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

Man Seeks to Conquer the World (1922-1938)


The defeated man of 1918 tries to gather himself, and with the improvement in his condition, he forges a less tragic metaphysics for himself. In this normal reaction, we find two successive variations: the revolutionary impulse, where man seeks to become the master of the whole world, and the asocial impulse, where he seeks simply to become the master of his own life and must transgress an all-too-arbitrary law in order to do that. The revolutionary impulse dominates in the German films, while the asocial impulse belongs rather to the American period.


The Revolutionary Impulse (1922-1932)

The theme of the man who wants to dominate the world was already present in Die Spinnen (1919), before sporadically resurfacing in the expressionist period (Siegfried, Metropolis). But it’s a motif deriving most of all from the convention of crime stories. As always, Lang starts from the thematic and artistic traditions of his time, and not themes particular to his personality, and deepens them, finding their latent meaning.

In the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), the first carrying the same title and the second Inferno, we find not a deepening of the theme, but a realist depiction of facts and atmosphere which are its most evident components: secret societies, hidden vices, hypnotism, unlimited violence, multiple disguises, lust and depravity, secret doors and betrayals, thieves and forgers. Mabuse the sorcerer’s apprentice, whom we successively see as a psychiatrist, a drunk sailor and a great financier, seduces a degenerate, the countess Told, the top informant of his enemy, the prosecutor Wenk. He kidnaps her and does all he can to ruin her husband. He forces his regular mistress, the dancer Cara Carozza, to poison herself. He tries to get rid of Wenk twice. He hypnotizes him, drives him to commit suicide in his bathtub. The police intervene in time and rescue the countess as well. Mabuse ends up in an asylum.

Doctor Mabuse’s goal is of a practical, and not metaphysical, order: he seeks power for the benefits it brings him, material and sexual benefits in particular. This need for pleasure is justified as compensations for deprivations of the war and for the moral rigidity of the Empire. By way of an extravagant crime story, moreover, the film only reproduces facts prevalent in the depraved and divided Germany of the time: “The fight between the villains and the police recalls the street clashes ordered by Noske, the socialist home minister” (George Sadoul, Histoire du Cinéma mondial, p. 154).

Keeping things at a descriptive level means that there’s no moral judgment yet: Wenk employs the same sneaky means as Mabuse to defeat him, and he is as amoral as him. He intervenes, not as much to rid society of a criminal as to get back at a rival in love and win back his mistress. But one could say that this comes at a price: the first part, very different from the second as always in Lang, an excellent but banal soap opera, can be defined as a study of human gestures and attitudes, their movements and the relation between their movements, a phenomenological study that owes everything to improvisation and observation and almost nothing to expressionism, and which comes close to modern cinema, particularly Lang’s more recent works like Human Desire. With almost nothing—characters that move from one chair to another, light cigarettes and play cards—Lang creates an autonomous world more captivating and original than the mostly spectacular one of the second part, with its by-the-numbers fights and its car chases inspired from the exploits of the Bonnot Gang and the Apaches of Paris in 1910.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, an autonomous and original world.

With Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge, 1924), the second part of Die Nibelungen, Lang broaches the theme of vengeance that will turn up again in about twenty of his films, often as the central theme. But the issues specific to vengeance aren’t yet dealt with here. It’s only much later, with Fury, that he’ll reflect on the question again after this first, superficial treatment. To avenge the murder of her husband Siegfried, Kriemhild sets off to marry the king of the Huns, Etzel, whom she urges to invite the Burgundians. Thanks to her machinations, the Huns attack the Burgundians, and it all ends with an horrendous battle that spares no one.

