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

Contemplation (1954-60)


The last phase of Lang’s work embodies, not the view of a man who asks himself painful questions about life, its meaning and the moral value of men of his time, but a superior view, that of God, which observes the indifference of the external world to the individual, the difficulty of communication between individuals caught up in the Social Order. Lang responds to it with an equal indifference that establishes his superiority. That was already the attitude of his positive heroes, stingy when it came to gestures and movements.

Critique now gives way to contemplation. Films like Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, and The Big Heat at times demonstrate this contemplative style inherited largely from a tradition of objectivity in classical American cinema and from the commercial necessity for double games. But now contemplation attains an excessive degree, moving far away from classicism.

Truth be told, there was a film foreshadowing this tendency even in the German period. Twenty-six years before Human Desire, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1928) reconciled its sets and its style: it’s indeed a lunar film. The plot, centred on the conquest of the moon and on the conflicts between scientists and profiteers in search of precious metals, conflicts aggravated by the presence of Gerda Maurus, is simply a pretext to showcase the sets and to place characters within these sets. There’s no human emotion. Everything here is a decomposition of the emotional and physical movements of characters who are analysed with a meticulousness, a mania that makes Frau im Mond the longest (two-and-a-half hours), the most boring and the most painful film by Lang for those who aren’t interested in following the work of the creator through the plot. There’s here the same abstract scheme as in Kriemhilds Rache, a scheme based on the repetition of identical movements, on the rotation of similar acts that end up bestowing even such excess with the outline of a vertiginous, wholly intellectual fascination, producing a new form of poetry.

Five films fall in this line, two American works, one of them rather Germanic in its style, and three other German ones. All five reprise earlier attempts made from a very different point of view, one which isn’t that of contemplative maturity: Human Desire (1954) is an improved version of Clash by Night (1951), in the similarity of its atmosphere and themes, and The Big Heat (1953), whose actors reappear here, but not in their critical virulence. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) takes While the City Sleeps (1955) further, minus the critique once more. Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1958), Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) rework Lang’s earlier films (1922, 1932) and scripts (1919).

Woman in the Moon, Willy Fritsch, Fritz Rasp, Gerda Maurus.

Human Desire (1954) is a remake of Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938), which Lang took care not to copy. Carl Buckley, a middle-aged man, loses his job with the railway company following a moody fit. He asks his young wife Vicky to speak to the head of the company, who was once her lover. Vicky sleeps with the supremo and gets Carl’s job back. Vexed and furious, Carl hits her and kills her lover. He makes Vicky sign a confession in which she acknowledges her complicity in the murder and blackmails her with it so that she stays with him. Railway mechanic Jeff becomes a friend of Carl’s, who sinks into alcoholism, and the lover of Vicky’s, who encourages him to kill Carl. But he neither wants to nor can. Vicky flees in the train Jeff drives, and Carl comes to strangle her.

Outside the fact that the action takes place in today’s electrified America, and not in yesterday’s France with its old locomotives, we notice that it’s the cheated husband (Fernand Ledoux in Renoir, Broderick Crawford here) who becomes the human beast, and not the driver of the machine (Gabin in Renoir). These changes reveal Lang’s intention to create a work that owes nothing to anyone, and Lang and Colombia’s desire to make a murderer out of the kindly Glenn Ford, whom Lang just made a positive hero in The Big Heat.

The opening is that of Renoir’s film: the rushing locomotive. But if Renoir looked for lively human elements in parallel to the mechanical symphony, Lang prefers following only the rails which, in the course of their chosen route, give a concrete idea of the unchangeable course of Fate taken by the driver Jeff, an individual who adapts himself entirely to the ways of the world. Like Frau im Mond, the film is reduced to a simple and mechanical recording of the characters’ emotional movements, which are irreversible.

After n films, here’s the theme of the old man destroyed by a young woman again. The original mistake leads to the final expiation, as Thea von Harbou said: after his original error, Carl Buckley, instead of accepting his fate, drowns increasingly in violence, jealousy, alcoholism and murder. All through, Vicky is the frail and elegant femme fatale who precipitates the drama. Jeff, for his part, remains honest. He does try to kill, but he realizes that it’s impossible for him to strike down Carl, just like captain Thornsdike of Man Hunt. These different motivations are never harnessed dramatically: characters’ reactions may be violent or may attest to a great force of life, but Lang’s point of view is never in harmony with what is shown. This analytical coolness, down till the depiction of the most elegant gestures, the most gracious movements, the most picturesque moments—the idyll with Kathleen Case, the scene where Vicky removes her shoes—possesses, in its perfection, a strange fascination that imparts a charm to this austere masterpiece. That Lang hardly likes it is easy to explain: it’s his point of view alone that constitutes the film’s beauty and value, and the filmmaker naturally finds it hard to ascribe the film’s success to what, for him, is self-evident and nothing more than a simple, natural and normal reproduction of what he sees.

