[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

We must undertake a project, accomplish a more commendable task without fail, by voluntarily letting go of the various means of expression that rely on technical virtuosity and which, by that fact, will always reek of artifice.

Fritz Lang (1926)

Born in 1890 in Vienna, Fritz Lang entered the film world in 1916. Having studied architecture, studied and practiced painting and other related arts—caricature, interior decoration, etching etc.—having amassed a vast knowledge of the world through faraway journeys and diverse experiences, the most painful of which was the war, Fritz Lang approached cinema via the intermediary of theatre at a point where he had already attained a certain maturity as a man.

That explains why, in his first directorial efforts (1919-1921) and even in his first scripts (1916-1919), we find themes, guiding principles and figures of style that we notice even in his most recent films, the only difference being a deepening intensified by the years.

Fritz Lang’s body of work is therefore one and indivisible. It’s founded on a certain conception of the world whose rudiments are distinctly discernible even in the first scripts he wrote. Rather than studying the films in chronological order as common sense demands, we must first study this conception of the world, this Idea existing prior to the creations it brought forth. The only possible order then is the one that traces different evolutionary forms of the Idea, which respect chronology only loosely.

I. SEARCH (1916-1949)


Man Dominated by the World (1916-1926)


Like all bodies of work, Lang’s is a mixture of personal contribution and external factors. Lang’s first films are more reflections of external factors: moral, social and material life in Germany during the Great War. But if other filmmakers, who made films similar to Lang’s, also reflecting these external factors, changed their style and themes in the following years, Lang alone remained unchanged: his personal contribution essentially resides in the faithfulness, intelligence and consistency with which he submitted himself to these external factors.

The Germanic world of 1916-1919 was a decadent world. The military defeat of 1918 only affirmed a state of affairs and accentuated a state of mind, discernible much before the war: the two Empires held together, materially and morally, only thanks to the myth of an illusory and superficial grandeur. Industrial strength, social stability, army prestige, feeling of Germanic superiority, all these false values collapsed for good during the war. From the winter of 1915-16 on, German people began to turn hostile to this conflict that dragged on, since they had expected a superfast victory like in 1866 and 1870. Mass movements and strikes took a dramatic turn towards the end of 1917. These soon became para-communist revolts. By this time, the German industry was proven incapable of opposing American military power.

It’s curious that, in this period of collapse, German cinema saw a commercial and artistic rise it had never known before. It had to do with the facts of the war: countries that were German allies or occupied by allied armies could show only films produced by the four powers in struggle against the entire world. Now, neither Bulgaria nor the Turkish Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire was equipped to supply this vast market supported earlier by the Americans, the Italians, the French and the Danes. Only Germany had the necessary means.

Another reason: the non-mobilized public—by far the largest—liked going to the movies to forget its everyday disappointments. Besides, artists appear to be more inspired in times of crisis and instability than in periods of happiness and stability. They need reasons for criticism in social, material and moral life in order to be able to arrive at a certain novelty, indispensable to the value of their artwork.

We thus find, in the work of various German directors as much as in Fritz Lang, a cinema where forgetfulness and dream, on one hand, and a latent scepticism and pessimism, on the other, reign supreme. This double tendency corresponds to a natural double reaction of a man dominated by the world: a flight from reality and an analysis of the situation, interpreted here as the inevitable consequence of the man’s inferiority, an inferiority of an essential kind that can be explained in one word: Fate. This analysis also results in a flight from responsibility, as though nothing that happened to Germany was imputable to Germans.

In the first scripts written by Lang, dream and forgetfulness are themes common to crime films like Die Hochzeit im Excentricclub (The Wedding in the Eccentric Club) and some others whose titles Lang doesn’t remember, to a melodrama Die Frau mit den Orchideen (The Woman with Orchids, 1919), where the main character is of a fanciful and mythical nature, to exotic films like Pest in Florenz (The Plague of Florence, 1919), situated in the idealized setting of Florence during the Renaissance, like Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1919-21)  and Die Sendung des Yogi (The Mission of the Yogi, 1921). A distance from everyday reality—as much social as temporal or spatial—made concrete by this Asia that Lang had already visited.

But Pest in Florenz is also an allegory that can be explained in terms of the Germany of 1919, if we make the effort of replacing religious controversies with their political equivalent. The plague, the ‘red death’, that reigns in the enclosed area of the palace and the climate of rebellion sustained by Savonarola evoke the semi-famine, the material and moral deterioration of Germany concealed by the surface prosperity of the Empire, as well as the Bolshevik revolt of the same year.

The pessimism is evident in the constant, often personalized presence of Death, notably in Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death, 1917). In Pest in Florenz, the epidemic spreads to the entire city. In a film he wrote, Lang played the role of Death himself.

We find the theme of the seductress, who inspires in a man a love so violent that he becomes her slave, only to be totally consumed by the passion—a theme of such great consistency that it couldn’t be the doing of Fate—in Die Frau mit den Orchideen, in Pest in Florenz, where a courtesan seduces Savonarola’s disciple, and in four of the first seven films directed by Lang, Halb Blut (Half-Blood, 1919), Der Herr des Liebe (Master of Love, 1919), Harakiri (1919), where it’s inverted, and also Vier um die Frau (Four Around a Woman, 1921), where, like in Die Frau mit den Orchideen, it’s also complicated by a series of romantic rivalries.

Hara-Kiri, Lang’s version of “Madame Butterfly”.

Dreams are still present in the exoticism of Harakiri, an illegal adaptation of Madame Butterfly—the love affair between a German navy officer and a geisha, whom he gives a child before going back to Europe; because he promised to come back, she waits, but he comes back… with his wife, and she kills herself—and in the first part of Die Spinnen: Der goldene See (The Spiders: The Golden Sea), partly set amidst the Incas.

 The two parts of Die Spinnen are the only ones of Lang’s first seven films to have survived. No critical assessment exists for the other five, which we are obliged to imagine in terms of Die Spinnen, whose mediocre quality, together with a fickleness unusual in Lang and opposed to his art, makes us suppose that the loss is minor. This outlandish series of adventures à la Fantômas, which mixes detective fantasy with exotic fantasy at the service of a plot in which we see a secret organization trying to rule the world by getting hold of fabulous Incan treasure, doesn’t rise beyond the intellectual level of movies and novels of its kind. Subsequently frequent in Lang, the theme of the Übermensch who tries to dominate the world is only a pretext here for the invention of new adventures, whose climax consists of a last-minute rescue in a hot air balloon, in front of pursuing horsemen rendered harmless… The sets—exteriors rebuilt in studio—are very studied, especially the land of the Incas, whose mythical character lends itself to all kinds of experimentation. But all these aspirations are inscribed within the framework of an expressive crudity and vulgarity customary at the time and contrast sharply with the lean efficiency of the decorative apparatus one admires in the American Lang. It’s rather in the second part, Das Brillantenschiff (The Diamond Ship), and its remarkable direction of actors that we discover the crux of Lang’s talent: the characters, especially secondary roles, are delineated in a precise fashion, albeit a little forced, notably in their tics. Let’s also appreciate the intelligence of the narrative construction that is rich in variations and plot twists.


Thanks to his grasp of the film industry and his gifts as a writer, Fritz Lang, though a beginner, became one of the star directors of Erich Pommer’s company, Decla-Bioscop. He was unfaithful to Pommer only once: Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image, 1920) was produced by Joe May. A dying child is miraculously cured shortly after a stranger comes to his little village. The village thinks that the woman is no other than the Holy Virgin Mary. It’s not clear how this purely realist description of a supposed miracle fits into Lang’s body of work.

Pommer, who soon merged with the UFA trust, then gave Lang the authorization to make a film close to his heart, Der müde Tod (1921), which doesn’t translate to The Three Lights, the French title of the film, but Weary Death.

With Der müde Tod, Fritz Lang adopted a style that best serves his intentions, the expressionistic style, of which he would’ve been the real cinematic pioneer had Pommer not removed him from the directorial duties of Das Kabinett von Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919) at the last minute to the benefit of Robert Wiene. It was Lang who had prepared everything and who had decided the particular style of the film: we certainly owe the public success of Caligari, more considerable than that of timid attempts such as Homonculus before it, partly to him.

