Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an Austrian-American film director, screenwriter and occasional 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 are the groundbreaking ‘Metropolis’ and ‘M’, made before he moved to the United States, his iconic precursor to the film noir genre.
At the outbreak of World War 1, Lang 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 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.
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 art films such as ‘Der Mude 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, the famed 1927 masterpiece ‘Metropolis’, and the 1931 classic, ‘M’, his first “talking” picture.
Lang produced a coherent oeuvre that helped to establish the characteristics of film noir, with its recurring themes of psychological conflict, paranoia, fate and moral ambiguity. His work influenced many filmmakers such as William Friedkin.
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 and 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.
At the end of 1932, as 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. Whereas Lang was worried about the advent of the Nazi regime, partly because of his Jewish heritage, his wife 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 Nazi eugenics laws he would be identified as a Jew even though his mother was a converted Roman Catholic, and he was raised as such.
Upon his arrival in Hollywood in 1936, Lang joined the MGM studio and directed the crime drama ‘Fury’, starring Spencer Tracy as a man wrongly lynched for a crime he didn’t commit. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939. Lang 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.
One of his most famous film noirs 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 Reasonable Doubt’ (1957).
Lang found it harder to find work in Hollywood and his advancing age left him less inclined to grapple with American backers. The German producer, Artur Brauner, was expressing 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”. Following the production, Brauner was ready to proceed with his remake of Das Testament des Doctor 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), made in a hurry and with a relatively small budget. It can be viewed as the marriage between the director’s early experiences with expressionist techniques in Germany as well as the spartan style already visible in his late American work. Lang was approaching blindness during the production, making it his final project.
While his career had ended without fanfare, his American and later German works were championed by the critics of the Cahiers du Cinema. Lang died in 1976 and was interred in the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.