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



Lang and Our Times


Lang’s body of work is among the most important in Germanic cinema. It’s generally placed before those of Lubitsch and Pabst, but immediately after that of Murnau. From an international perspective, Lang is always cited among the greatest, but never among the highest echelons, often because of a respect for tradition rather than a knowledge of his work. He tends to be considered a filmmaker of the past, an academic director. Rare are those who love his entire body of work, from 1919 to 1960: older critics see him disappear from cinema in 1926, reappear furtively in 1931 (M), or even in 1936 (You Only Live Once). The youngest don’t like his first expressionist films, and locate his real beginnings towards 1924, or 1928, or 1936, or even near 1946. Leftist critics consider only the films between 1928 and 1938 as valuable. There’s a fierce and vain battle between the supporters of German Lang and those of American Lang, which hasn’t facilitated the understanding of his work.

As a matter of fact, Lang’s body of work is one and indivisible. That’s what makes for its power and its weakness. Its power, because this unity is evidently made of equal (or almost equal) films, or at least ones worthy of interest, except Guerrillas. It can’t then be said that Lang, who has more than thirty successes to his credit, has made bad films. It’s a performance that was equalled, by Hawks, by Hitchcock most notably, but never surpassed. None of these films is really independent of the others. The body of work is to be explained, in its totality, by the course of its evolution. And it’s nothing less than the moving course of a human life that we have the pleasure of following, a pleasure superior to the one felt before any one of these films taken alone, which is only one moment in the evolution, and thus incomplete.

The period of search, of artistic youth, is logically completed by the period of maturity, which marks an end point. The contrary is equally true, for this second period lacks the power, the ardour of youth. Hence the difficulty in selecting films that are representative of Lang in the public’s eyes, films that stand apart from others and allow us to describe his art to the layman who has neither the time nor the possibility to see his forty-three films, of a total length of sixty-seven hours. Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, M, say the old. M, You Only Live Once, say the more moderate ones. M, Fury, Hangmen Also Die, affirms Lang. Human Desire, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, according to the young. Finally, the two Hindu films for the extreme-right among our critics. The game is rather vain, and I don’t think it’s any useful to play it. But it shows clearly that there aren’t any perfect masterpieces, superior to the rest of the films, like it is the case with Buñuel, Capra, Dreyer, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Gance, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Stroheim, Sternberg, Vidor, Vigo, Welles, who are “auteurs of films”. Along with Godard, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang belongs to the class of “auteurs of bodies of work”.

Auteurs of bodies of work—here lies a weakness that must only be ascribed to an excess of brilliance—are necessarily misunderstood by critics who have to review a particular film, and who won’t review the auteur’s next film until a year later. Hence this shortcoming of critics, who follow Lang until 1926, often heaping excessive praise on his artifice, lose him only to meet him again in 1936, completely abandon him during his return to simplicity and contemplation. In 1953, François Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma defend contemporary Lang for the first time. But it wasn’t until 1959 and 1960, at the moment when he waned, that he was resurrected for good, following a rather Parisian snobbism that had the advantage of the past (Moonfleet, M, Hangmen Also Die).

Another weakness that’s more or less inherent to the condition of an auteur of a body of work: if his activity extends over very long years, it’s that he couldn’t rapidly attain perfection, generally because his starting point was rather low.

Lang’s work is fundamentally shaped by the atmosphere of a fallen Germany of the 1920s. So it is, most of all, subjective and partial: Lang starts from the idea of man crushed by the world. He certainly evolves, but only around this central idea that will become less simplistic, more profound, more contradictory, but which, not being the only common thread of our time or of all time, will make him see things from an oblique and subjective point of view. This essential idea comes to the fore in the last films to reintroduce a notion of Fate at times in contradiction with the indifferent universe that is Lang’s own (Scarlet Street, Human Desire, Der Tiger von Eschnapur).

You Only Live Once

This explains why some of his films constitute gratuitous stylistic experiments on themes that were nonetheless dear to Lang. At any rate, the starting idea—in order to live, man must adapt himself, become one with the settings of this empty and indifferent world—is easy to criticize, not on moral terms that give prominence to the arbitrary, but on artistic terms. The final stage of its expression and the constipated stoicism that characterizes it make way for a monotony of the Unreal in which the Idea had to logically culminate. Let’s not reproach Lang’s concept for being old-fashioned and reactionary, let’s reproach him for tending towards negation of life and reality, on the whole. Which means that the period of maturity doesn’t entirely dominate the period of search, which is at times superior: there’s a balance established between life and reason, force and logic, the human and the abstract; one varies in inverse proportion to the other, as much in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt as in You Only Live Once. Lang’s power hence lies in being able to discover the whole truth about the world from incomplete data. His initial inferiority made for his artistic superiority, rendered necessary by a void to be filled. And his final, problematic superiority made for his artistic deficiency.

We could therefore arrive at the conclusion that Lang is a great creator, not as much in the moral and metaphysical significance of his work as by the artistry with which he sought to affirm this content, artistry all the more outstanding because said content was difficult to affirm, given its partiality. The goal of the work became the means of its success.

That explains why Lang’s work—a Germanic work most of all, local and subjective—could find renown and exert a universal influence. This influence is always located on the level of form, and never on the level of ideas. The father of cinematic expressionism, with Caligari, Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, and M, Lang has established the greatest source of cinematic influence to this day, since at least every other film contains expressionistic echoes, which allows for an expression of the universe as rendered by the five extra-cinematic senses and the mental universe otherwise untranslatable to cinema.

His conception of the dense script, his meshes of plots and events can be found in Hawks in a subdued way, and in Hitchcock in an evident way, notably in Number Seventeen (1932),  The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Secret Agent (936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942). The great English filmmaker borrowed from Spione (1927) the book in the hero’s pocket that stops the bullet in The Thirty Nine Steps and the train derailment of Number Seventeen, the motif of the diagonal and the idea of the hat (Shadow of a Doubt, 1942) from You Only Live Once (1936) etc., etc. Their war films resemble each other to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to identify their respective authors. Though he confesses to no influence, Orson Welles clearly seems to have borrowed both expressionist techniques and script techniques (Citizen Kane, 1940, and especially Mister Arkadin, 1954) from Lang.

From M, and You Only Live Once later, begins a whole series of films of a tragic romanticism. The blind informant of M, who represents Fate, reappears in Ford’s The Informant (1935), in Le Jour se lève (Carné-Prévert, 1939) and, in a slightly different form, in Quai des brumes (Carné-Prévert, 1938) and Les Portes de la nuit (Carné-Prévert, 1946). In his synthesis Paris nous appartient (1960), Jacques Rivette, in homage to Lang to whom he owes the structure of his script, a well-scaffolded mesh, inserts some shots from Metropolis. Even the Nouvelle Vague, whose spirit is so different, recognizes its debt to Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang’s sketch for the preparation of a shot in The Tiger of Eschnapur.