Fritz Lang's newly restored Metropolis (1927) is currently making the rounds and causing no end of enthusiasm among film buffs; it's scheduled to stop in San Francisco over the summer, and I hope to see it then. Metropolis is a fairly well-known film, and it's often credited as the inspiration for many modern-day science fiction spectacles. But how many people know Fritz Lang? In the 1960s, Andrew Sarris included him among the elite "pantheon" in his "The American Cinema," and indeed, he is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, but he made his last film 50 years ago, and I wonder if he hasn't fallen off the radar. (It doesn't help that a handful of his most crucial films are not available on DVD.) I think part of the reason comes because of Lang's shift from enormous, spectacular films in Germany to smaller, more compact films in America. I imagine that, to this day, many see a huge drop in quality over the arc of his career. I maintain that it was merely a drop in quantity.

Lang was born in Vienna in 1890. He was an artist and a soldier, and while he was recuperating from an injury during the First World War, he began writing movie scenarios. These got him a job in the movie business in Berlin, and he was soon promoted to director. His earliest surviving film is the adventure epic The Spiders (1919), made when Lang was in his late 20s. Incidentally, this terrific film is credited as one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones series. Around this time, he met Thea von Harbou, whom he married in 1922. She became the screenwriter on most of his major films of this period (as well as screenwriter on a few other major films). Their first collaboration was the amazing, two-part crime film Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), which was recently restored to its full 270 minutes.

They followed it with an even more spectacular two-parter, the fantasy epic Die Nibelungen (1924) -- subtitled Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge -- which ran a total of 291 minutes. After that came Metropolis, and then another crime film, Spies (1928). Compared to the first Dr. Mabuse, Spies was immeasurably more advanced in a visual sense, and one of the finest examples of German Expressionism. In less than a decade, Lang had become a master of angles, and space, combined as a visual expression of paranoia and dread. He made one more film during the silent era, Woman in the Moon; for years it was considered a lesser film in Lang's career, but once again the restored version proved it to be another masterpiece. Though less visually spectacular than Metropolis, it's more effecting in a pure science-fiction storytelling realm. (All of these silent-era films are available on DVD.)

With the sound era came Lang's M (1931), which critics widely consider his greatest film. It's another crime film, and from this point on, Lang became more or less synonymous with that genre. In telling this story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre) on the loose, Lang seemed to instinctively understand that the key to talking pictures was not talking, but the actual use of silence, which -- ironically -- couldn't be achieved in silent films. But he also used offscreen noises, and the way that noises travel through space, to mesmerizing, chilling effect. (The film led Charlie Chaplin to declare that Lorre was "the greatest living actor.")

Lang made one more great film in Germany, another Dr. Mabuse movie, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), which was as visually dazzling as Spies and as sonically rich as M. But by this time the Nazis were on the rise, and von Harbou had joined the party, but Lang had attracted attention to himself with his films, and he knew that they would eventually discover his part-Jewish heritage. Somewhere around this time, according to Lang, Hitler (or Goebbels, depending on which version of the story you hear) summoned Lang to his office and asked him to be the official filmmaker of the Third Reich. Lang reportedly said, "yes," and then immediately left the country, not even stopping to empty his bank account. At least that's the way Lang told it.

He made a stop in France for one film, Liliom (1934), a kind of fantasy romance that had been filmed before -- and would be filmed again -- and Lang's version flopped; it's an OK film, but a minor one. From there, he came to America, and there he stayed until the tail end of his career. His first film there was perhaps his only chance at becoming a prestigious, honored and respected filmmaker in America, Fury (1936). It was an exceedingly well-made film, with a powerful lead performance by Spencer Tracy, but with a cleanly delivered "message" about mob mentality and mob justice. The film ranked on the year-end best lists of the National Board of Review and the New York Times, and even earned an Oscar nomination for best writing.

Even so, Fury must have seemed like a "small" film for Lang, a step down from his elegant and expensive German epics, and his next film, the masterful You Only Live Once (1937), confirmed this new direction. Like Fury, it's another "falsely accused" story (also starring Sylvia Sidney), about a decent guy trying to go straight, but finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, for no particular reason. Some of the paranoia from Lang's German films began to become more intensely focused and pointed; they affected audiences on a pure gut level, without the visual spectacle of the epics.

Lang worked in America for two more decades, mostly focusing on that crime genre, and on the paranoid, trapped hero. There was Man Hunt (1941), about a hunter who manages to get Adolf Hitler in his rifle crosshairs, then tries to convince the Nazis that he was merely trying for a "sporting stalk." There was a pair of noirs with Edward G. Robinson and the gorgeous Joan Bennett (who managed to work with Lang four times, despite the fact that most actors hated him and complained about his grueling methods). The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) were both among the director's very best.

The Big Heat (1953) is generally considered the best of Lang's American films, but it has earned that honor mainly retroactively, with the belated establishing of the "film noir" genre. It's famous for the "scalding coffee" scene, but it features another scene of such power and cruelty that it's not easily forgotten. In its day, it was not deemed worthy of mention on the top ten lists for the New York Times, Time Magazine or the National Board of Review, nor did it receive a single Oscar nomination. To my eyes, Lang's other crime film from that year, The Blue Gardenia, is just as good, but its reputation has not risen alongside its counterpart. As usual both films are about characters who suddenly find themselves in tough spots, with the entire world seemingly conspiring against them.

Lang continued with excellent crime films, notably the pair of widescreen classics While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), which are both irritatingly absent from video in the United States. But he also dabbled in other genres, such as a few Westerns, costume movies, war films, musicals, and some straight-up dramas. One such Western, Rancho Notorious (1952), is another of Lang's very best films, even if it takes a little work to get past its low-budget parameters and hysterical characters. Marlene Dietrich plays a matriarchal rancher who specializes in hiding outlaws; Lang expertly uses the limited sets to enhance the story's paranoia.

Clash by Night (1952) seems like an attempt to replicate the success of A Streetcar Named Desire from the previous year, but even with Clifford Odets dialogue and a powerhouse like Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role, Lang was incapable of showing off; he turns the material inward and makes it simmer nervously. It made the film harder to read, and it worked on a less intellectual, more emotional level than Streetcar, and therefore -- sadly -- didn't warrant as much attention.

Finally, in 1959, Lang returned to Germany for what seemed like some closure, and an attempt to come full circle in his career. He once again made a two-part film, based on a story by his ex-wife von Harbou. The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (1959) are terrific, old-fashioned, full-blooded adventure films that, like The Spiders, was a forerunner to the Indiana Jones films. It was edited down to a single film for its United States release, called "Journey to the Lost City," but thankfully the full-length version is now available on DVD. Lang closed down his career with a third and final Dr. Mabuse film, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).

The coda to the Lang story, however, comes when a young French filmmaker, and a die-hard fan named Jean-Luc Godard cast Lang to play himself in Contempt (1963). In the film, Lang directs a new version of Homer's "The Odyssey," which looks absolutely abysmal, stilted and pretentious. Perhaps it's Godard's way of saying that it's impossible to make Lang's brand of cinema anymore. Lang appears as a wise, contemplative old man, perhaps a relic, saying things like "Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals." However, in real life, he was seen as a sadistic tyrant and had increasing trouble getting movies funded. He lived for 13 more years after Contempt, until 1976, and was unable to make any more films.

Fortunately, other young filmmakers besides Godard took an interest. William Friedkin interviewed Lang for a feature-length documentary in 1974 (available as an extra on the Criterion Collection's M DVD), and Peter Bogdanovich published a series of sit-down interviews in his 1997 book "Who the Devil Made It." But the image of Lang that lingers is that final shot in Contempt, as Lang sets up the scene of Ulysses gazing to the horizon; for some the image conjures up the future, but for Lang it must have been more like a "what-could-have-been." Thankfully, what is actually here is pretty great.
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