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Lang, Fritzlocked

(05 December 1890–02 August 1976)
  • Michael H. Hoffheimer

Lang, Fritz (05 December 1890–02 August 1976), film director, was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of Anton Lang, a prominent architect, and Paula Schlesinger. Lang seemed destined to emulate his father when he took up architecture at the Technical High School of Vienna. But drawn increasingly to painting, he transferred to the Academy of Graphic Arts and then studied at the State School of Arts and Crafts in Munich (1908–1910). At the age of twenty he began traveling the world, working as an itinerant artist and designer in Asia, North Africa, and the South Pacific. Arrested in Paris as an alien at the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Vienna where he entered the Austrian army. Wounded repeatedly (blinded in his right eye), he reached the rank of lieutenant and was decorated for service.

While recuperating from his war injuries, Lang wrote screenplays and acted. In 1918 he moved to Berlin, continuing to compose screenplays and appearing in a few minor film roles. In 1919 he directed his first films. In 1920 he divorced his first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, and married Thea von Harbou. From 1920 to 1933 Harbou collaborated with Lang as author or coauthor of his screenplays.

From the start, Lang’s films were distinguished by masterly control of technique and strong graphic images marked by expressionist style. He often employed allegory and symbolism for didactic purposes. For example, in Der müde Tod (The tired death, 1921; released in English as Destiny), a woman bargains with Death for the life of her boyfriend. In Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Lang introduced the character of Mabuse, a master criminal who seeks to dominate a world of chaos, crime, and vice by manipulating others. The film was a commercial success, and Lang—who viewed it as a parable of his time—made a sequel in 1932, The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse. He reprised the Mabuse character a third time in his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).

In 1924 Lang directed Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, film versions of the Nibelungen epic with impressive effects and architectural settings. He coauthored and directed Metropolis (1927), a carefully choreographed and moralistic melodrama with stunning sets and effects—replete with some 30,000 extras. The story, set in the future, depicts the struggle between degraded workers and a technological elite, each class identified with a different level of the city. The film evinces Lang’s concern with the deception of visual appearances and their potential for sinister manipulation in a subplot about the construction of a robot designed to lead the workers to violent revolt and their own destruction. Lang himself was dissatisfied with Metropolis; it was not a commercial success, and critics have objected to defects in plot and style. Nevertheless the film has appealed to educated audiences for generations and endures as one of the most widely viewed films of the silent era.

Lang mastered sound film in his first effort in the new medium, M (1931). His personal favorite, M is widely acknowledged as a classic. In it a psychopathic child killer (played masterfully by Peter Lorre) is pursued both by authorities and by an organized underworld of criminals and beggars. Similarities between police and criminals are visually reinforced throughout. Trapped by the underworld, the killer is tried by a kangaroo court. The mob’s demand for the killer’s death is frustrated only when police break up the mob trial—and the film ends. M adapted hitherto unconventional material and employed a greater degree of naturalism: Lang even studied insanity and employed criminals in the cast. The extensive critical literature about—and conflicting interpretations of—M testify to its disturbing, ambivalent effect on viewers and its susceptibility to multiple readings.

As they rose to power in the early 1930s, the Nazis banned Lang’s most recent films, but, according to Lang, Joseph Goebbels nonetheless asked him to direct films for the Nazis. Although Lang was raised a Roman Catholic, his mother was part Jewish, and he immediately fled Germany. Harbou sympathized with the Nazis—she joined the Nazi party—and stayed in Germany. She divorced Lang in 1933.

After making one film in France, in 1934 Lang moved to Hollywood, where David O. Selznick brought him to work with MGM. His first American film was Fury (1936), the story of an innocent man, Joe Wilson, wrongly accused of a crime. Attacked by a lynch mob, Joe escapes but is believed dead. Out for vengeance, Joe allows the mob leaders to be tried for his murder but relents at the end. Fury effectively combined familiar Langian themes—the deceptiveness of appearances, the similarities between the criminal order and the legal system, and the self-destructive course of vengeance. To MGM’s surprise, it proved a commercial success, and it attracted attention for its timely antilynching message. An immediate classic, Fury remains the most popular and most studied of Lang’s American works. After completing Fury, Lang’s contract with MGM expired, and for the next two decades he worked for a variety of producers, sometimes producing his own work alone or in partnership. His films were released by most major companies, including United Artists, 20th Century–Fox, Warner Bros., and Republic.