Human Desire, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford.

If all that remains in Human Desire are human passions, all that remains in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) are traces of the plot, so complex that they occupy every second of the film. For once, the film’s French title, The Implausible Truth, is justified.

In order to launch his future son-in-law, the novelist Tom Garrett, and to demonstrate the fallibility of justice and the perils of capital punishment, newspaper owner Austin Spencer makes him a proposal: to have himself sentenced to death for a random crime, by planting fake evidences to his culpability and photographing proofs of this sham in order to bring them to the courtroom after the verdict. Patty, a stripper, is strangled to death; the police investigates the case in vain. Garrett decides with Spencer to execute their plan to the letter. Seducing Dolly, a friend of Patty’s, as Patty’s murderer could possibly have, Garret manages to get caught and be sentenced to death. Spencer is about to bring the proofs of their machination to the tribunal, but out comes a truck: he is killed, there’s no trace of his car, or the proofs. No one believes Garrett, except Susan, Spencer’s daughter, who had broken up with Garrett after his affair with Dolly. Just before the execution, however, there’s a complete exposé of the machination, till then under a seal, published in Spencer’s newspaper. Garrett is freed, but Susan hears him blurt out Patty’s real name, which hasn’t yet been made public. She informs the governor that Garrett has confessed that he got rid of Patty, his wife, following Spencer’s proposition, allowing him to wash his hands off his future crime forever.

The proliferation of contradictory plot twists, at the same time as they demonstrate the fallibility of human justice, also excuse it by a sort of ontological fallibility of all judgment and all characterization: good or evil, innocent or guilty, it takes very little for Garrett to go from one side to the other. Reality in itself doesn’t exist for man, and is defined as a series of contradictory appearances whose continuity hints at eternity: if the ending barely satisfies us, it’s because it’s susceptible to be refuted once more. We move through a universe where there’s nothing left to judge, or discuss, or show the smallest emotion for, all observation and personal sensation being founded on nothing. The film can’t even be critiqued, for outside of the plot, there’s only a void, a vacuum, and you can’t critique vacuum. All that one can do is to note that this void is integral, homogenous and continuous throughout the film, and to find a reason for praise in that: those who disapprove of the work can’t remain insensitive to this persistence, to this tonal unity.

We have here the only masterpiece in the History of Cinema about which nothing can be said because it says nothing, and which wouldn’t be a masterpiece if we could say something about it, because then it would say something.

This abstract film, which integrates picturesque episodes—the flirtation with Dolly—into its theorem, is distinctive in its admirable and never disappointing concision, superior even to a Ford picture. The effectiveness of the very simple shot of four or five seconds where Spencer is run over by the truck is much greater than that of a similar but very artificial scene in Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse.

On the other hand, the rhythm here doesn’t rise to a crescendo: it remains even and relatively slow as Lang’s dominating point of view of the time requires it. If Lang made Frau im Mond somewhat against the grain of science-fiction, Rancho Notorious and Moonfleet against the Western and the traditional adventure film, he makes Beyond a Reasonable Doubt evidently against the principle of the crime movie. The fan of the genre is unsatisfied by the solution to the riddle and by its implausibility, which explains the film’s popular failure. Critics, for their part, are disappointed because they think they’re dealing with a critique of capital punishment, along the lines of We Are All Murderers, and that, like in Fury, they find what seems to be the opposite too. So Lang’s superior point of view isolated him from his audience: he stayed for two more years in Hollywood without making a film.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, with Barbara Nichols.

After twenty-two American films (1936-1956), Lang returned to Germany to undertake projects that local producers, by prudence and by narrow-mindedness, selected from among the filmmaker’s old hits. Only their highly commercial action, sets and themes saved these films from popular failure. The first two are, in fact, spectacular super-productions in colour set in India at the turn of the century.

The maharaja of Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur, 1958) summons to his palace the dancer Seetha, whom he wants to marry, and the architect Berger, a young man who must help his brother-in-law to build a palace. Seetha chooses to take off with Berger. In the sequel, Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1958), Ramigani, the maharaja’s brother, arrests the lovers, lets word go around that Berger is dead and forces Seetha to marry the maharaja by threatening to kill her lover—a marriage with a lower-class woman that will allow Ramigani to create an opinion campaign against his brother and depose him with the help of the army. But the maharaja has his revenge and, prudently, chooses to unite Seetha with Berger, whom his brother-in-law finds in a dungeon.

