Friedrich Christian Lang was born in comfortable circumstances in Vienna, perhaps the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated city in Europe on December 5, 1890. In a long career that spanned nations and continents, Lang became one of the most influential film makers of the 20th Century and is credited with largely inventing the cinematic language of film noir.
His father was a successful architect and construction company operator. Both parents originated in Moravia. His mother, Pauline Schlesinger was born Jewish but converted to her husband’s Catholicism. Unlike some assimilating Jews, she took her new religion seriously and was an important part of raising her son as a believing and active Catholic.
He was well educated in Catholic schools and entered the Technical University of Vienna to study civil engineering with an eye toward joining his father’s firm. But that quickly bored him and he switched to a course in art before dropping out in 1910. Whatever his parents thought about that, they indulged their son Fritz as he restlessly traveled the world for the next few years—much of Europe and trips that took in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. By 1913 he was settled in Paris to study painting.
Like an entire generation his plans were abruptly changed by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Lang rushed home and patriotically enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army. The old Hapsburg Empire fielded one of the largest armies in Europe and specialized in especially fine uniforms and military pageantry. It was not prepared—almost no one was—for the savagery of modern industrial warfare. The empire was soon engaged in fruitless but bloody war on its long borders stretching from Italy through the Balkans to Russia often with restless ethnics behind the lines near or in rebellion.
Lang’s little portion of that hell was the front facing Russia and Romania. The young officer was wounded three times and treated for shell shock in 1916. While in the hospital be began toying with ideas for films and sketching screen plays. After returning to the front he was discharged with peace in 1918. The empire he fought for was dismembered.
He kicked around Vienna for a while trying his hand at acting. Erich Pommer, who was assembling a film production company in Berlin, hired him as a writer after Lang sent him some scenario ideas. Lang relocated to Berlin, the capital of defeated and devastated Germany in the dawning years of the tumultuous Weimar Republic as the city and nation were beset by class warfare and later the hyper-inflation that made the Mark worthless and the lives of the people miserable.
Despite—or perhaps because of this—Berlin was soon the most creative film center in the world. Pommer played a large part creating the Decla studios which produced popular detective films and thrillers. The company evolved over several mergers and eventually became part of Ula, the largest German production company.
While in Berlin Lang married in 1919 for the first time to Lisa Rosenthal.
Decla was expanding its ambitions, marrying popular genre films to a new esthetic largely influenced by the grim realities of the post war world. It became known as German Expressionism and was noted for stark contrasts of light and dark, odd camera angles, quick cutting and other “disorienting” techniques. Pioneering this was the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by Robert Wiene. Lang absorbed the new film language. Soon he left behind the typewriter to move behind the camera himself.
Lang’s first effort was spectacular. While not a domestic hit, Der müde Tod or Destiny was an immediate international sensation influencing filmmakers as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñel, and Douglas Fairbanks who copied the techniques of one of the three stories told in the original film for his own swashbuckling Thief of Baghdad.
Lang’s partner in creating the original script was actress Thea von Harbou, herself a creative dynamo. The two were soon lovers, and after dumping wife number one, Lang’s wife and creative partner for the next decade.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler) released in 1922 was Lang’s break out hit which firmly established his international reputation. Originally running over four hours long, it was divided into two parts to be seen on consecutive nights. The film chronicles the nefarious deeds of the mysterious Dr. Mabuse, and arch criminal who used mind control, hypnotism, and chameleon like disguises to commit his crimes. He is abetted by a large gang of flunkies and stooges. The film was widely viewed as a metaphor for the illusions used by capitalists to fleece and pauperize a nation. Lang would revisit the character at long intervals in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933 and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960 comprising one of the most unusual film trilogies of all time.
During production of the film want and privation in Berlin was so terrible that von Harbou personally peeled, boiled, and served potatoes to the cast and crew on the set so that they would not literally starve.
In 1924 Lang and von Harbou collaborated again on the two fantasy films together known as Die Nibelungen. Based on an early 13th Century German epic poem—the same as inspired Richard Wagner’s operas—was meant to inspired German cultural pride in a time of deep depression. It became a touchstone, totally unintended by Lang, for the nescient National Socialist Party—the Nazis. Over time von Harbou would be drawn to them, eventually joining the Party in the early ‘30’s effectively ending both her marriage and collaboration with Lang.
