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Fritz Lang, as any film student will tell you, was one of the undisputed masters of the cinematic form from its very beginning.
In an essay written for the DGA Quarterly by Terrence Rafferty, Lang’s work is examined from his earliest Silent films in Germany to his later iconic Film Noir masterpieces in America. If you’re just coming to the work of Fritz Lang and want some background, here’s a starting point:
I am not an artist.” Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Big Heat (1953), was not known as a humble man, but on the set of his last film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), he said that very thing to, of all people, an actor. He elaborated: “I am a craftsman.” Perhaps the great filmmaker, then nearing 70, was simply feeling weary and a little low, or maybe he meant that on this picture, with its skimpy budget, a craftsman was all he could hope to be. But although Lang surely was a film artist, and surely knew it, there’s a lot of truth in his self-assessment: He was—from the beginning of his career in the German silent cinema, through two busy decades in Hollywood, to this modest end, back in Germany—always the sort of filmmaker whose art was his craft. In Germany during the ’20s, he made elaborate, complex, hugely ambitious movies, mostly for the legendary UFA studio. In America, he was never to work on such a grand scale or with such consistent support from his producers: The 22 pictures he directed in Hollywood between 1936 (Fury) and 1956 (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) were almost exclusively genre pieces—many thrillers, a handful of Westerns—and he made them for no fewer than nine different studios. His craftsmanship was his salvation. Fritz Lang thought big, but he knew how to work small.
Adaptability is close to the last thing you’d expect to find in a filmmaker such as Lang, who cultivated the image of the tyrannical Teutonic filmmaker and, by all accounts, frequently lived up to it. (The monocle he sported for his entire career contributed mightily to his general air of fearsomeness.) And among the many European directors who migrated to the United States in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, Lang was perhaps the one with the most prestige to lose: unlike Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Fred Zinnemann, he arrived on our shores with a big name and an already formidable body of work. When Lang landed in Hollywood, after fleeing the Third Reich and directing one picture (Liliom, 1934) in France, he had to adjust to the American way of moviemaking, in which he would have exponentially less control over his art than he had had in Germany. He was by temperament a survivor, though, and he’d already met the most important creative challenge of his generation of filmmakers—the transition from silence to sound. As far as dealing with overbearing studio bosses went, even the heavy hand of, say, Louis B. Mayer couldn’t compare to what he’d left behind—in a hurry—in Germany, where Hitler and Goebbels would have been looking over his shoulder.
Lang is in fact practically a one-man history of cinema from 1920 to 1960, a director who weathered a remarkable amount of turbulence both in society and in the constantly evolving medium in which he labored, and who managed, through it all, to maintain a master craftsman’s sang-froid. Even in the glory days of Weimar filmmaking, his technique was unusually flexible: his style changed, subtly, as cinematic fashions did. In early movies such as Destiny (1921) and the electrifying Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), he relies heavily on iris effects to focus the viewer’s attention and to vary the transitions between scenes. But by the time of his last silents, Metropolis, Spies (1928), and Woman in the Moon (1929), that technique had all but disappeared, and in its place was a speedier, more kinetic, and more modern-seeming sort of editing rhythm. In his silent films, Lang rarely moved the camera, but his first talkies, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), are full of gracefully executed tracks and pans. It’s as if he had realized that with dialogue his editing options were more limited and he needed other ways to create a sense of dynamism, the relentless forward movement that was, and would remain, the most striking characteristic of his movies. Francois Truffaut once wrote, “There is only one word to describe Lang’s style: inexorable.”
Here is an interview done with Fritz Lang in 1971. The interviewer is Philip Chamberlin, film curator at the L.A. County Art Museum who was also responsible for the Fritz Lang film retrospectives during the late 1960s.