From 1936 to 1956 he made twenty-two films in the United States—more than half of his total. Among his most highly regarded American films are You Only Live Once (1937), a film noir about an ex-con trying to go straight who is wrongly accused of a crime; Western Union (1941), a western; Hangmen Also Die! (1943), based on a story by Lang and Bertolt Brecht about the Czech resistance; Ministry of Fear (1944), an anti-Nazi thriller; Scarlet Street (1945), a film noir about the downfall of an amateur artist who kills the woman who tempts him to his ruin; The Big Heat (1953), a police melodrama about a detective whose wife is murdered by the mob; While the City Sleeps (1956), a thriller about a journalist who traps a sex murderer; and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a legal drama in which the lover of a writer incriminated of murder searches for exculpating proof.

Lang welcomed the greater technical resources and superior casting opportunities in America but protested against interference with his artistic control. For example, he rightly complained that the kiss inserted at the end of Fury in the courtroom was contrived. Yet even while reorienting himself to the more commercial Hollywood system of filmmaking and a wider range of genres, Lang wrote and directed films of high quality and original technique. His innovations in established genres influenced other filmmakers—for instance, his western Rancho Notorious (1952) was the first to employ a theme song throughout.

For about a year in 1952, he was blacklisted as a suspected Communist and was unable to get work in Hollywood. He was probably correct in believing this treatment stemmed from his support of antifascist activities in the late 1930s and from his friendship with many Communists. Lang was able to make films again in 1953, but, though he himself was satisfied with several of those works, they did not achieve the commercial success he sought. Growing increasingly frustrated with external interference with his work, in 1957 he accepted an invitation to return to Germany to make a two-part film that he had cowritten in 1920, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Filmed in India with extravagant scenes, the films were well-received upon their release in Europe in 1959. He returned to Germany to make a third Mabuse film. Lang later told Peter Bogdanovich that he did not make these last three films because of their importance but because “I was hoping that if I made somebody a great financial success I would again have the chance—as I had with M—to work without any restrictions. It was my mistake.”

Lang returned to Beverly Hills, never to direct another film. During his last years he was recognized as a significant director, especially by younger filmmakers and French New Wave critics. He appeared as himself and commented on film directing in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Contempt (1963). Yet Lang remained an outsider in Hollywood, suffering from a bad reputation among actors who did not like working with such a perfectionist. He died in Los Angeles.

Lang was one of the few great directors with artistic aspirations whose best films continue to appeal to broad audiences. Critics once dismissed Lang’s American work as inferior to the films he directed in Germany, but in the 1950s and 1960s some reevaluated his American films. Accordingly, a division of opinion arose. Luc Moullet insisted Lang’s work “is one and indivisible”; some critics argued his Hollywood films equaled or surpassed his more melodramatic and didactic early work; others (like Noël Burch) contended that his early German films attained high artistic levels that he never reached again. He received no major awards from the American film industry.


Lang’s papers are at the University of Southern California. Some correspondence is cataloged in the holdings of the Leo Lania Collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Lang discussed his views on film in an article in the Penguin Film Review (1948) and published the screenplays for M (1963) and Fury in Twenty Best Film Plays, ed. John Gassner (1943). Peter Bogdanovich published edited transcripts of extensive interviews with him about his life and career in Fritz Lang in America (1967). There are a number of book-length critical studies of Lang’s work and career. Lang’s longtime acquaintance, Lotte Eisner, wrote a thorough, sympathetic account, Fritz Lang (1976), which includes a good filmography and bibliography, Lang’s unfinished autobiography, and excerpts of interviews. Eisner had access to all of Lang’s American scripts, and Lang himself read and corrected her text. The most complete bibliography is probably in a critical study of his American work, Reynold Humphries, Fritz Lang: Cinéast américain (1982), published in revised English translation by the author as Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films (1989). An excellent entry on Lang by Philip Kemp is in World Film Directors, ed. John Wakeman (1987). Paul M. Jensen, The Cinema of Fritz Lang (1969), though programmatic in interpretation and judgmental in evaluation, is well researched and contains particularly helpful discussion of Lang’s sources and context. Robert A. Armour, Fritz Lang (1978), is a good introduction to Lang’s work and treats Lang’s major films thematically under different genres. Synoptic, critical studies include Luc Moullet, Fritz Lang (1963), with excerpts from critics and contemporaries and a filmography; and Francis Courtade, Fritz Lang (1963), with a filmography. Good short studies are: the critical appraisals by Robin Wood and Noël Burch in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers, vol. 2, ed. Richard Roud (1980); the entry by Rolf Badenhausen in Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol. 13 (1982); and the entry in Liz-Anne Bawden, ed., The Oxford Companion to Film (1976). An obituary is in the New York Times, 3 Aug. 1976.