The two were still collaborating, however in 1927 for the film many considered Lang’s masterpiece, the science fiction epic Metropolis. Epic is the word for it, on a scale that would make D.W. Griffith blush. In the midst of economic crisis the film cost over 5 million Reichsmarks and was the most expensive film made anywhere up to that time. Set in a futuristic dystopia rent with class divisions—troll like workers slave mechanically underground while a tiny elite enjoys a sunny Eden of luxury above. The political and economic analogies could not be missed, but they were wrapped in an exciting story including the creation of the robot woman Maria. Although cut after its premier due to its lengthy and the subsequent loss of some of the footage, Metropolis remains one of the most influential films of all times. And the discovery of much of the original missing footage allowed for an almost complete restoration viewed for the first time in 2010.
All during these years Lang also made a dozen other films, most of them popular entertainments, but all showing his signature visual style. His films were successful all over Europe, if seldom seen in the U.S.
Lang’s next landmark film is almost as influential as Metropolis. Based on the hunt for a real life child serial killer whose case fascinated von Harbou, M is generally recognized as the first true and fully conceived film noir. Released in 1931 it was his first talking picture, although long scenes are essentially devoid of dialog as the police and the underworld both try to track down the brutal killer played, in his first screen role, by Austrian/Hungarian Jewish actor Peter Lore. The underworld led by a crime boss known as the Safecracker employs the actually existing but secret union of beggars, pickpockets, and thieves to track the killer because the police man hunt is disrupting their business. After tagging Lore on the back with a chalk M for murderer, they track him and eventually drag him to an underground kangaroo court trial.
During the filming the behavior of the creative partnership was evident, and seemingly at odds with their diverging politics. The Nazi sympathizing von Harbou was as always generous, almost motherly to cast and crew. Lang was characteristically a perfectionist tyrant on the set. On one occasion he threw Lore down a flight of stairs simply to make him sustain injuries which would look more authentic in the trial scene.
Lang and von Harbou would team one last time in the long delayed second Mabuse film in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power and the couple were drifting apart politically—and due to an affair by von Harbou. In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the arch criminal is in an insane asylum but still plotting his despicable crimes. His plans are smuggled to his gang and carried out. A disgraced police inspector seeks answers. Mabuse dies in the asylum but takes over the body of his psychiatrist, Dr. Braun who continues as a criminal mastermind. The film was shot simultaneously in German and French with two different casts. The German cast featured most of the actors from the first instalment.
When the film was released in Germany, it was suppressed by the new Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels because it might “undermine the faith of the people in the authorities.” More likely he noted that despite von Harbou’s sympathies, Lang had inserted many Nazi slogans and catch phrases into the mouth of his villain, Mabuse/Braun.
Lang was called into Goebbel’s office for a “consultation.” After being reprimanded for the film, in light of his international reputation Goebbel’s asked him to become head of the German Film Institute under firm Nazi guidance. Lang asked for time to consider, but realized the risk he was now in. The banks were closed when the meeting ended. Lang hurriedly packed a single bag and hopped a train for Vienna leaving behind his personal fortune and his wife. They would be formally divorced a year later.
Lang did not stay long in Austria. He relocated to Paris in 1934. Any idea of returning to Germany ended when the Nuremberg Laws were enacted which would have classified him as a Jew because of his mother despite his life-long Catholicism.
While in France, Lang made one film, an adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom—the same play on which Rogers and Hammerstein would later base Carousel—starring Charles Boyer. The film was a critical and popular hit, but he did not want to stay in Europe where he felt he would always be in danger. A long with many other exile film makers, directors, writers, actors, and musicians he opted to try Hollywood.
Lang came to Hollywood and quickly established himself as a rare commodity—an independent director, untied to any studio. Some think the qualities of his American films never lived up to the ones he made in Germany. Many argue that was due to the loss of his creative partner von Harbou who was deeply involved in many aspects of those productions beyond just her writing credits. Certainly some of his films, all in an unfamiliar language, lacked the imagination and quality of writing she brought to the table.
None the less, Lang made many memorable films, some minor classics in their own right. Working in the American studio system imposed a much needed discipline on his films—there could be no more four or five hour opuses. He had to learn to edit, to pare the story to dramatic essentials. This was especially valuable in his many forays into film noir, the genre he invented and would hone to new sharpness in Hollywood.
As a director, Lang was not popular on the set. Although not a Prussian like Eric Von Stroheim before him or Otto Preminger later, he acted like a martinet in the director’s chair. He even affected a monocle. No matter what producers, casts, and crews thought of him personally, however, he commanded their respect.
Lang’s first American was Rage staring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney was a mesmerizing study of injustice and revenge. Tracy played an innocent man accused of murder. A lynch mob attacks and burns the jail in which he is being held and he is presumed killed. But he escapes and plots to frame members of the mob for his murder. It was a classic study of a good man driven to evil.
The theme was repeated in his second film, You Only Live Twice teaming him once again with Sydney. This time Henry Fonda is the wronged man as petty criminal who tries to go straight for the love of a good woman. But he is thwarted at every turn, haunted and hounded for past. When wrongly accused of a murder, he at first maintains his faith in the system as Sydney and a reporter try desperately to prove his innocence. They fail, he is convicted and condemned and slowly turns into to an embittered man, capable of murder for real.
In Hollywood it is as easy for a director as an actor to get stereotyped. Lang kept getting offered variations on this theme at various studios. His fourth film, also staring Fonda, was a western. The Return of Frank James painted the outlaw James brothers again as basically decent men driven to crime by their experienced in the Civil War. Both seek to go straight, but Jesse under an assumed identity is shot in the back and killed by former gang members. Frank, always the more reluctant outlaw, is then driven to hunt down the killers to execute them in revenge. It was Lang’s first outing in Technicolor.
That film was followed up by a more traditional oater, Western Union with Randolph Scott as an outlaw turned good guy who must fight a gang let by his own brother to get the telegraph wires strung to unite a nation. It was completed in 1940 and released in 1941.
After that Hollywood was finally ready to denounce Nazism—which it had long been reluctant to do because of the loss of profitable income from European releases. Lang and other refugees were naturally called to action and for the next several years his films reflected the struggle and the war.
The first was Manhunt starring Walter Pigeon and Joan Bennett who became his leading lady of choice for most of the rest of the decade. Pigeon plays an English hunter in Germany who almost accidently finds Adolf Hitler in his sights. He is discovered, beaten and left for dead by Storm Troopers but manages to escape and make his way back to London. There German agents continue to pursue him.
Other anti-Nazi films included Hangmen also Die on which he collaborated on the script with another exile, Bertolt Brecht, Ministry of Fear with Ray Miland, and the post-war Cloak and Dagger with Gary Cooper.
In between, in 1944 and ’45 Lang made two extraordinary noirs which helped resurrect the career of veteran Edward G. Robinson and convert former blond ingénue Bennett into a brunette fem fetal. In both films, The Woman at the Window and Scarlet Street she lures decent, drab, middle class Robinson into self destruction.
In ’47 he was back with Bennett, this time the heroine as a woman who suspects her husband wants to kill her in The Secret Beyond the Door, a thriller much blacker than the similarly themed Rebecca Hitchcock.
For a while Lang fell out of favor and was reduced to work on B pictures and popcorn fare like 1950’s American Guerilla in the Philippines with Tyrone Power.
But in 1952 he came roaring back with a strangely sundrenched film noir, staring Barbara Stanwick, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan in a grim love triangle. Once again he found top notch writers—this time playwright Clifford Odets and scenarist Alfred Hayes.
That film was quickly followed by two other noirs, The Blue Gardenia with Anne Baxter and The Big Heat, particularly brutal film staring Glenn Ford and underrated noir bombshell Gloria Grahame with a vicious turn by Lee Marvin. Many considerer the latter film as a landmark of the genre—stripped down to essentials, no holds barred.
Lang would continue to do strong work in the late ‘50’s but film noir was losing its appeal with the public, which now preferred lighter action pictures in Technicolor and the reassurance that good guys win in the end. They almost never did in Lang films. His eyesight was also failing. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt with Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine would be his last American picture. In it Andrews plays an aspiring novelist who plots to frame himself for a murder he did not commit in hopes of discrediting a dishonest district attorney and capital punishment. But well laid plans to reveal his innocence go afoul and the innocent man faces execution.
Lang turned to Europe once again for employment. He had already done one British/French co-production for MGM release, and uncharacteristic swashbuckler with Stewart Granger called Moonfleet. In 1960 he was offered the opportunity to explore an old interest shared long ago with his former wife von Harbou—the culture of India. The Tomb of Love was a German/French/Italian co-production in German starring American exotic Debra Paget as a Temple Dancer in love with a European. The Tiger of Bengal also released as Journey to the Lost City was a hastily made follow up with most of the same cast and crew, including Paget. It was the last film by Lang to be released.