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Fritz Lang's delusions of grandeur

by Sura Wood

Peter Lorre in director Fritz Lang's "M." Photo: BAMPFA
Peter Lorre in director Fritz Lang's "M." Photo: BAMPFA  

An undisputed titan of cinema, Fritz Lang was a genius at luring unsuspecting audiences into his claustrophobic, nightmarish universes. Over a half-century, this versatile, Austrian-born German director proved himself a consummate visual stylist, from his early Expressionist silent films and his successful stint in Hollywood to the final movies he directed in Germany that capped an illustrious career. From suspenseful spy thrillers, Westerns and crime movies to adventures and outer space fantasies, his films survey delusions of grandeur, the fatalistic pull of destiny, human frailty and the perils of technology. Epics, melodramas, war movies and pitch-black noirs, before there was a name for them, brim with events that unfold with an urgent narrative economy. There was seemingly nothing he couldn't do.

Take his monumental, two-part silent production of "The Nibelungen" (1924), based on the same 13th-century Nordic saga that inspired Wagner's Ring Cycle. A triumph of artifice, orchestrating a confluence of costumes, sets, lighting, artful camerawork and special effects, it envisions a primeval epoch when fire-breathing dragons ruled the earth and a race of dwarfs bestowed magical powers. This sumptuous spectacle is included in "Fritz Lang and German Expressionism," a two-part series dedicated to the filmmaker and fellow luminaries of German Expressionist cinema. The first installment, which opens at BAMPFA this week, focuses on his earlier work, with an emphasis on his German-language films and silent movies. The program features well-known Lang titles such as the Peter Lorre vehicle "M," as well as more obscure ones like the space oddity "Woman in the Moon" (1929) and "Spies" (1927), a pulp-fiction precursor of Hitchcock's British period.

Recognized early and aided by a meteoric rise, Lang, a contemporary of G.W. Pabst and Ernst Lubitsch, was at the vanguard of the German film industry's "golden age" in the 1920s. The era produced Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and silent classics by F.W, Murnau such as "Nosferatu," a desolate vampire saga set in a Baltic village with Max Schreck personifying the living dead; and an adaptation of the Faust legend that conjures the supernatural in cinematic chiaroscuro and stars Emil Jannings as a cunning Mephistopheles. These and other expressionist works figure in the mix, along with "The Golem" (1920), Paul Wegener and Carl Boese's reimagining of the ancient Jewish myth. Evocatively shot by "Metropolis" cinematographer Karl Freund, the cautionary tale of a rabbi in medieval Prague who lets loose a homicidal monster that's resurrected four centuries later was a forerunner of James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931).


Scene from director Fritz Langs Metropolis. Photo: BAMPFA  

Fittingly, the tribute charges out of the gate with "Metropolis" (1927), Lang's expressionist masterpiece about the dehumanizing impact of corporate greed and mechanistic labor conditions on a futuristic society. Lines of robotic worker-drones file into an underground factory while, 30 stories above in Art Deco skyscrapers, captains of industry hatch their avaricious plans in penthouse offices. Meanwhile, a witchy, crazed robot, who has been cloned from a saintly heroine of the people, dances like an evil flapper gone mad, entrancing patrons of a decadent nightclub — another terrific set-piece — and rousing the numbed masses to revolt. Along with the staggering architectural production design, which reflects Lang's training as a painter, she's the most dazzling and unforgettable creation in a project that then ranked as the most expensive in German history.

"If there's one silent film everyone has seen, it's 'Metropolis,'" said film critic Richard von Busack. "It's bemusing that this strange fantasy, not a success in America, would be better-remembered than all the other comedies, romances and dramas of the silent years. Lang more or less invented the spy film, but he also excelled in the silent period in everything from the seemingly oxymoronic silent opera to bleak romances such as 'Destiny' (1921)," a meditation on mortality that brought Lang international acclaim. Made after the death of his mother and triggered by a childhood dream, the episodic allegory moves between historical periods and locales from ancient Baghdad and 17th-century Venice to Imperial China. Its magic flying-carpet sequences apparently prompted Douglas Fairbanks to pen the story and star in "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924).

A year later, Lang radically shifted gears and tone with alacrity, directing a pair of dark, feature-length detective stories steeped in the malaise of post-WWI Berlin. They chart the rise and descent of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal master of disguise who brilliantly reinvents his identity at will, posing variously as a psychoanalyst, a stockbroker, a hypnotist, an agitator or a gambler. "With the creation of Mabuse — Lang was a Sherlock Holmes fan, and this was his answer to Professor Moriarty — he had a character that evolved from Victorian gentleman villain to the avatar of the Nazis," noted von Busack.

In 1933, Lang wrote and directed a sequel, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse," an essay in nihilism, menace, and paranoia, which he later said illustrated "Hitler's processes of terrorism." Swiftly banned by the Nazis, it was the last film he made in Germany before fleeing the country. Legend has it that he was summoned to the office of the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, who offered him a job, supposedly extended by the Fuehrer himself, to supervise the Reich's productions. "Suspecting a trap, and fearful the Nazis would discover the Jewish background of his mother," according to historian Ephraim Katz, "Lang caught a train to France that very evening, leaving behind the bulk of his possessions and savings." Though the details of that dramatic account have been disputed in some quarters, his narrow escape was Germany's loss and America's gain. Lang would take to the Hollywood studio system and its fondness for genre filmmaking better than most European émigrés who arrived on these shores.

That chapter will be covered in the series' second installment early next year.

Dec. 7-Feb. 23; www.bampfa.org


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