message of authoritarianism.
According to Lang himself, despite the veto, the Propaganda Minister, an admirer of his films, suggested that he lead the German film industry. The director, who was Jewish on his mother’s side (although he was educated in Catholicism), did not think twice: he packed his bags and took the first train to Paris.
Again, Lang embellished the story a bit. According to your passport records, the filmmaker left and entered Germany several times in 1933. It seems that his decision was not so firm. He was in a very privileged professional position and it was difficult for him to leave it.
Finally, as happened to other Jewish colleagues (Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophüls), he was forced to do so. He went to France, where he performed the forgotten Lily (1934), and to the United States. His wife did not accompany him. Thea Von Harbou divorced Lang, joined the Nazi party and began a prolific stage as a filmmaker of the regime, including two films as a director.
Lang settled in the United States in 1934, although not without difficulties. His way of working, authoritarian, perfectionist and very disrespectful with the workers’ schedules, and their arrogant attitude clashed with the unions and the producers of the studios. The Austrian director had gone from being an artist with prestige and power, used to managing large budgets and having a lot of artistic control over his work, to being one more piece of Hollywood gear.
Lang went through several periods of inactivity in the United States. He never found the stability that other exiled compatriots achieved. But even so he shot a score of films, some as celebrated as Fury (1936), The woman in the painting (1944) the The bribed (1953). His powerful expressionist visual style (although it was a label he did not like) and his fondness for dark, pessimistic and socially critical plots were instrumental in shaping the American noir genre.
However, this assessment of his cinema was quite late. In the 1950s almost no one knew Fritz Lang. His Hollywood films had not been huge successes, received no Oscar nominations or won international awards. He always worked with modest budgets and under the strict codes of genre films: thriller, Western, adventures … The most cinephiles admired his German films, but underestimated the American ones.
It was the critics of the magazine Cinema Notebooks –François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard– who began to vindicate their Hollywood films. The latter even paid tribute to him in his film Contempt (1963), where Lang appears interpreting himself.
“They did not accuse me of being a communist, but I could be one,” the German director said in an interview.
In 1947, coinciding with the start of the Cold War, The persecutions of leftists began in Hollywood. The Committee on Un-American Activities, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, drew up blacklists with suspects of having belonged to the communist party. Lang wasn’t, but he sympathized with the left. Not in vain, his film The executioners also die (1943), with a script by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, is one of the most anti-Nazi filmed in Hollywood.
“They did not accuse me of being a communist, but I could be one,” he declared in an interview (included in the excellent monograph on Lang written by Quim Casas in 1991). This consideration caused many studies to turn their backs on it. That was one of the reasons why the director decided to leave the United States. The other was his growing disgust with the difficulties he encountered in maintaining a modicum of creative independence. After a confrontation with the producer of Beyond doubt (1956), he definitively closed the door of Hollywood and reopened that of his beloved Berlin.
The problem is that “his” Berlin no longer existed. It had been 25 years and a world war. He was 66 years old and had little desire to adapt to a new city. Lang shot his last German films (The Tiger of Esnapur, The Indian Tomb, The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse) while living in a hotel.
In 1960 he retired to his home in Beverly Hills in the company of his last wife, Lily Latté, who had been his secretary. From there he could see, through his characteristic monocle, how the acknowledgments and expressions of admiration were happening. He died on August 2, 1976.