Expressionism rendered the impression of domination that man feels upon contact with the universe quite brilliantly. Pervasive in pictorial circles that were a product of Germany at the beginning of the century, this movement strove, according to Lotte H. Eisner (Notes on Fritz Lang’s Style in La Revue du Cinéma, issue no. 5, page 4, February 1947), to render the expression of an object by means of the intellect instead of directly reproducing the visual impression that one receives from it. The originality of this school, which we might say was oriented towards abstraction, was due as much to artistic reasons as to a gratuitous desire to oppose the aesthetic canon of bourgeois Germany of the time. Expressionism attested to the artist’s complete domination over his material, as was true with all schools that weren’t squarely realist. And this domination turned out to be an aesthetic equivalent of the notion of Fate. Characters became one with objects, and these objects were entirely modelled by the artist. The moral of expressionism thus perfectly coincided with the aspirations of the German people of the 1920s: man has no responsibility whatsoever since, ontologically dominated by the world, he is a puppet of events. And expressionist films, through their form and very often through their meaning, contributed to proving to the German public their inculpability in the defeat of 1918 and in the country’s decadence. The underlying principle of this aesthetic thus offered the audience excuses that material reality reveals to be unwarranted.

Der müde Tod constitutes one of the most brilliant forms of expressionism. Within the narrow framework of this style, the film constantly outdoes itself in terms of invention. Each set corresponds to a harmonious collection of geometric figures, limiting straight lines and, more rarely, spirals or curls, which grip the characters like a vice. Critics have spoken about the three candles, the famous wall, the staircase etc., and noted the importance of bottom lighting, which is unlike everyday lighting and which accentuates the work’s abstract quality.

The theme is wholly in keeping with the writing: in an almost abstract time and place, possibly a little German village in the 19th century, Death promises a young girl that it will return the life of her fiancé if she can save the lives of three young men, or even one among them. Like in Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916), the three episodes are set in three different places and time periods, in Baghdad around the year 800, in China in the Middle Ages and in Venice around 1600, which allows for decorative aspirations much more diverse than in the modern section, which is of a great unity in its abstraction. In the end, the young girl fails thrice and is able to meet her fiancé only by surrendering herself to Death. This schematic plot is enlivened by an ending that’s as ambiguous and melodramatic as possible, where Lang allows us a glimpse of his talents as a master screenwriter: the young girl asks people who complain about their miserable existence—a beggar, old infirm women—to donate their lives in exchange for her young lover’s. Everyone rejects her proposition violently. She saves a baby from a fire when she could’ve saved the life of her beloved by letting it die. Similarly, the idea of a weary Death, which hesitates to cull the young hero and makes several deals with the young girl, brings a note of irony and originality into a work too rigidly defined by its metaphysical presupposition.

All said and done, it’s not the message or Lang’s point of view—elements determining the film’s composition—that win the viewer over, but this composition and the artist’s effort to perfect it. We admire the implementation of the means, and not the end, which becomes the springboard to its success; we forget the meaning of the elements and retain only the truth contained by their aesthetic beauty.

Der müde Tod was only a moderate success in Germany. It was France that noticed the film, nonetheless a particularly Germanic work. Following this, the entire world gave an ovation to Lang’s three most evidently expressionist films, Siegfried, Metropolis and M, which, thanks to their great formal originality, remain Lang’s three most famous and admired films. The admiration is justified, certainly, but too disproportionate in light of Lang’s recent, ill-received films, which are of a less provocative but sharper and deeper beauty and innovation.

Die Nibelungen – Part 1: Siegfried, a mythological universe.

Siegfried (1923) is the first part of the Die Nibelungen series, adapted from the famous legend Das Nibelungenlied (1210) and unofficially from Richard Wagner’s four-part opera Der Ring der Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, 1869-76). Die Nibelungen, often considered a single work by film historians, is in fact made of two parts that are as dissimilar as possible and which we’ll study separately.

The action is set in a mythological universe which has certain features of the 6th century. Siegfried leaves his country and reaches the Kingdom of the Burgundians after surmounting several obstacles. From Iceland, he helps bring back the fierce warrior Brunhild whom Gunther, the king of the Burgundians, hopes to marry. In exchange, Siegfried will receive the hand of the king’s sister Kriemhild. Furious about being brought by force by Siegfried, Brunhild has him killed by Hagen. In fact, the action hardly counts, for every psychological or human element is excluded from it. Love, which in Der müde Tod seemed capable of, if not changing the course of Fate, at least fighting it, makes way for simple relations between aesthetic forces. Stylization is pushed to an extreme degree, especially since Lang’s reputation and commercial success allowed him to get the wealth of resources he asked for.

Like in most of his films, outdoor scenes were shot in studio. So we have the famous passage of Siegfried in the forest, the no-less-famous set of the giant staircase in front of the Worms cathedral, and other creations impressive in their stateliness and invention. A very careful lighting system, which at times drowns the sets in light, replaces the commonplace power of contrasts with the blinding obviousness of bright, dominant features, as can be noticed in the excellent print recently distributed in France. The avant-garde filmmaker Walter Ruttmann tried out various experiments in his contribution to the Dream of Hawks sequence.

