Oscar Profile #352: Fritz Lang

Born December 5, 1890 in Vienna, Austria, Friedrich Christian Anton Lang, Fritz for short, was one of the most influential film directors of all time yet won no major awards, possibly due to his reputation as a tyrant on film sets.

Although trained in Paris in 1913-14 to be a painter, Lang returned to Vienna at the outbreak of World War I and volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army. He joined as a private, but received a battlefield commission as a lieutenant. Injured three times and suffering from shell shock, while recuperating in 1916, he wrote scenarios and ideas for films. After his discharge in 1918, he went to work for producer Eric Pommer, leading to his employment as a director at Berlin’s Ufa studio and others.

Lang married first wife Lisa Rosenthal in 1919. She committed suicide in 1921 after finding him in a compromising position with writer Thea von Harbou, then married to actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the star of Lang’s 1922 masterpiece, Dr. Mabuse, co-written by von Harbou. She and Klein-Rogge were quickly divorced and Lang and von Harbou were married in 1922.

Klein-Rogge had a major role in Lang’s second masterpiece, 1927’s Metropolis, from von Harbou’s novel for which she received sole credit for the screenplay. She would also co-write Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M with Lang as well as two more celebrated Dr. Mabuse films in 1933.

Lang’s mother was born Jewish, but his father was Catholic and she herself converted to Catholicism. However, the fact that her parents were Jewish put Lang in possible jeopardy as Hitler rose to power. When Goebbels offered him a job as head of the German Film Institute in 1933, the anti-Nazi Lang thought it was a trap and immediately fled to Paris, leaving his Nazi wife behind. She immediately divorced him and went to work writing propaganda films for the Third Reich.

The one film Lang made in France was 1934’s Liliom starring Charles Boyer and featuring Lily Latte, who became his mistress and eventually his third wife in 1971.

Lang emigrated to the U.S. in mid-1934. His first three Hollywood films were Fury, You Only Live Once and You and Me all starring Sylvia Sidney, who adored him although her co-stars, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda and George Raft couldn’t stand his tyrannical outbursts. Fonda did work for him again, though, in 1940’s The Return of Frank James. Lang’s 1940s films included Western Union, Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, The Woman in the Window, The Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street. His films of the 1950s included Rancho Notorious, Clash by Night, The Big Heat, Human Desire, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

Lang directed four films in West Germany in 1959 and 1960, all of them poorly received flops. Returning to the U.S., he attempted to make numerous films but none of them ever got off the ground. At the time of his death in 1976 at 85, he was planning on making a film about the hippie culture.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

METROPOLIS (1927)

Lang’s science fiction masterpiece is one of the most influential films of all time. Elements of it can be found in such later films as Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars, Blade Runner and The Matrix among many others. The way that workers are portrayed as lifeless robots may be one of the reasons this was Hitler’s favorite film. Brigitte Helm is mesmerizing as both the leader of the workers and the robot who replaces her. There are also fine performances by Alfred Abel as the ruler of the city of Metropolis, Gustav Frolich as his sensitive son and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the inventor.

M (1931)

Another highly influential film, Lang’s first sound film can best be described as a police procedural in which other criminals join the police in the manhunt for a child killer, brilliantly played by Peter Lorre in a role he never improved upon despite decades of trying in such films as The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and beyond. In addition to directing, Lang co-wrote the screenplay with then-wife Thea von Harbou, the author of Metropolis, and dubbed Lorre’s unsettling off-key whistling heard throughout the film.

FURY (1936)

Probably as close as Lang ever came to an Oscar nomination, his screenplay was based on Norman Krasna’s Oscar-nominated original story, the only nod the film received. Spencer Tracy has one of his best early roles as a wrongly accused prisoner who barely survives a lynch mob attack in which he is presumed dead for which he vindictively stages his death and wreaks revenge on the mob. Tracy was not happy working with the tyrannical Lang, but co-star Sylvia Sidney loved his controlling style. Henry Fonda who starred opposite Sidney in Lang’s next film, You Only Live Once, found him intolerable as well.

SCARLET STREET (1945)

Having achieved box-office success with The Woman in the Window with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, Lang directed his three stars in another film noir classic, this one based on Jean Renoir’s 1931 French film, La Chienne (The Bitch). The film ran into censorship problems that kept it out of New York for almost a year. Renoir’s La Chienne didn’t see a U.S. release until 1976. Lang later remade Renoir’s somewhat less controversial 1938 film of Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine as Human Desire in 1954.

THE BIG HEAT (1953)

Lang’s last critically acclaimed film was this fast-moving noir featuring Glenn Ford in what is generally considered his best role as the tough cop who quits the force after the murder of his wife (Jocelyn Brando) and reeks vengeance on the mob. Even better than Ford, Gloria Grahame has the role of her career as gangster Lee Marvin’s moll who changes her allegiance after he scalds her with hot coffee in one of the most shocking scenes in film history. They are supported by a sterling cast that also includes Alexander Scourby, Willis Bouchey, Jeanette Nolan, Edith Evanson, John Crawford, Dorothy Green and Carolyn Jones.

FRITZ LANG AND OSCAR

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