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

The Asocial Impulse

In these countries [that Lang migrated to], the difficulty consists in living without transgressing the law or becoming its victim. The heroes aren’t ambitious or vengeful anymore, like they were in Germany, but individuals like others, bogged down in the anonymity of apparently affluent and carefree crowds, common to both France and America.

Liliom (France, 1933) is loosely adapted from the play by Molnar. Liliom is a thug from the suburbs of Paris who once killed a man somewhat inadvertently. Will he go to hell or the purgatory? Up there, they discuss his case using movie projections of important moments from his life. A good deed allows him to return for a day to earth, where he meets his old friends. Liliom is something of a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and the film is an interrogation of his responsibility, his guilt or his innocence. The categorical affirmation found in the silent films makes way for an uncertainty about objectivity. That, in the film, it’s cinema that furnishes the case files comes across as a tribute to the art Lang has chosen. This intrusion of cinema into cinema will turn up again in Lang’s work from Fury to Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, passing through Clash by Night. A tribute that’s at the same time a critique: appearances, as cinema unveils them to us, are misleading and could easily be contradicted with the evidence of another moment or of another camera angle. Adding to this fallibility of cinema is the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Lang displays a real pleasure in dominating the world through film and seems to place himself under a slightly critical eye. A reflection on the notions of justice and responsibility, a reflection also on the value of his art, Liliom masks its seriousness with fantasy.

Lang’s humour, more substantial and more Bavarian in films between 1928 and 1932, turns out to be of a great finesse here; it’s accompanied by a certain nostalgia rather close to that of Max Ophüls, but more tender, less bitter. This nostalgia manifests particularly in the creation of a dreamworld that supplants reality. At that time, Lang was already doubly stateless: an émigré from the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, an exile from a Germany defeated by arms and reduced to slavery by Nazism, separated from his wife whom he’d be forced to divorce, he had no ties other than those preserved by memory. As it happens, Liliom was made after the shelving of a project that demonstrated a nostalgia for old Vienna, Die Legende vom letzten Fiaker (The Legend of the Last Vienna Fiacre): in 1918, fiacres had to cede their favourite ground, the Hauptallee, to cars. The last coachman dies of bitterness and wants to take his fiacre to Heaven. They don’t allow the fiacre to enter. “Okay, I’ll go to Hell”, retorts the coachman. God intervenes: “Alright, alright, drive me in your fiacre…” The fiacre enters, getting mixed up with the Chariot, God’s regular vehicle. No doubt that Lang reused much of this project in Liliom.

We notice that the fable doesn’t reject reality, but moulds itself over the harshest, most unpleasant truth—that of the suburbs, its poor, and its apaches—affirmed here with power. This raw reality is always depicted with a poetry that transforms it into phantasmagoria. This dialectic gives the film its colour. The dialogues are deliberately theatrical and romantic. The actors deliver brilliant performances: chiefly of note are Antonin Artaud, Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle, Mila Parély and Viviane Romance, whom Lang discovered with this film. The amorous duo exhibits a rather outmoded romantic sensibility, notably in the flower scene. Unfortunately, Lang’s stylistic efforts in terms of sets and lighting don’t add up to much because the film, a commercial semi-failure, was massacred during its release by distributors, who mutilated it left and right, doing away with its Germanic aspect that threw the French audience off balance, and thus destroying the meaning of the work. It’s also unfortunate that the last reel of the film hasn’t been found yet.

Having moved to the USA and under contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Lang had to limit himself, for three years, to preparing scripts that would never be made into films. Lang’s American period (1936-56) is, in fact, characterized by its instability deriving from unfavourable economic and artistic conditions and by its dispersion, in contrast to the German period, which had allowed Lang to call the shots and do whatever he wanted with the same crew. While Lang had almost always worked with the same producer in Europe, Erich Pommer, he was practically the only great Hollywood director to knock on the doors of all the big production houses: he made four pictures each for Fox and RKO, three for United Artists, two each for MGM, Columbia, Paramount, Warner Bros, and Universal, and one picture for Republic. He constantly changed actors and cameramen: only Joan Bennett (4 times), George Sanders. Sylvia Sidney, and Dan Duryea (3 times) made more than two films with him. Lang made twelve crime dramas, four spy films, three westerns, one melodrama, one historical adventure film, and one war film. He refused projects he didn’t like and golden contracts that could’ve made him a slave of the studios. Hence the silence between 1938 and 1940, between 1946 and 1949, between 1956 and 1958. This taste for independence indisputably demonstrates the error of film historians who, yesterday, accused the American Lang of selling out.

