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Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

Patrick McGilligan
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 560
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  • Book Info
    Fritz Lang
    Book Description:

    The name of Fritz Lang-the visionary director ofMetropolis,M,Fury,The Big Heat, and thirty other unforgettable films-is hallowed the world over. But what lurks behind his greatest legends and his genius as a filmmaker? Patrick McGilligan, placed among "the front rank of film biographers" by theWashington Post, spent four years in Europe and America interviewing Lang's dying contemporaries, researching government and film archives, and investigating the intriguing life story of Fritz Lang. This critically acclaimed biography-lauded as one of the year's best nonfiction books byPublishers Weekly-reconstructs the compelling, flawed human being behind the monster with the monocle.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4063-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE 1976
    (pp. 1-2)

    The end of genius is sometimes spectacular: a bomb’s explosion, a madman’s gibbering, an orgasmic suicide before a sell-out audience. Sometimes—more often, to be sure—it is lonely and poignant, as with most ordinary human beings.

    Fritz Lang, who had lived a long, colorful, and combative life, was nearing the end. He knew it. The Last Dinosaur spent more and more time in bed as his health waned. His weight continued to slip away, though his journal recorded the same persistent diet that had sustained him for most of his time on earth—pills, martinis, eggs for breakfast, steak,...


    • CHAPTER 1 1890–1911
      (pp. 5-26)

      Fritz Lang lived his life—and cultivated his legend—with the glinted eyes of a maniac.

      He was determined to carry his secrets to the grave. The true story of his life, he believed, was nobody’s business. It was irrelevant, according to his point of view. Irrelevant to his vast audience of moviegoers, though they might be fascinated by the bigger-than-life figure who directed with such mesmerizing force some fifty motion pictures over the span of forty-five years. It was irrelevant to a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the great and near-great films, and especially to those that were not all that...

    • CHAPTER 2 1911–1918
      (pp. 27-48)

      Fritz Lang began his Wanderjahre by visiting galleries and museums in Nuremberg, Munich, and Frankfurt, before journeying down the Rhine to Belgium and landing at his destination of Brussels.

      Arriving with twenty-five francs in his pocket, Lang began to sketch postcards, caricatures, watercolors, and easel art, selling them to tourists for coffee and bread. Years later he liked to relate how he lived by his wits in those pre-World War I salad days. He learned, for example, to sell a postcard for the price of a martini, then stretch that martini into two martinis by ordering the first in a...


    • CHAPTER 3 1918–1921
      (pp. 51-69)

      The Allies broke through German defenses in France and Belgium. General Ludendorff of the high command demanded that peace be proposed to the Allies. There were rumors, in spite of strict censorship, of a naval revolt in Kiel, cabinet disarray in Munich, a revolutionary government in Bavaria. News went around of a pending general strike. Workers and police clashed everywhere, troops deserted, soldiers joined the newly established people’s councils.

      Terrible food and fuel shortages crippled the country. The population virtually lived on cabbage, potatoes, and turnips.

      Austria-Hungary surrendered on November 3. The Kaiser considered a fight to the bitter end,...

    • CHAPTER 4 1921–1922
      (pp. 70-88)

      Der müde Tod(The Weary Death, a.k.a.Destiny) was the first original script Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou worked on from beginning to end without a hovering producer, and with the sure knowledge that Lang would direct. This film, which came on the heels of his mother’s death, would be the director’s most thoughtful and compassionate meditation on mortality.

      The director said once that the film was inspired by “the childhood dream which most influenced my life and work”—which came to him “on the threshold of boyhood and adolescence” as Lang lay in bed fighting a fever. He...

    • CHAPTER 5 1923–1924
      (pp. 89-107)

      The extraordinary achievements ofDer müde TodandDoktor Mabuse, der Spielerwould have been enough to ensure Fritz Lang’s lasting position among the greatest German directors, even if he had never worked again. One who equaled Lang in stature, Ernst Lubitsch—a proven master of both Jewish comedy and grandiose epics—had left Berlin for Hollywood in December of 1922, armed with a contract from America’s sweetheart, actress Mary Pickford. Another filmmaker raised in Vienna, G. W. Pabst, who arguably matched Lang in his uneven career, was just emerging in 1923. Only F. W. Murnau rivaled Lang’s pre-eminence.


    • CHAPTER 6 1925–1927
      (pp. 108-133)

      The director’s account of howMetropoliscame into existence—his aweinspired brainstorm after gazing on New York City from the deck of theDeutschland(“his first premonition of a city of the future,” in Frederick Ott’s words)—was one of those anecdotes Lang didn’t mind repeating, with minor variations, in interview after interview.