Vengeance here is solely a means to conjure violence, violence of passions, violence of actions. The beginning of the film, set in the Burgundian kingdom, still retains some of the stateliness of Siegfried, but the whole barbarian section displays a mix of structure and fascinating frenzy: the tools Lang has at his disposal are employed, not for the skilful, static reconstitution of paintings by expressionist masters, but for a dynamic organization of combat. The ending of the film is simply a 45-minute-long battle, with encirclements and repeated attacks on the encircled. The attackers’ manoeuvres are all similar, but Lang provides different insert shots each time and develops a rhythm full of variations and reprises that has no equivalent in the history of cinema. It’s at once immobility in movement and its opposite. At one of the rare screenings of this unsung film at the Cinémathèque française, viewers whistled at Lang’s ponderousness and insistence, which divested this spectacle of all dramatic value to better impart an epic form, founded exactly on the overload of realistic details. Here again, characters are objects, but they aren’t slaves anymore, nor elements of the setting. There’s no psychology, but there’s, however, a physical presence of individuals who, as products of the mise en scène and not of the simple arbitrariness of the script, embody the most important evolution: at the same time that man conquers his human condition, the style becomes freer, more inventive, and allows chance to play a significant role.

Kriemhilds Rache was less successful than Siegfried, perhaps because Germans were more interested in that part of the legend dealt with by Wagner, who incorporated only a few elements from this revenge story in his Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, 1876).

Die Nibelungen – Part 2: Kriemhild’s Revenge, characters that are part of the sets.

After this brilliant film, which followed some excellent artisanal works, and after another brilliant film, Metropolis, which froze UFA’s funds for more than a year, Lang was urged to direct less expensive films, which didn’t require six or seven months of shooting like their predecessors. Financed and distributed by the UFA-Decla trust whom he’d worked for since his debut, and produced by his own company, his following films were made with great freedom, which gives the lie to the accusations of commercialism, decadence, and material constraint that reviewers of Spione and Frau im Mond made.

Spione (Spies, 1927) continues to develop the theme of the Übermensch. But in contrast to Mabuse, Haghi seeks power for the sake of power, without thinking of its material benefits. So it’s a step forward in the study of the theme: immediate motivations for the crime make way for a kind of gratuitous crime. But the film leaves a lot to be desired: Haghi’s behaviour is explained with banal Freudian references, among other things his disability and too great a maternal influence: the nanny who accompanies him all through the film finally turns out to be his mother.

Spione mostly remains a superficial adventure film. We are treated to some sensational highlights, like a carefully planned train derailment. The interest is centred on a pair of likeable, young lead actors, in contrast to Lang’s earlier films, where the young lead actors were abstract figures, and where the forces of destruction commanded most of our attention.

One thinks of Hitchcock, even though it’s Hitchcock who must’ve thought of Lang: the same commercial sense, which disappoints critics and pleases the public, the same taste for the sensational and for outlandish adventures. The two opposing camps are more or less defined at the start, but it’s hard to understand the reasons for their actions: Lang creates a misleading confusion. He weaves a mesh of countless, cursorily presented actions and motivations resembling the one that governs our lives. Fate is no more an idea; it takes a more concrete shape and is therefore easier to overcome. Man is now prey, no more to his surroundings, but to events that elude his grasp, at least at first. To such a point that we attribute naturally explainable facts to the intervention of occult forces. Hypnotism features in Spione, after the Mabuse films and before Ministry of Fear and Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse. So this accumulation of unbelievable, superficial events isn’t devoid of a depth: it’s life itself that seems unbelievable to man. In Spione, the screenplay’s development creates this depth. Taking off from the principle of plot twists dear to crime stories, Lang invents a new style of screenplay that will set a precedent and where ideas from numerous screenwriters are preserved and harmonized by a considerable effort of blending. It’s the first step towards what one might call the Langian mesh. The impression of harassment that man feels upon contact with the universe is softened by the good health, humour and youthfulness that our director then enjoyed. Let’s not forget that Lang, a successful filmmaker who, for many, had his past behind him, was in fact a young man of thirty-eight years. In the following years, maturity and scepticism eliminated this impression of life to leave behind only the impression of indifference.

Spies, one thinks of Hitchcock.

Lang then began working with sound, before leaving Germany for France and America. It’s remarkable that these successive changes hardly brought any modification to his work, except for the fact that he now portrayed a different world with different problems. But if, until then, he’d started from prevalent facts and emotions whose meaning he looked for, he now adopted a certain outlook towards the world based on an observation of Weimar Germany. He would henceforth apply this personal framework to all forms of reality he would encounter.

