Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fritz Lang: Metropolis and elsewhere

We ventured down to the Film Forum on West Houston to see the restored version of the 1926 German silent science fiction epic 'Metropolis'. The film was notoriously cut soon after its release. The plot of the film didn't make much sense to begin with and removing 30 minutes didn't help. Fans of the film always marveled at the films scale, the beauty of it's design, and camera innovations.
Fritz Lang would have told you that he was the greatest film maker in Europe in the 20s. 'Metropolis' was the most expensive movie ever made at the time.

Due to to rise of the Nazis, Lang was compelled to leave Germany. There is a bizarre tale around his departure that involves propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. You can read the wiki site for detail, but the story can't be verified.

Lang emigrates to France in 1932. He is later contracted by MGM and moves to Hollywood where he settles permanently in 1936. He makes 21 films over the next 21 years!

In America, he establishes himself as a highly proficient genre director and a progenitor of Film Noir. In Europe, he directed epic projects, but in America his budgets were more modest but he always maintained his core vision and his entire oeuvre is infused with paranoia, mystery and obsession.

Alfred Hitchcock dubbed himself the 'Master of Suspense'. The BFI named Lang the 'Master of Darkness'. Most cool.

To quote the wiki on Metropolis:

'Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and makes use of this context to explore a political theme of the day: the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism. The film was produced in the Babelsberg Studios by Universum Film A.G. (UFA). The most expensive silent film ever made, it cost approximately 5 million Reichsmark.'

Featured in the film is a Robot referred to as the Maschinenmensch. Pictured here with her inventor, the evil scientist Rotwang, it is disguised to look like a real woman and is sent among the enslaved workers of Metropolis to incite riots and violence.


The robot is sleekly designed and futuristic nearly 85 years later. All science fiction fans recognize this iconic image.

'M' is Fritz Lang's first sound movie. Made in Germany in 1931 it starred Peter Lorre in his first film role as the 'Kinder Mörderer', the Child Murderer, a serial killer who preys on children. By extension I guess that meant he was a pedophile.

The film is filled with expressionistic imagery and nail biting suspense. Not only is Peter pursued by the police but by criminal elements as well. The underworld feels the heat from the police crackdown on all criminal activity due to Lorre, and decide to find him themselves.

This idea of the underground criminal society shows up in later Lang films and is echoed the spy films of the 60's. James Bond's super criminal nemesis 'Specter' is inspired by this.

Once in Hollywood, Lang worked chiefly in genre films notably Film Noir. While The City Sleeps, 1956, is one example of Lang's output. The visual style is a little flatter due to budget but the film is still preoccupied with crime, and in this case, the effect of a serial killer on a city and the staff of a newspaper trying to guess his identity.


The cast includes Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino! Time Out called this Lang's most underrated film.


Many Hollywood stars had the opportunity to work with Lang. Not all of them liked the experience. Henry Fonda recalled hating Lang for making Gene Tierney cry on the set of 'Return of Frank James'.

Other stars worked with Lang on more than one occasion. Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, Gloria Graham, Dan Duryea, and Dana Andrews are but a few.

This is a picture of Lang with Joan Bennett.

Bennett and husband Walter Wanger formed a production company with Lang and she appeared in 4 of his films. Remember Joan from the tv show 'Dark Shadows'?


Lang, the Hollywood studio professional, made Westerns, too! What does a German emigre know about the American West? When Lang came to America, he was fascinated by American Culture. Friends and colleagues remember how his speech was always peppered with the latest American slang.


Rancho Notorious is a 1952 western starring Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, and Mel Ferrer. In it Marlene ran a criminal hideaway called Chuck-A-Luck and Arthur and Mel vie for her attention.

A Lang western could feature beautiful vistas. Contrasting Lang with a director like John Ford, a Lang film might also take place in little, shadowy, claustrophobic cabins and play up the hoof beats and gunfire more than celebrating pioneer virtues.

If you'd like to learn more about Fritz Lang, then check his wiki page. You might also try to find a copy of 'Fritz Lang in America' by Peter Bogdanovich which is the transcript of several interviews with Lang.

We had a great time on Sunday at the Film Forum.

Jim, right in the picture, went to the movie with me and I guess we look a little bleary after sitting through the 2.5 hour opus.

Bobby, center, did not attend the showing. He just looks like that normally.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific pics and great post. Film Noir was the subject of my very first graphic design project at SVA back on 1990-ish (pre-Netscape, Facebook, iTunes, 9-11 etc...). I still have that project, it was a (fake) promo piece for Film Forum promoting an upcoming film noir series. I was still working full-time at Bankers Trust back then. In some ways that seems like yesterday, yet at the same time time millions of years ago.

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