We could debate the value of the films, but we can’t doubt their ambition, made more evident by the consistency of themes. Lang wrote his scripts himself, with very rare exceptions. To be sure, he almost never signed them. This is line with a Hollywood tradition of courtesy, even more persistent after 1945, according to which the director must give exclusive writing credits to his co-writers. Lang also produced four of his films and is known to have slaved away at night to fix lame scripts and rickety productions.

In fact, it would seem that the responsibility for the cold and contemptuous reception often accorded to Lang falls on the director’s evolution towards greater perfection. The immense originality of the expressionist style commanded the viewer’s attention to the detriment of the message it conveyed. Consequently, Lang did away with formal artifice as much as possible, made it invisible. He now had an effect on the viewer without the latter being aware of the director’s effort to work on him. Measured against the initial ambitions, sobriety is more effective than originality; but it doesn’t appeal to critics, who must now find something to say about the films and who push back when they are asked to make the effort to reduce the viewer’s habitual delay over the creator.

There aren’t many theses, demonstrations, pleas in the American Lang, or if there are, they remain obscure: ideas are diluted in the reality depicted, in the truth of banal and everyday gestures. His constant search for objectivity can’t help but assert the disorder, contradiction and uncertainty of the creator as well as his creatures before life and its appearances. The viewer moves ahead gropingly himself in this too real a world and has trouble finding his way, for he is too used to a commercial cinema that does away completely with the usual work of comprehension.

Lang now depicts hunted men, individualists, who aren’t defined by a poetic envelope like Liliom was, but who are plunged into the everyday reality of their country, the USA. Fury, You Only Live Once, and You and Me constitute a trilogy featuring the same Sylvia Sidney and employing a similar pattern: ordinary individuals, who have nothing or little to blame themselves for, have their lives threatened by an error or a miscarriage of justice, which pushes them to commit actions contrary to morality. The collapse of the society forces them to become asocial in order to be able to live and drives them to their ruin, which they narrowly avoid in two of the three cases.

Fritz Lang directs Fury.

In these three films, Lang starts with a typical American problem, over which he imposes a personal world view of a Germanic origin. Fury (1936) is firstly a script by Normal Krasna on and against lynching. Lang’s critical, crafty mind attacks lynching too, but above all, it unveils the danger posed by those who attack the lynch mob with a comparable violence.

Joe Wilson, an honest American citizen, drives to the town where Katherine lives. He is finally going to be able to marry her, now that he has saved up little by little. He is stopped on the way: he resembles a kidnapper the police are looking for, and he has ransom notes on him. Honest citizens want to lynch him, and they set fire to the prison. He is buried under the rubble. The city learns of his innocence and Katherine, of his death. But, in fact, the explosion had miraculously saved him. Wounded, he takes refuge at his brothers’ home, lays low and asks them to take action against the lynchers identified through a film: sixteen are sentenced to death. Katherine meets Joe and convinces him to come to the trial and save his lynchers.

The film is therefore a meditation on vengeance. The hero is innocent, and he has every good reason to want to retaliate. But he is also going to commit an injustice, kill many men who showed malice, but are nevertheless innocent of the crime of murder for which they have been arrested. The theme of vengeance, handled in a superficial and poetic way in Kriemhilds Rache, comes across here as the theme best suited to portray man’s vacillation between Good and Evil. The failure of the judicial apparatus gives him the excuse, the attenuating circumstance, the motivation that possibly persuades him to jump to the other side of legality.

Expressionist Manicheanism makes way for a realistic description of human behaviour. Man is not all of a piece; he is neither good or evil to begin with. Some accidents during the course of his existence can lead him, slowly, step by step, to choose Evil without even realizing it. Like Hitchcock in his American films, Lang gives a more understandable and, I think, truer version of the evolution towards illegality.

The psychological progression is the only thing that counts: the ending, which seems a little glib and tacked-on, reveals, in addition to the author’s taste for dramatic reversals and a pre-emptive intervention by the censors, a certain disdain for resolutions: only chance can decide a man’s life and death, his success and his failure. Concrete outcomes are thus stripped of their deeper meaning.