      But it couldn’t have happened quite that way. Erich Pommer was already telling people about this next Fritz Lang project during the final days of filmingDie Nibelungen, months before the American trip. Erich Kettelhut said he first read a version of theMetropolisscript at Hohenzollerndamm...

    • CHAPTER 7 1928–1929
      (pp. 134-146)

      Already, as the filming ofMetropolisdrew to a close, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were planning their next film. “The Ufa crisis did not exist for them,” recalled Erich Kettelhut. “They made their plans as if everything would continue in the future in its old way.”

      Far away in Hollywood, Erich Pommer wrote to tell the director that he could arrange a comfortable studio contract for him if Lang wanted to come to America. Lang had been linked so closely to Pommer that they were constantly mentioned in the same breath, but in 1927 he hardly gave Hollywood...

    • CHAPTER 8 1930–1931
      (pp. 147-164)

      For the first time in years, Rudolf Klein-Rogge was out of the running—perhaps because Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou found less and less to agree on. The director wanted another “virgin star” for his first talking picture, a different personality, someone who might fit snugly inside his own psyche, like one of those Russian nesting dolls that were sold, then as now, on the streets of Berlin.

      The man Lang settled on was short, almost stunted, as pure and vaguely odious as a piglet. He had a moon-shaped face, sad eyes, and a low-pitched, silky purr of a...

    • CHAPTER 9 1932–1933
      (pp. 165-186)

      The first talk of a sequel toDoktor Mabuse, der Spielermay have been spurred by a vacation in Istanbul that Lang and Thea von Harbou took, with author Norbert Jacques in 1930.

      The director always claimed that he had long resisted the idea of making anotherMabusefilm. He emphasized that it was his producer, Seymour Nebenzahl, who sweet-talked him into creating a follow-up to the 1922 bipartite success, which ended with the madman Mabuse in police hands. Another Mabuse film, Nebenzahl argued, was guaranteed to strike box-office gold.

      The burgeoning rift between Lang and Thea von Harbou may...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  7. PARIS

    • CHAPTER 10 1933–1934
      (pp. 189-204)

      The express train from Berlin to Paris, with intermediate stops, took some sixteen hours in those days. It would be safe to presume that Lang spent some of that time thinking about what his next film would be. Already something like six months had passed since he had finishedDas Testament des Dr. Mabuse. Ordinarily, he and Thea von Harbou would have had their next film project already plotted out. But Lang no longer had a wife, nor a scenarist devoted to his ambitions.

      Perhaps the director worked a little on a scenario himself. If he had completed one, it...


    • CHAPTER 11 1934–1936
      (pp. 207-239)

      Lily Latté came to America in lowlier fashion, without fanfare, entourage, or publicity. She had lingered in Paris for six months. The refugee flow did not abate, and one of the newly arrived was Peter Heiman, the Max Reinhardt assistant director who had become acquainted with Fritz Lang in Berlin in the early 1930s under curious circumstances. In Paris in mid-1935, Heiman met Latté for the first time and they became lovers. At first he even hoped that they might emigrate to America together. It took Heiman some time to realize that Latté had a prior attachment to Lang, who...

    • CHAPTER 12 1936–1938
      (pp. 240-259)

      Sylvia Sidney, one of the few who survivedFuryin good humor, came to the director’s rescue. The actress had signed an exclusive contract with producer Walter Wanger, who was preparing to star her in a story about a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like couple fleeing from justice. Sidney was the prime mover in recommending Lang as the film’s director.

      Wanger was something of an anomaly in Hollywood. While many of the ruling elite of the motion picture studios hailed from shtetls and had dropped out of high school, he was Jewish but socially advantaged and Dartmouth-educated. After producing Broadway plays early in his...

    • CHAPTER 13 1939–1941
      (pp. 260-286)

      At this peak of anti-Nazi fervor, this professional low point, Fritz Lang became an American citizen. His citizenship papers were finalized on August 14, 1939. The two official witnesses were his secretary Teddy Le Beau and the director’s writer-friend Hy Kraft. Filling out a naturalization petition with details about his background, Lang declared his race and nationality as “German.” He noted his height as five feet eleven, his weight as 180 pounds. The director stated that he was divorced from Thea von Harbou, though he made no mention of any other previous marriage.

      Lang had been in Hollywood only five...

