Fritz Lang – Expressionist Ace
After the First World War, the German intellectuals were too disillusioned to face reality: the German masses took refuge in a state of anguish and remorse. The perturbed minds of writers and artists furnished visual but unreal phantoms, nourishing a sense of fatalism in their tales, plays and films. Imaginative film directors like Richard Oswald and Robert Weine (‘Dr. Caligari’) lent glamour to these themes. This came to be known as the Expressionist movement.
Note: The highlighted links connect directly to the movies/trailers of Lang’s films on YouTube.
Fritz Lang (05 Dec 1890 – 02 Aug 1976) was different, not because he was half-German and was born of a Jewish mother, but because his sense of aesthetics evolved an expressionistic style that retained the contemporary appeal, yet was individual in construction.
Lang’s first film was ‘Destiny (Der Mude Tod)’ (1920). It was similar to ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) in theme and atmosphere. But while ‘Caligari’ revealed fantastically distorted settings and imagery, Lang’s architectural sense and originality lent beauty and realism to ‘Destiny.’ Instead of distorting settings, he utilised their artistic features to advantage by employing a style of lighting that lent the same macabre value by clever camera placement, calculated movement of characters and play of lights.
He called this method – “Light as a dramatic factor.” He placed spotlights lower than the customary eye level, sometimes on the ground, to create curious unreal contrasts, extraordinary shadows, employing accentuated angles of vision to exaggerate sharp outlines. In ‘Destiny’ Lang dealt with human experience in general against a world of chaos; this subject provided him ample scope for experiments in expressionism, revelation of human psychology, fantasy in spatial perspective and momentum in movement.
His next film ‘Dr. Mabuse’ (1922), about a man’s abuse of hypnotism to gain power over his victims, was equally fascinating. In the midst of fantasy, the social disorder was illustrated more directly, more cynically and was more melodramatic.
‘Nibelungen Saga’ (1923) was in two parts. The first tale was ‘Siegfried.’ The gigantic sets, the huge barbaric frescoes, derived from the original legend of Siegfried, appeared like paintings, inspired by the originals Lang had seen in art galleries.
The forest, with the sunbeams weaving through the dense foliage, was more or less a replica of a painting by the famous Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin.Walther Ruttman, a noted German painter, conceived the symbolic dream sequence. By showing two large hawks and a white dove moving in rhythm, Lang transposed the girl Kriemhild’s dream of Siegfried’s death and her own end to the spectators.
Lang was fascinated by rhythm in movements no less than by rhythm in architecture and the endless row of warriors in ‘Nibulungen Saga’ Kriemhild’s Rache (Second Tale) lean motionless, their helmets almost covering their faces; they seem lifeless, but as the Royal procession passes in front in slow monotony, they become an integral part of the movement.
A more dynamic movement is used in ‘Metropolis’ (1927) in the groups of slaves, dressed in timeless garments, with bent heads, stooping shoulders, moving in a continuous mechanical pattern; this grouping and rhythm was based on the pattern of crowds in Greek dramas. Outstanding for its amazing sets, ‘Metropolis’ has also brilliant expressionism, geometrical structure, movement and fighting with shadow contrasts. The steel structures rise like human forms; their slavish, mechanical routine represent man.
Movement of the camera is a dominant feature of Lang’s films. As the hammer moves back and forth on the huge gong the camera swings in like manner. When two workers struggle in the underground flood waters and escape upwards, the camera rises with them. When hundreds of children try to escape the floods and reach the small iron door, their only way out, the camera too sways with the rise and fall of the surging waves, moving nearer and nearer; and when they turn their tiny heads this way and that, the camera swings similarly giving the spectator the feeling that he is among them. ,
‘Spies’ (1928) was a revised version of Dr. Mabuse, the first German film to outdo the west at its own game of modern nightmare melodrama and hailed by critics in all countries for its remarkable technique. As the army and police pursue Dr. Mabuse, the pace is rapid, there is mounting, engrossing suspense with startling turns and twists. James Bond films were forty years too late compared to ‘The Spy’ with its spotlight on an international crook, his escapes, his complex disguises, the railway smashes, street scuffles, the geometrical pattern of criss-cross steel girders as in Soviet films and in addition, a bunch of bewitching beauties! Fritz Arno Wagner’s camera catches dramatic angles, flying with the fleeting legs and wheels, or hanging leisurely in suspenseful moments.