That explains why he was among the first great silent filmmakers to accept sound, to seek out all its possibilities instead of denigrating the idea. After having adapted himself, he adapts everything to his personality. After three years of silence, he makes M (1931), the revised and corrected story of the notorious child killer of Dusseldorf. M is often considered Lang’s masterpiece, notably by Lang himself, because it unites expressionism and humanism, which fit together here perfectly. M can therefore appeal to everyone.

There are bits of bravura from a technical and artistic point of view, but they are always justified. While Spione was simpler on the visual level, we notice a return here to lighting effects of a heightened artificiality (smoke effects, reflections on water etc.), geometric compositions that transform the natural appearance of streets and shop windows. On the level of editing, there are some brutal series of shots or sequences that associate two facts to bring out an unexpected relation between them with vigour, as in the famous empty staircase filmed from a high-angle that immediately follows a shot of the empty chair of little Elsie, feared dead. There are also several sound effects: the murderer whistles a tune that betrays him for the first time. The halting noise of his breathing, accompanied by the squeaking back and forth of the lock he’s trying to open, will betray him a second time. Adding to that are echo effects, a complete silence, or pierced solely by a little noise that underlines it as such. Most of all, sound obliges Lang to stick to the most immediate realism. It would be impossible to conceive of very abstract characters like he did before, since their words would ring false.

There’s an abundance of human and realist observations in M. Each one of the extras, from the grieving mothers to the vengeful beggars and the most insignificant men in the crowd, has a precise individuality. Lang looks for the most peculiar details, even if it borders on coarseness and triviality (the button on inspector Lohmann’s zipper). We are, quiet clearly, a long way away from Siegfried.

M straddles two periods in Lang’s oeuvre, since the revolutionary impulse meets the asocial impulse in the figure of Becker. Becker, the murderer on whose back the letter M has been drawn in chalk, is a psychopath, like Haghi, like Mabuse, a pederast who finds pleasure in crime, but feels he’s driven to kill by a force dominating him. He terrorises the city only because he is a victim of this force. In contrast to Lang’s other monsters, he pleads before his judges. A character like that is hardly original today. But it’s the tics that Peter Lorre lends it, his impressions, his gestures, his appearance that’s awkward and troubling at once, that bring the character to life.

Faced with inspector Lohmann’s inability to arrest the sadist, and constantly threatened and harassed by his fruitless raids, the local crime syndicate decides to involve all its henchmen, beggars, thieves, and counterfeiters in the case. The gang captures Becker before the police does and holds a trial for him in an abandoned building, a trial whose judges are its “employees”. It’s a curious idea, this tribunal presided over by delinquents, perhaps inspired by Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a play by Brecht and a film by Pabst, or more certainly by a certain social fantasy proper to Germans. The Americans relocated the story to Los Angeles in their remake of M (1951), which was, of course, a total failure…

M, a figure awkward and disquieting at once.

M inaugurated a theme that soon became Lang’s favourite: the opposition between official justice, slow and often unjust, and individual justice, fair and rapid, but illegal. This theme would be combined with that of vengeance, his greatest dramatic tool, but which remains rather incidental here. In the case of M, it would seem that this opposition corresponds to the incapacity of the Weimar Republic set against the efficiency of the Nazi organization, which had already emerged from the underground. In the end, the beggars’ tribunal sentences Becker to death, but the police intervene. The law sends him to an asylum for a few years… “Parents, keep an eye on your children”, urges the last shot. It’s a statement that defines Germany’s then-current situation, one that doesn’t take a side, but presents the pros and cons, the failings of democracy and the dangers of fascism. No one is judged. Even the killer comes across as a pitiable, pathetic victim when he pleads his case with too great an eloquence before his judges, who, though less guilty, seem for a moment like bloodthirsty brutes.

In M, the Übermensch with abstract goals made way for the Nazi revolutionary, presented in a metaphorical way to avoid hard feelings. Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1932) is more specific. Lang did not hide his intentions, and Goebbels even had the film seized.

Having gone mad, Mabuse remains interned in a psychiatric asylum, just like Becker. With the help of the asylum’s director, Baum, whom he has in control thanks to his hypnotic powers, Mabuse succeeds in creating an activist network “that must terrorize people to such a point that they lose faith in the existing State and ask for our help”. Already present in M—which reveals Lang’s desire to perpetually come back to what he has done—the inspector Lohmann, a kind bon vivant much different from the dubious Dr. Wenk of Spione and the Mabuse films, manages to defeat the gang, after many twists and turns, with the help of a young couple. After Mabuse dies, Baum is arrested and goes mad himself.

It’s obvious that Mabuse’s name can be replaced with that of Hitler, who wrote Mein Kampf in prison and spread his “message” through means rather similar to those of hypnotism. His will to power isn’t explained using psychoanalytical or material reasons like before, but becomes entirely gratuitous.

The dramatic structure of the film is such that we quickly forget the political parable to get involved in the action and plot, in this mesh even more skilfully woven than in Spione. At the beginning of the film, we see a man cornered in a dark room without exit, full of odd objects.

We hear the amplified sound of a time bomb he tries to defuse in vain. Shortly after, the hero who was tailing him is pursued by a gang, which drops a huge truck over him in an alley just as wide as the vehicle, etc…

Right away, we find ourselves in an oppressive atmosphere. The viewer identifies with the two heroes who are harassed by a series of threatening events, attacks that they notice only when they become its victims and whose reason or cause they can’t understand. The plot clears up a little as the reels progress, but new twists keep pushing the action into newer directions. Other set-pieces help maintain the rhythm: in a room without exit, the heroes pre-empt a time bomb by triggering a life-saving flood; there is also a wild car chase that’s among the best lit and photographed, and among the most impressive, in the history of cinema.

The film was shot in two versions, one French and the other German, the latter benefitting from better actors, although the French—with Jim Gérald taking the lead—have brilliant turns, but ones less integrated into the film. It’s precisely to France that Lang turned, after Goebbels offered the post of official film director of Nazi Germany to this filmmaker of Jewish origins.

Die Nibelungen – Part 2: Kriemhild’s Revenge

So ends Lang’s German work, which, contrary to what Film Histories tell you, doesn’t constitute a single entity and isn’t at all defined by its expressionism (just four expressionist films out of seventeen). In fact, there’s infinitely lesser difference between Spione (1927) and Ministry of Fear (1943) than between Siegfried (1923) and Spione. But there is a superficial unity in this German period owing to themes that are specifically German or particular to this period in Germany, especially the will to dominate the world; a unity that owes greatly to the use of almost the same crew:  producer Erich Pommer, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, cameramen Carl Hoffman (4 films), Fritz Arno Wagner (4 films), Gunther Rittau and Karl Freund (2 films), set decorators whose collaboration is very important, Otto Hunte (7 films), Karl Vollbrecht (6 films), Emil Hasler (3 films), Erich Kettelhut and Karl Kirmse (2 films). Finally the actors:

Rudolph Klein-Rogge who perfectly embodies this will to dominate the world (8 films: Vier um die Frau, Der müde Tod; Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Inferno, the Mabuse role; Kriemhilds Rache, the Etzel role; Metropolis, the Rotwang role; Spione, the Haghi role; Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse, main role),

Bernhard Goetzke (5 films: Der müde Tod, Death; Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Inferno; Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache, the Hagen role),

Georg John (5 films: Der goldene See, Das Brillantenschiff, Siegfried, Kriemhilds Rache, M),

Carl de Vogt (4 films: Halb-Blut, Der Herr der Liebe, Der goldene See, Das Brillantenschiff),

Ressel Orla (4 films: Halb-Blut, Der goldene See, Das Brillantenschiff),

Paul Richter (3 films: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Inferno; Siegfried, main role),

Theodor Loos (3 films: Siegfried, Kriemhilds Rache, M).

Alfred Abel (3 films: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Inferno, Metropolis, where he is the young lead).

On the female side, Lang was hard put to find suitable actresses.

Besides the ingenue of Caligari, Lil Dagover (5 films: Der goldene See, Hara-Kiri, Das Brillantenschif, Der müde Tod, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler), we notice only shooting stars, Brigitte Helm, who was disappointing after Metropolis, and the amazing Gerda Maurus (Spione, Frau im Mond) and Camilla Spira (Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse).

In fleeing Germany, Lang also fled fascism and the will to power. He would revisit the question from an individual point of view, as it manifested in the more peaceful countries that he found himself in.