Fury is suffused with a great contempt for the American crowd. This German immigrant to America seems to have sensed a spinelessness among the Yankee population. He ferociously indicts the cowardly lynch mob who can’t even recognize themselves in the film projection of their crimes that follows their hypocritical denials. He also attacks observers, voyeurs, and busybodies, who, in refusing to take the side of justice, become as guilty as the lynch mob.

Fury initiates the tradition that casts Lang as the filmmaker of contempt. It’s the only empirical touch in a film where everything is calculated to serve the plot, to show the mutual guilt of the society, of its members and of our hero. The smallest detail, for example the hero’s taste for peanuts, which at first glance seems to be a simple touch of familiar realism, soon turns out to be of a primordial importance to the rest of the story. The same goes for the framing, the choice of setting, which are in line with the tonality of the scenes: a sudden rain announces the hero’s misfortune. Expressionism and concomitant tricks of montage sometimes take over the constant sobriety of the film in order to show that the characters are dominated by superior forces. Some effects are a bit forced, like the shot of chickens that follows a meeting of gossips, and which Lang disowns today. There’s nevertheless a small place in this abstract universe for love and emotions when they help move the film’s plot and interest, notably in the somewhat hollow moments that separate the two bravura sequences, the lynching and the trial. Thanks perhaps to the excellent Sylvia Sidney, we find a sensibility here that, in You Only Live Once, keeps pace with structural abstraction. A dialectic that, for many, contributes in making this film, along with M, Lang’s masterpiece.


You Only Live Once, Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda.

A complete film with very diverse facets, You Only Live Once (1936) belongs to a hard-to-explain international current which, at that time, showed great sympathy for characters on the margins of society (La Bandera, The Informer, Quai des brumes) and which eventually produced an ordinary and somewhat facile poetry. Lang’s soft corner for hunted men—astonishing given that this man became full of severity and contempt with time—can perhaps be explained by their kinship to his own position as a pariah lost in a country too materialist for his nobility of feeling.

A three-time convict, Eddie Taylor risks a life term if he’s sentenced again. He wants to marry Joan and take a small, honest job at a garage. But the boss doesn’t trust ex-convicts: he blames Eddie for a mistake made by someone else and sends him home, just when Eddie has to pay mortgage on his house. Shortly afterwards, he is wrongly accused of a robbery carried out by his former gang, which has left one person dead. He goes to the police to clear his name, but he is sentenced to death. He breaks out of his cell and is about to leave the prison, when a priest intervenes to informs him that he’s been found innocent. Eddie thinks it’s a trick and kills him. He flees with Joan, who gives birth. They are both killed by the police a few metres from the border.

The plot is more packed, more powerful than that of Fury. In addition to the many twists and turns, there is the pathos, the viewer identifying more easily with Henry Fonda, who plays the lean, anxious and hunted victim, than with Spencer Tracy, the typical, stout American of Fury whose seemed do very well without the help and sympathy of others. This series of high points attains a climax when the exculpated Eddie kills and condemns himself to death. This tragedy has all the beauty and rigour of a Sophocles. If Fury constituted only an abstract blueprint, You Only Live Once is also a cri de coeur, a cry of revolt, as underlined by the heartrending irony of the order shouted over the final images: “Open the doors”, which should be those of the prison, but which, for Eddie, will be those of Heaven.

When he lets the lynch mob be sentenced to death, Joe Wilson comes across as an executioner. In contrast, when he kills the priest, Eddie comes across not as a murderer, but as a victim of the Society, which becomes the modern and concrete form of Fate. The simplicity and the purity of the central couple, whose desires are limited to the essential—having a house, making enough to live, to be able to love and raise children—are contrasted with various personalities forming an integral part of Society, be it “high society” like the wife of the governor, or be it the middle class of shopkeepers, respectable innkeepers who don’t want to mix with ex-convicts, snitching bartenders and suspicious mechanics. Lang exalts the individual on the margins because he respects his individual morality, and desiccates the respectable because they refer to a collective morality in contradiction with that of nature, which it adapts to material ends or to social preconceptions, degrading it in the process. So it’s man himself who creates the Fate whose victim he will be, by constructing a Social Order necessarily in conflict with the Natural Order.