    • CHAPTER 14 1941–1945
      (pp. 287-314)

      When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America had no choice but to abandon its isolationism and enter the rapidly escalating war. The very next day the United States government declared war on Japan, and within a few days America’s list of enemy states had expanded to include the other Axis powers, Italy and Germany.

      Directors were in the forefront of those in Hollywood who contributed to the war effort. Yet Fritz Lang, curiously, never volunteered any military-related duty in the fight against the nation he had once embraced and which he now reviled. True, Lang had...

    • CHAPTER 15 1945–1946
      (pp. 315-342)

      One must be careful in writing about the relationship between Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett. The actress was married to Walter Wanger from 1940–1965, and maintained, for the public record, that she was never unfaithful to him during their marriage. In fact, during the period when she worked most closely with Lang, Bennett and Wanger had two children—a daughter, born on June 26, 1943, shortly before the filming ofThe Woman in the Window; and another daughter, born on July 4, 1948, shortly before the filming ofSecret Beyond the Door.

      Yet several close friends and associates of...

    • CHAPTER 16 1946–1947
      (pp. 343-364)

      Sometime late in 1945, Lang moved from the house in Santa Monica, where he had lived since his arrival in the United States, to a new hilltop residence in Beverly Hills.

      It was expected of the top Hollywood directors that they advertise their importance with the purchase of a big, beautiful house. Finally, Lang could afford that luxury, and the one he chose was a lovely Spanish-style, tiled-roof home at the end of a long road on a narrow section of Summit Ridge Drive, perched atop a promontory overlooking Pickfair, the fabled residence of retired silent screen star Mary Pickford....

    • CHAPTER 17 1948–1952
      (pp. 365-379)

      It would have been understandable if Fritz Lang, approaching sixty, had entertained thoughts of slowing down, or even retiring. Diana Productions and his association with Joan Bennett had ended ignominiously in late 1947. His love affair with Silvia Richards was ebbing. His sight continued to fail, and he was coming to rely on thick eyeglasses to replace the monocle.

      Adding to these anxieties were revived attacks by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on Hollywood’s left-wing community. Lang, erstwhile sleepwalker though history, stirred as political lightning flashed on the horizon.

      The congressional committee, which had first targeted Lang in 1940,...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 18 1952–1953
      (pp. 380-400)

      It may be an exaggeration to describeRancho Notorious, as the director himself did, as a “Western for adults”; as “an almost existential tale,” in the words of one contemporary critic, its scenario probing “issues of personal identity and morality, the ephemeral nature of Man’s quest for purpose”; or as a film that helps make Lang “the father of the psychological Western,” in the words of Steven Bach.

      But his third Western was the only one Fritz Lang developed from start to finish—in fact, the only original screen story apart fromHangmen Also Diethat he conceived and executed...

    • CHAPTER 19 1953–1956
      (pp. 401-427)

      After Sam Jaffe resigned as Lang’s agent, it was only a matter of time before Henry Rogers, the director’s longtime publicist, quit too.

      Lang would hire a succession of press agents in the 1950s, each in turn charged with the doomed search for a publicity moniker as strong as Hitchock’s “Master of Suspense.” One strategy Lang liked, and kept returning to, was presenting himself as an expert on hard-to-handle actresses—not to mention women in general.

      Some of the director’s press statements were angled ill-advisedly. One, in 1947, called attention to his opinion that foreign actresses, especially British and European...

    • CHAPTER 20 1957–1964
      (pp. 428-454)

      Why would Lang agree to remake this film on a subject which, as he himself put it, was no longer on his level? The answer, as he explained later, was that he felt something “mystical” at play. A circle was closing. That which he had been denied, almost forty years earlier, he was now being permitted. RemakingDas indische Grabmalwas a way of remaking his fate.

      Producer Artur Brauner was a man of character and accomplishment. A Polish Jew, he had survived the worst of World War II—maybe in Afghanistan, maybe somewhere else—and started over afterward with...

    • CHAPTER 21 1965–1976
      (pp. 455-482)

      Death, a constant specter in Fritz Lang films, began to shadow the director’s life.

      His brother Adolf Lang, had died, at the age of seventy-six, in 1961. Lang had not seen Dolf since the early 1930s. He had delegated all communications to Lily Latté. Letters from Dolf desperately pleading for financial help were met with recitations of the director’s own burdens: medical expenses, property taxes, major repairs for the house, et cetera. According to Friedrich Steinbach, Dolf was more interested in reconciling with his brother than in the token packages he sent. But the director’s grudge was permanent. Lang regarded...

    (pp. 483-504)
    (pp. 505-536)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 537-548)