The power struggle that determines the film and enslaves its individuals, here reduced to the level of still life, valorises only one kind of character, the Übermensch, with whom Siegfried (and sometimes the various warriors of the film) constantly identifies. The appearance of a victorious and almost invincible hero, who follows the fallen heroes of Der müde Tod, coincides with a certain material and moral renewal in Germany, which, despite the tragedy of its economic and financial situation, or rather because of it, was already seeking to transform itself into a Third Reich. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer established all links associating expressionism to Nazism with a desire to bolster his thesis which exhibits a suspect partiality. It’s certain that expressionism, product of Germany’s moral and social condition in the 1920s, always remained linked to this condition and evolved with it. In turning human beings into puppets of Fate, expressionism veered close to the Nazi conception, which gave a much more concrete form to Fate…

But one shouldn’t think that this prefiguration of Nazism was consistently affirmed by artists. Fritz Lang was propelled by the movement, but he never accepted its consequences on the intellectual level. He was, on the contrary, the first to reject them. We could even say that he distanced himself from Germany and started to criticize Nazi efforts and the exaltation of the Übermensch at the same time that he rejected the canons of expressionism little by little.

With Metropolis (1926), expressionism becomes at once more flamboyant—given the immense amount of resources given to this most expensive of German films—and more nuanced. If the sets are more elaborate than usual, the human element regains a part of its natural independence here: the lead actors act rather than being acted upon, and the extras in crowd movements, while they’re still arranged in certain geometric formations, now reflect human emotions.

Like Der müde Tod, set within a framework now abstract, now ancient and faraway, like Siegfried, set in the Middle Ages of Barbarians, the futuristic Metropolis is set outside of contemporary reality. In a gigantic factory-city, workers have become slaves to masters and wish to rebel, their lives having been reduced to an inhuman mechanism. A young girl, Maria, holds them back because she knows that, if they rebel, they will be massacred. The inventor Rotwang, of a nihilistic and destructive spirit, creates a robot that looks like Maria to push the people to revolt. The city will be saved from massacre and flooding through the intervention of Freder, the son of the master of the metropolis who is in love with Maria. Thanks to an inter-social marriage, all disagreements are resolved: “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart”. There’s a very unrealistic, naïve pretension to this message, especially for us who have thirty-five years of further experience. Lang is the first to smile about it today. But for its time, Metropolis displayed great visionary audacity which wasn’t entirely devoid of pertinence, at least on certain points: inspired by a journey to New York, Metropolis is a city rather similar to future labour camps of 1933-1945 and to the factory complexes of our time. In fact, it’s the power of its imagination and direction that’s responsible for the film’s renown. The elements of bad taste and the commonplaces here are those of ordinary melodramas of the era (the responsibility for them is generally attributed to the novelist Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife and screenwriter since 1921), but objectivity obliges us to silence our critical thinking to admire the poetic force of the work, which has to do with Lang limiting himself to the essentials, whose price is just this naivety. It’s Aeschylus applied to cinema.

Metropolis, Aeschylus applied to cinema.

Let’s note that, as much as it belongs to the period studied here—man dominated by the world—one of pessimism which it barely manages to steer away from with an artificial ending, Metropolis also belongs, to a certain extent, to the second period—man seeks to dominate the world—which substitutes action for stasis. Metropolis possess the poetic dynamism of the previous film, Kriemhilds Rache, its ardour and its youth. It’s an epic cinema that responds to Gance’s Napoléon: gigantic machines, superhuman constructions, artificial cataclysms, there’s an entire ultramodern fantasy here not yet seen in cinema which will serve as inspiration in the years to come.

Metropolis also makes use of various themes that Lang and numerous other directors will go back to, notably that of the sorcerer’s apprentice (cf. Clair’s Á nous la liberté and Chaplin’s Modern Times on the same subject), that of the double nature of human conscience, midway between Good and Evil: the double face of the fake and the real Maria will find an echo in Debby’s double face in The Big Heat (1953).

This pessimistic period isn’t precisely demarcated: it displays a palpable sense of evolution in line with the times. Only the expressionistic form allows us to define it, with a little approximation and arbitrariness, and isolate it from certain films interspersed with it, the latter conceived from a clearly less expressionistic point of view.