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

Spy Films (1941-43)

With war looming over the USA, and much before Pearl Harbor, Lang began to contribute to the struggle against fascism. Not in order to exculpate himself from any affiliation to Nazism, as certain historians claim, but because of a profound and personal desire expressed in the second Mabuse film, among others. Five films in all, four of them in succession if we count Confirm or Deny (1941) which Sam Fuller speaks about elsewhere and which Lang quit during the shoot—just as with Moontide (1942)—which proves that Lang cherished his freedom of expression more than the beneficial domesticity imposed by Fox, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1942), Ministry of Fear (1943), and as addendum, Cloak and Dagger (1946).

The last one is a little odd: if it reuses all the elements of the other spy films, its aesthetic is based on an outmoded, even embarrassing sentimentalism, impressive and convincing in the audacity of its excesses than in its quality. It feels too loud not to be sincere. Is it the nostalgia of the exile that’s speaking? We can’t say.

These works, with the exception of Hangmen Also Die! with its 1961 rerun in Paris, were poorly received by critics. It is true that they bring nothing new to Lang’s work, but even so, they are undeniably successful, clearly superior to the spy films Walsh churned out serially at the time, and more perfect than even Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, contemporary films by Hitchcock. It’s understandable that finicky critics don’t like these films, for what they have in common is a total disdain for realism, and particularly for local colour. The Austrians (Man Hunt), the Czech (Hangmen Also Die), the Swiss and the Italians (Cloak and Dagger) and even the English (Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear) are characterized, in their behaviour as in their living conditions of the time, with a schematism that could seem repulsive to local population and to those who knew Europe under occupation or at war, and which could be compared to Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But, with the ties between America and Europe severed, Lang only had access to second-hand accounts. This rejection of realism also seems voluntary. Everything holds together thanks to the implausible, the fantastic and the extraordinary. The synopsis of the plots is telling.

The hero of Man Hunt (1941), captain Thornsdike, is a great hunter who goes to Berchtesgaden to kill Hitler, unsuccessfully. The Nazis brutalize him and offer him freedom in exchange for a signature that implicates London in his assassination attempt. He refuses and is flung into a valley. Miraculously safe and sound, he returns to London where Jenny shelters him, allowing him to shake off his Nazi pursuers. Thornsdike enlists in the R.A.F. and parachutes himself into Germany to kill Hitler for good.

Ministry of Fear (1943) is also set in London during the war. Barely out of an insane asylum, Stephen Neale wins a cake at a local fair, gives a piece to a phoney blind man who, taking advantage of a bombing, assaults him and runs away with the cake. Thanks to private detective Rennit, Neale meets the organizers of the fair, Willi Hilfe and his pretty sister Carla, who invite him to a spiritualist session where, in the darkness, someone kills… the phoney blind man. Neale is accused, and he flees with the help of Hilfe. Carla shelters him at a bookstore whose owner has him deliver a suitcase to an empty house… Neale opens the suitcase: an explosion. In a clinic at the Scotland Yard, he’s still seen as a madman and is accused of killing Rennit. To prove the truth of his story, Neale demands a search for… the cake’s remains: in it is a microfilm with partial information about the Allied landing at Normandy, stolen by a tailor… the falsely-dead, phoney blind man who dispatches a suit to Hilfe, with the rest of the secret information. Neale now understands that Hilfe fabricated the proofs of his madness, without Carla suspecting his espionage work. Carla kills her brother when she discovers his double game and saves Neale: happy ending.

In Cloak and Dagger (1946), the scholar Jasper, sent by America to gather information about Nazi atomic experiments from the Hungarian scientist Katerine Loder, taking refuge in Switzerland, meets her just before she is killed by the Germans. She asks him to contact the Italian scientist Polda, who agrees to collaborate if Jasper can help rescuing his daughter, held hostage by the police. But when she is brought before him, Polda doesn’t recognize her: his real daughter was killed. Polda, Jasper and a young Italian, Gina, are surrounded by German troops. But one man sacrifices himself, covering Jasper and his companions as they head for a rescue plane. Jasper will return later to marry Gina.

Hangmen Also Die!, Hans von Twardowski in the centre.

Each film is built on a very rich plot that could yield multiple films by itself. The Langian mesh was never as elaborate, especially in Ministry of Fear whose universe, constructed with almost no use of lighting and set effects, is rather identical to Kafka’s and very removed from Graham Greene’s novel. The viewer identifies entirely with the lead character and experiences every bad surprise, every trap in store, along with him. Time bombs, fake turntables, diabolical machines, resurrected dead, phoney blindmen, there’s everything here. The heroes, Neale, Jasper and even Thornsdike, go through this nightmarish world with an impassibility, a coolness that guarantees their victory over a world that is nevertheless more powerful than them.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lang preferred actors without expression as his heroes right from the start of his American period: Randolph Scott (Western Union), Ray Milland (Ministry of Fear), Tyrone Power (American Guerrilla in the Philippines), Mel Ferrer (Rancho Notorious), Paul Hubschmidt (Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal). Or better, he asked them not to have any: hence George Raft in You and Me, Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James, Glenn Ford in The Big Heat and Human Desire, Dana Andrews in While the City Sleeps. Man overcomes adversity thanks to an active patience, a stoicism that demands this mummification of performance reproached by critics. This deficiency of the mise en scène is, in fact, the expression of a metaphysics. The revolt, depicted in these films through Nazi characters with the most blatant expressions, gestures, tics and movements, is finally vanquished by the man who adapts himself to circumstances, who tries to pass unnoticed, to blend with the universe whose indifference he claims to battle with his own indifference. This type of modern hero was overtly glorified in the two Westerns; it’s the case here too, in a more latent, less ostentatious, but more complete way. Characters resolve to fight, to act violently only when a terrible event forces them morally to do so. Hence the substitution of Polda’s daughter, killed by the Nazis, the death of the old lady (Cloak and Dagger), as well as the arson at the camp (Western Union).

Man Hunt examines the problem of man’s behaviour in war, of having to choose between legality, anarchy and his moral reasoning. The hunter refuses to kill Hitler because the Führer is unarmed, even if he knows he deserves death a thousand times over. His moral reasoning stops him. He prefers becoming a Nazi victim rather than their executioner, and returns to kill Hitler legally. It’s one of the rare occasions when Lang recommends complete adherence to the Social Order symbolized by the army, the voice of a collective struggle.

I must add, however, that this meaning is drowned out by the admirable phantasmagoria of the sets and actions: it takes a lot of nerve to impose a tone perpetually located at the level of a delirium on the entire film.

Hangmen Also Die! (1942), which Lang also produced and which, in his opinion, is his best work after M, is more a work of resistance than a spy film.

In Prague, 1942, Reichsprotektor Heydrich is killed by doctor Svoboda, who finds refuge at the house of professor Novotny, the latter taken hostage after the assassination. Marcia, the professor’s daughter, goes to the Gestapo to expose Svoboda in order to free her father, but learns that Czech resistance fighters have decided not to expose Svoboda, now a national hero. She chooses to stay quiet, attracting the suspicion of the SS, and meets Svoboda, who pretends to be her lover to deflect the suspicions of inspector Grüber, who follows them to the room where they have hidden the wounded chief of the Resistance. Marcia’s fiancé, Jan Horok, notices this deception in the presence of Grüber, who wants to arrest the two pretenders and assaults Jan when he tries to stop him. Jan joins Svoboda eventually, and they kill Grüber. To prevent the death of the hostages, the Resistance sets up a phoney culprit, the collaborator Czaka, and all the citizens of Prague furnish proofs of his culpability. Even they though they smell a conspiracy, the Nazis execute Czaka, but the hostages as well.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht collaborated on this scenario (cf. Lang’s interviews), but his contribution and his ideas, while still present, seem to be diluted in a mise en scène that emphasizes certain rare effects that take precedence over the rest of the film, certain strong moments offering a temporal and aesthetic dilation of reality. Chief among them is the fake love scene, followed by the discovery of the deception. Such an aesthetic constituted the glory of classical American cinema (Hitchcock, Capra, McCarey, and sometimes Vidor) and replaces distancing with pathos, absent in Ministry of Fear and which, here, brings a smile on critics’ faces. These tricks of the trade and their enmeshing cannot constitute an object of reproach because they possess such a force, such an irony that they end up becoming poetry. Perhaps owing to Brecht, the moral of the film, which ends with the semi-success of popular conspiracy, isn’t typical of Lang, but the director adapts himself entirely to the demands of the script and draws out all its pungency and bitterness.