As we can see, this script, inspired by Thea von Harbou’s novel and filmed by Joe May in 1921, stands out in its idiocy, its insignificance and its obsolescence. Only the maharaja’s final renunciation, paralleling the wisdom of the old filmmaker, seems to attest to some degree of seriousness. If in Human Desire and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the director’s outlook tended to strip the humanity and life that the characters and the script still had—a fruitful dialectic—he accentuates their fundamental fickleness here. These stupid puppets, denuded of all psychology, aren’t any more than elements of a setting, an atmosphere, a writing. From this point of view Der Tiger von Eschnapur is rather successful. The beautiful and cold colours, and the découpage of a precision that might be called inexorable, wonderfully reconstitute this dead universe that Lang’s cinema has become. But when this fine monotony of the void gives way to discussions between the protagonists and to the rhythm of the plot-driven adventure movie of the second part, it all comes crashing down: the original impression is lost. Be it the banality of the relationships between inexistent characters or the virtuosity of a skilful dramatic construction, nothing ever adds or takes away from this failure.

Considered too often either the best or the worst of films, these two works must be put in their true place: these are very ambitious attempts from a formal point of view—and here the aesthetes among young French critics are right—but partial failures owing to the absence of an internal dialectic, to an uninteresting script and characters, and to mediocre actors. Lang’s lifeless universe, applied to an unrewarding material, begins to look like the reflection of an impossibility of creating, of a deficiency, and not that of a superiority anymore.

The Tiger of Eschnapur

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960) unfortunately confirms this regression, especially as the comparison with the earlier, much better Mabuse films turns out to be easy.

Right when he’s about to publish a sensational article, a journalist is killed by a needle from an airgun, just as the blind clairvoyant Cornelius had predicted over a phone call to commissioner Kras. In its method, the murder resembles those committed by the late Mabuse, whose file has mysteriously disappeared from police records, and recent murders of those who stayed at Hotel Luxor, where young Marion Menil tries to throw herself off the 14th floor before being saved by the American oil king Travers. From one deduction to another, from one murder to another, Kras discovers that Mabuse’s son, living in a secret room of the hotel, watches everything happening in every room day and night through tiny cameras. He seeks to take over the world and wants to ensure Travers’ cooperation. It’s he that drove Marion, under his influence, to kill herself in order to attract Travers’ attention. This criminal is killed after a frenzied chase.

Here, the idea of domination through cinema allows for the framing of the moral problem of the filmmaker’s condition, that of the creator, and of his responsibility towards his creatures. We now understand that it’s a little bit of himself, or at least his subconsciousness, that Lang dramatized through his Übermensch figures of the 1930s. Just as here, Mabuse’s son, like the filmmaker, draws up his plans according to predictions he makes about characters’ future emotions and reactions.

But the originality of the narrative mesh can’t mask directorial flaws. Firstly, the cinematography isn’t handled well enough. The direction of actors leaves a lot to be desired: Peter van Eyck does the same number as in his other German films, playing an old playboy. Even Dawn Addams goes unnoticed. As for secondary characters, they border on a facile caricature common to adaptations. Lang seems to voluntarily parody the previous Mabuse film, just as he seemed to make the walk through the labyrinth in Der Tiger von Eschnapur an expressionist self-pastiche. He mocks his old style; unfortunately, he offers nothing else. If the caricaturing suits certain secondary, comic characters, like the hotel manager, in the rest of the film, it isn’t pushed far enough towards self-destruction to be convincing. It’s a frozen repackaging of the Mabuse of 1932, a number of whose scenes we find here again in a reduced or outmoded form, most notably the rather poor car chase.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

Lang’s maturity, taking him first towards analysis, then towards an abstraction that is the reflection of the indifference reigning over the elements of our universe, finally led him, after amazing successes, to reject all life in order to attain a sort of lunar contemplation. Starting from the point of view of man, Lang reaches that of God now. And with logic, he subjects his demiurge’s attitude to his critical gaze. But at the same time, he tries to come back to earth, reprising lively elements from his past work, and it’s a failure, which his detractors ascribe to the senility of a worn-out, disabused man.

The long run of the parabola that represents his work comes to a rather disappointing, temporary end, and Jean Douchet’s scepticism regarding this “finished body of work” is our own: “Everything becomes a concept here. It’s fascinating, but is it sufficient?” (The Trap Considered as one of the Fine Arts, Arts, 1959.)