The melodramatic accumulation, bordering on unbelievable, that has been so often held against the film is then wholly justified: it corresponds to the sum total of complications man has set for himself, and to his impossibility in surmounting them. Hence these surprises, these reversals of fortune that make a sudden victim of man. In these circumstances, the camera often identifies with him or creates particular situations for the viewer similar to the ones the hero encounters. That’s what explains the misleading character of the camera movement, and especially of the brief backward tracking shot that strikingly reveals the fallibility of human knowledge as well as human condition: for example, after the trial, there’s a close-up of the front page of a newspaper: “Taylor freed in massacre.” We think it’s an established fact. A brief backward movement: on the left, we see another front page: “Taylor guilty”. It’s what the editor of the newspaper, whose office the camera informs us we are in, okays for publication. Even so, this duplicity of meaning, if it has a metaphysical justification, is too pervasive in Lang not to have an underlying personal motivation: it would seem that Lang takes great pleasure in fooling the viewer, a tendency that certain explain—though it’s one among other possible interpretations—by the bitterness of this exiled man.

You Only Live Once is perhaps Lang’s most poetic film, along with Liliom. Certain scenes are worth mainly for their lyricism, whereas poetry in Lang’s work generally only drives up dramatic necessity. For example, the beautiful and surprising parable about the frogs that croak before the cooing lovers—that if one dies, the other does too—announces the future of our couple, but isn’t indispensable at all from a dramatic point of view. Similarly, the choice of scenery, roads snaking through gloomy expanses transformed by the rain, magnificent dense forests, of course reconstructed in the studio, are to be explained mostly on aesthetic grounds.

This poetic liberty gives a more human, more lively look to a work that has hitherto been too strictly limited to its subject matter, and ascribes greater value, from the point of view of realism and verisimilitude, to effects expressing the filmmaker’s vision of the world that are diluted in their opposites: what we really have here is a struggle between two conceptions, on a formal level as on the level of ideas. This is affirmed by the direction of actors that is full of warmth.

The diagonal is the predominant figure of style: it corresponds, in fact, to the falsity pervading the Social World, with some variations: never-ending crosses, like that of the gunsight, whose cross hair will be on Eddie, the target; a surfeit of strong or muted lights, which are much more unsettling than the traditional, ineffective darkness of crime films rightly named films noirs.

You and Me, George Raft in the centre.

You and Me (1938) is a bit disappointing, as the third part of trilogies often are. After abstraction (Fury), a mix of the abstract and the concrete (You Only Live Once), Lang turns much more towards the social.

Leaving prison, Joe, a reformed gangster, is employed at a large store whose owner recruits some of his staff from ex-convicts in order to help them start afresh. He marries Helen, who hides her past out of fear of disappointing him: she is out on parole, which forbids her to marry. She takes great effort to keep her marriage a secret. When he learns the truth, Joe returns to his former accomplices, whom he had earlier let go, and plans to rob the store. But Helen succeeds in convincing them to call off their plans. A child will seal the love between Helen and Joe.

The film is a social plea on behalf of ex-convicts, whom the Society must help in their rehabilitation. But in light of the metaphysical implications of the earlier films, You and Me offers a rather impoverished and questionable motive, which proves that Lang the German is cut out more for the metaphysical than the social. Within the same framework, You and Me doesn’t have the virulence of the other two films because the social critique is limited to legal particulars: everything has to do with the prohibition of marriage for someone on parole. The lives of the heroes are no longer at stake, and we soon lost interest in these rather trivial problems that are too easy to solve to really serve as proofs of the limitation of the social order. As a result, the film lacks dramatic interest, all the more so because there are very few opposing forces, like the small shopkeepers of You Only Live Once.

But this deficiency of subject matter is largely compensated by the beauty of the performances. There is a great sensibility here born of a sobriety almost completely divested of effects, except in night sequences or musical experiments. Lang seems to have wanted to rework Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, G. W. Pabst, 1931) whose composer, Kurt Weill, also composed for his film. This “plea for ex-convicts” of the introduction, which we find in the scene of the gang’s banquet, remains rather external to the whole film, but possesses a charm and displays great skill in its conception and editing. Finally, the film’s intimacy and kindness make for its greatest value. Contrary to what we might expect, Lang proves to be a master down till this register. We forget the superficial similarity with the other two films of the series, but we have to admit that You and Me offers nothing more; it would’ve been understandable had Lang made it as the starting point of his social trilogy, it is less so that it is his end point. Nevertheless, these reservations can in no way justify the bad reputation of this film, which, as a consequence, has never been screened in France since 1940.