‘M’ (1932) was Lang’s first sound film. He used sound as an additional aid for creating tension. The creaking iron door, the monotonous footsteps, the rattling railways and automobiles were effective designs for inference. Complex images by double, triple, even quadruple exposures, accompanied by synthetic sounds show Lang’s resourceful use of the medium.
In all German films of the 20’s, more so in Lang’s films, light and shadows play an integral part. In ‘Metropolis,’ when the mad inventor’s torch chases the girl until she is trapped in a circle of lights, Lang uses his favorite method of “Light as a dramatic factor.”
In ‘Scarlet Street’ which he directed in Hollywood in 1945, he uses the same idea: the intermittent light of a neon sign obsessing the conscience of Edward G. Robinson. For a forest scene in ‘M’, he had the shrubs and foliage sprinkled with water and enormous lights projected on them in order to show a kaleidoscope of gleaming drops.
Lang used natural light also, as in ‘Liliom’ (1934) where he tried to capture the flickering lights from a revolving merry go-round reflected on the wall. Such reflections are used to produce an association of ideas. Street puddles at night, the glittering beams of car headlights, lights from windows reflected on the pavements are used to create certain moods. To accentuate a catastrophe, Lang shoots the distorted reflection of the image on a mirror.
Shadows also gain psychological importance and dramatic value. In ‘Metropolis,’ when the corpses are being carried, Lang frames an actor, the only eye-witness to the mass tragedy, with the gigantic shadows of the corpses falling over his face and moving over to register his reactions vividly.In ‘Scarlet Street’, a man hangs himself and the dark shadow of the dangling legs is cast over a poster promising a reward for his capture. Mere reporting of facts by static shots is not Lang’s method; he transforms significant aspects into dynamic visual impressions by his uncanny knack of observing dramatic elements in every incident, his touches are deft and original: an untouched plate, a vacant chair, the terrible void of a winding staircase – for Lang these become symbols of suspense, drama or tragedy, woven through a systematic montage of image and sound.
A terrorised child grips a ball in its hands as it faces the murderer in a deep field; in the succeeding shot, the ball emerges from the outfield, rolls for some distance and comes to a dead stop in complete silence, an instance of his use of silence. The mother’s call for a missing child ebbing away in the sickening hollowness of a vast expanse, is an example of sound perspective,
‘Fury’ (1936), which Lang directed for MGM, appears more true to life than his other films, a vivid expose, of intolerance, petty prejudices and fanatic hatreds. In his observations of American life, Lang indicts the social setup that gives birth to violence and mob fury, and turns this film into a social document more human, more in touch with reality in its content and more artistic in its form than his earlier films.
Fritz Lang joined 20th Century Fox to make ‘The Return of Frank James’ (1940) and ‘Western Union’ (1941), both open-air westerns, both had his characteristic touch and both were failures, lacking a central universal theme.
‘Man Hunt’ in 1941, adapted from the popular novel ‘Rogue Male’ was a polished melodrama which brought him to the limelight. But ‘Hangmen Also Die’ (1943), centering on the assassination of Heydrich, the Nazi protector of Czechoslovakia and dealing with European espionage, was rich with twists and directorial innovations, more sophisticated in its details, showing typical Nazis and wartime homosexuals – everything true to life except the atmosphere for the film was shot in the States.
Lang floated his own Diana Productions with Walter Wanger and Joan Bennett to make films free from box-office restrictions or committee decisions and he entered a phase dedicated to Film Noir.
‘The Scarlet Street’ under this banner, relates the experience of an elderly cashier infatuated with a girl who is only after his money; in a frenzy he kills her and lets her boy friend take the rap. Later, living in a far-off place, he is haunted by her voice calling after her boy friend; he closes his ears, shouts madly to drown the voice but the muffled voice continues and the electric sign referred to earlier, drives him to hang himself. Lang was a master in revealing mental chaos.
Lang’s search for suitable story material set him drifting; he was not prepared to touch anything that did not produce universal appeal or offer scope for an analytical technique.
His grasp of essentials of human life which he sought to express in the most powerful manner through cinema, though successful for a number of years, was challenged as the years rolled on. But his contribution to the aesthetics of cinema, a combination of art and science, was considerable.
Other links to Lang’s movies are here: