‘Mise-en-Scène’ and Fritz Lang: The Invaluable, Short-Lived Magazine’s Article on the Master of Darkness

In 1979, Case Western Reserve University Film Society started publishing a magazine called Mise-en-Scène, a 70-plus-page cinephilic treasure chest with a series of high-quality articles on some of the most important filmmakers of all time and their work that had left a deep mark on film both in terms of the industry and the art. The articles were accompanied by wonderful high-definition photographs, and even a quick look at the table of contents shows you what kind of an apprehensive and knowledgeable handbook these issues really were. Unfortunately for us, there were only two issues published, most likely due to the inevitably high budget needed to keep a gem like this running. Fortunately for you, we’ve managed to get our hands on a copy of the first issue. Within its covers, we found exquisitely written and insightful texts on Alfred Hitchcock (‘The Audience as Protagonist in Three Hitchcock Films’), Ernst Lubitsch (‘Ernst Lubitsch and the Comedy of the Thirties’), John Ford (‘John Ford and the Western’), the Silent Era (‘The Sounds of Silence: Comedy of the Twenties’), as well as precious observations on the issues of film preservation (‘The Sad State of Film Preservation’) and censorship (‘Film Censorship: The Evolution of Self-Regulation’). What we’re very excited to present you tonight is one of these great pieces of writing entitled ‘Fritz Lang and the Film Noir,’ written by Barry Lyons back in 1979. The highly influential Vienna-born filmmaker started out as a writer at Decla, Erich Pommer’s production company in Berlin, before climbing to the director’s chair at the German film studio Ufa. Before leaving Germany in 1934, Lang had already created such silent film classics as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), as well as his first talking picture, the 1931 drama-thriller M, and the celebrated anti-Nazi The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), which the regime considered inappropriate enough to be banned from theaters. After a brief period spent in Paris, Lang moved to Hollywood, where his career would be remembered for noir classics like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlett Street (1945) and, first and foremost, The Big Heat (1953).

Fritz Lang’s life, work and the role he played in the development and promotion of film noir are the main subject of Barry Lyons’s article, which sheds a lot of light on one of the most interesting and influential filmmakers that ever lived. Called “the Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute, the father of one of the first noir films ever made (the already mentioned M) that initiated the development of the genre across the Atlantic, the master of German Expressionism with a uniquely talented grasp on both the technical and artistic aspects of moviemaking, Lang is one of those rare people in the business whose work will be studied and discussed for decades to come. Feel free to dive into this rare and invaluable material so you could learn more about Lang and consequently feel the inevitable sadness for the fact that this amazing magazine lived such a brief life. You can download the PDF version: ‘Fritz Lang and the Film Noir.’





THE VIOLENT WORLD OF FRITZ LANG

Fritz Lang was born in fin-de-siècle Vienna in 1890, the son of a construction magnate. He abandoned art school to serve in the Austrian army during WWI, after which he joined the burgeoning German film industry. He thrived in silent film creating a sensation with Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (Doktor Mabuse, Der Spieler) in 1922—a pulpy gangster serial inspired by Al Capone and presaging the rise of Adolph Hitler. He went on to direct the dystopian Metropolis in 1927—a disastrous flop at the time which bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of the Weimar Republic. Adjusting to the coming of sound, Lang created probably his finest work M (1931) with Peter Lorre in the role of the hunted killer. Allegedly inspired by the tale of an actual child murderer, it explored the typical Langian theme of empathy for compulsive criminal behaviour.

His next film The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) (1933) was pulled from circulation by Joseph Goebbels due to parallels with the thuggish rise to power of the Nazis. His admiration for the director undiminished, Lang was called into the Reichsminister’s office and offered the position of studio head of the new production company the Nazis were planning to establish. Lang immediately resolved to leave Germany, in part because of his Jewish heritage.

Lang settled in America, where in the late 1930s, he made several films including Fury (1936) and You only Live Once (1937) dealing with outcasts scapegoated by society. In the 1940s Lang directed two significant film noirs with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in the leading roles: Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) in which Robinson played a respectable man driven to murder through desire for a femme fatale. His next notable achievements were a series of late film noir classics, The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), marked by expressionist visuals and tortured protagonists.

Lauded by the French new wave for his versatility, thematic focus and technical mastery, Fritz Lang was a legend by the time he was interviewed about his life and work in a 1967 BBC interview with film critic Alexander Walker.

Fritz Lang: The director, in my opinion, is the one who keeps everything together. Primarily, the basic element for the film in my opinion is the script, and the director has to be the servant to the script—he shouldn’t make too many detours. In the last years, the part of the producer has taken over certain things that I think a director should do. I think a producer could be a very good friend of a director if he keeps away from him things which hamper him in his tasks, but usually, as it is now in most studios, the producer tells him what he must do. In this case I call the director a ‘traffic cop.’

Is it correct that you took the story of M from the newspapers about the story of the Dusseldorf murders?
So many things have been written about M (1932), it has become so to speak the motion picture. I made it 37 years ago, and it plays constantly in Switzerland, France and even the States. If a film survives so long then there may be a right to call it a piece of art. The story came out of the fact that I originally wanted to make a story about a very, very nasty crime. I was married in those days and my wife, Thea Von Harbou, was the writer. We talked about the most hideous crime and decided that it would be writing anonymous letters and then one day I had an idea and I came home and said ‘how would it be if I made a picture about a child murderer?’ and so we switched. At the same time in Dusseldorf a series of murders of young and old people happened, but as much as I remember the script was ready and finished before they caught that murderer.

I had Peter Lorre in mind when I was writing the script. He was an upcoming actor, and he had played in two or three things in the theatre in Berlin, but never before on the screen. I did not give him a screen test, I was just absolutely convinced that he was right for the part. It was very hard to know how to direct him; I think a good director is not the one who puts his personality on top of the personality of the actor, I think a good director is one who gets the best out of his actor. So we talked it over very, very carefully with him and then we did it. It was my first sound film anyway, so we were experimenting a lot.

How did you come to leave Germany at the height of your career and seek refuge outside the country?
I had made two Mabuse films and the theatre had asked me if I could make another one because they made so much money. So I made one which was called The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1932). I have to admit that up to two or three years before the Nazis came I was very apolitical; I was not very much interested and then I became very much interested. I think the London Times wrote about the fact that I used this film as a political weapon against the Nazis—I put Nazi slogans into the mouth of the criminal.

I remember very clearly one day, I was in the office and some SA men came in and talked very haughtily that they would confiscate the picture. I said if you think they could confiscate a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany then do it, and they did. I was ordered to go and see Goebbels, and they were not very sympathetic to me, but I had to go, maybe to get the picture freed, so I went. I will never forget it—Goebbels was a very clever man, he was indescribably charming when I entered the room, he never spoke at the beginning of the picture. He told me a lot of things, among other things that the ‘Fuhrer’ had seen Metropolis (1927) and another film that I had made—Die Niebelungen (1924)—and the ‘Fuhrer’ had said ‘this is the man who will give us the Nazi film.’ I was perspiring very much at this moment, I could see a clock through the window and the hands were moving, and at the moment I heard that I was expected to make the Nazi movie I was wet all over and my only thought was ‘how do I get out of here!’ I had my money in the bank and I was immediately thinking ‘how do I get it out?’ But Goebbels talked and talked and finally it was too late for me to get my money out! I left and told him that I was very honoured and whatever you can say. I then went home and decided the same evening that I would leave Berlin that I loved very much.

Mirrors and their reflections are always ominous features of Lang’s movies; the mirror image is his dramatic metaphor. In M the criminal underworld is clearly a reverse image of bourgeois society. In his films the individual wages a fight on the side of goodness and order against the very act of forces of evil and chaos as embodied in the diabolical Dr. Mabuse (1922), or the lynch mob in Fury (1936) or the gangland boss in The Big Heat (1953). But the fight is psychological too: each Lang hero is a prey to forces inside himself that he cannot control. Forces that may drive him to murder in spite of himself, like Peter Lorre in M (1931), or Edward G Robinson in Woman In the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). The fight is one that is fixed in advance by fate, the director looks literally down on his actors like an ironical Greek god, his characters are like rats in a maze driven along by his set ups, by his camera movements and by the relentless logic of his editing to a destiny which is pre-ordained and from which even Lang can’t save them.

The theme of theme of man and his destiny and of man trapped in an inimical kind of fate runs right through your work?
I am quite sure that this is correct. It would be very interesting if a psycho-analyst could tell me why I am so interested in these things. I think from the beginning, one of my first films, the fight of man against his destiny or how he faces his destiny has interested me very much. I remember that I once said that it is not so much that he reaches a goal, or that he conquers this goal—what is important is his fight against it.

It must be very difficult to make films about destiny and God in that sense today, when people don’t believe in heaven or hell in the vast majority. Do you substitute violence or pain?
Naturally I don’t believe in God as the man with a white beard or such a thing, but I believe in something which you can call God in some kind of an eternal law or eternal mathematical conception of the universe. When they said in the States that God is dead, I considered it wrong. I said to them ‘God has only changed his address—he is not really dead.’ That seems for me to be the crux: naturally we cannot believe in certain things that have been told us over the centuries. When you talk about violence, this has become in my opinion a definite point in the script, it has a dramatogical reason to be there. After the Second World War, the close structure of family started to crumble. It started naturally already with the first one. There is really very, very little in family life today. I don’t think people believe anymore in symbols of their country—for example, I remember the flag burning in the States. I definitely don’t think they believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail and therefore they do not believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was: what are people feeling? And the answer is physical pain. Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people really fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts. —Fritz Lang interviewed by Alexander Walker, BBC Online

FRITZ LANG INTERVIEWED BY WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (1975)

“Lang tells tale after tale in this entertaining and immensely watchable interview with director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin. From running away from home, to surviving by his wits, to making his classic films Metropolis and M, to meetings with criminals and murderers—one killer kept the hands of victims under his bed, to his meeting with the Nazi Mad Man, to Hollywood and after, Lang, looking rather like Dr Strangelove, describes his hugely fantastic life.” —Tales of the Unexpected: William Friedkin interviews Fritz Lang

 
Le dinosaure et le bébé is a 1967 episode from the series Cinéastes de notre temps. In this episode, Jean-Luc Godard interviews Fritz Lang about his life and career. The programme contains extracts from Lang’s M and Godard’s Le Mépris. The title refers to Fritz Lang as le dinosaure (the dinosaur) and Godard as le bébé (the baby).


 
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  • Luke

    Amazing, thanks so much for this article