The Style of Fritz Lang
by Georges Franju
Lang, whether or not he is shooting from a script by Thea von Harbou, seems haunted by an ideal of justice and a balance that transcends human affairs.
When he first began making films, Lang chose the mythological, archetypal subjects typical of the German school in that era, and he handled them in an equally typical epic fashion. Even then, however, his sociological bent was visible; but he was unable to isolate humanity—or rather, to consider humanity its own means and end. He quite naturally could not apply his ideas of equality and reform—both functions of the realism which is a marked characteristic of his later work—to material that was basically romantic in nature.
The concept of balance occurred for the first time in Destiny, a highly symbolic and extraterrestrial work. The film tells the story of a young woman (played by Lil Dagover) whose tremendous spirit lifts her above almost overwhelming contrary forces, and at the end of a series of terrible trials she moves the celestial authority to pity.
This celestial judgment in Destiny became the prototype and example. In his second film, Mabuse the Gambler, Lang passed on to a study of aggression in the form of scientific nihilism. Then Metropolis gave him the opportunity to focus upon an organized, conceptualized world the dichotomy implied in the other films, bringing man face to face at last with his own nature. This is the first stage in the sociological evolution of the theme.
Five years later, Lang' s obsession with the tribunal made its appearance, and he was able to launch a frontal assault upon the real world, by opposing to the idea of transcendent justice the actuality of the man-made laws determining our daily lives. For the first time Lang openly attacked the official representation of authority, and in particular, those officials who dispense justice—a justice, moreover, regimented by laws—and the laws themselves resting upon privilege, mindless tradition, and stupidity. For the courts, in Lang's vision, are intrinsically human, and the right to judge others is shot through with private interests. Decrees, codes, and rules are revised to suit the moment and the result is often chaos, contention, and error. When this happens, those forces existing upon the margins of society—the pariahs, the cripples, the thieves—inherit the problem of constructing a new justice.
Lang's sympathies always lie with the little man, the man of low condition, who, by whatever means at his disposal, is willing to combat the dogmas of a stultified society.
I am speaking, of course, of M, Lang's first sound film (deliberately passing over the minor films that followed Metropolis). It is significant, particularly in view of Lang's interests and the fact that sex murder generally carried the death penalty, that Peter Lorre, through his defense counsel, pleads his cause in terms which cannot fail to place responsibility squarely upon an indifferent and narrow-minded society. More interested in revealing himself than in evoking the excuse of his insanity, which in intellectual circles would constitute an extenuating circumstance, Lorre bares his wounds to a horrified bureaucratic, bourgeois world which looks upon him as an aberration, a little dreg in the cup of creation. At the end of the film the "vampire" is snatched from the jaws of his mock judges and brought to a conventional court. But these magistrates in Lang's view are no more qualified to pass judgment than the underworld, and their verdict is never revealed.
In his next picture, Lang, still pursuing his constructive-destructive thesis, still aggressive and critical, turned once more to that awesome old tyrant Mabuse, and created an almost evangelical testament against the prejudices, incrustation, and basic injustices of the Nazis (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). Once again, however, the guilty protagonist, because of his madness, escapes punishment. Mabuse (played by Klein-Rogge) trades the guillotine for the padded cell, and in fact actually reaps a sort of revolutionary esteem.
With Liliom (adapted from a play by Molnar) Lang returned to the heroic era of celestial justice. This time preferring suicide to imprisonment, the hero, Liliom Zadewski, escapes the intervention of the courts and is sent instead to Heaven, where an angelic and competent commissioner sets about his social and moral rehabilitation. It is too soon, I think, to remark upon the judicial preoccupations of Fury, Lang's newest production (and ill-made in my view, but that's another matter). Certain critics seem to have found in it a protest against lynching, but I tend to see here, once again, an indictment against arbitrary arrest. This, it seems to me, is the idea behind the events in the film. In any case, when Spencer Tracy accuses the court of destroying his faith in justice, he summarizes one of the preoccupations that make up the force and originality in Lang's work.
The basis of a well-constructed, well-edited screenplay is, of course, a disciplined relationship among the images, the succession of shots, and the rhythms established from unit to unit. Lang, however, uses a system which I call intuitive editing, a stylistic device he first employed, I believe, as early as 1921—in an era, moreover, when even the best directors limited themselves to an orderly development in the narrative, or sought artistic enlargement in the expressionism of the performances and the impressionism of the camera. The simplest example of this intuitive technique is found in the opening sequence of Destiny:
Opening shot: Iris diaphragm. A man Standing by a country crossroads.
Fade out . . . Fade in: A thicket. A coach drives by.
Subtitle: Anywhere, at any time. Two lovers on their wedding trip.
And that's all. But it is enough, and we understand that, juxtaposed in this fashion, the coach will encounter the man at the crossing.
Lang uses this technique—the conditional arrangement of shots, creating place and time solely through editing—in many of his films. Near the beginning of M, for example, there is a scene which creates such a sense of contribution in the viewer, such a feeling of intuitive perception (yet ordered and derived) that he cannot help but feel here, indeed, he has touched the wellspring of dramatic emotion. We are shown, by a shot of the clock, that an hour has gone by. There is a recurring image of an empty place at the table and an empty chair. We begin to lose hope that Elsie will return to her mother. Then the camera plunges into the stairwell, and we know we cannot hope any longer. The sight of this simple stairway—steep, narrow, bleak—is decisive. We, the audience, are caught up by a sense of doom. Little Elsie will never climb these stairs again. And the following sequences confirm our presentiment.
In other films Lang uses a similar mechanism, one that acts upon us not through the narrative, in reflection and reason, as in the scenes above, but through a rupture in the narrative that produces a reflex response. Early in Liliom a quarrel breaks out between Boyer and Rignault. After we see them fighting, a pan shot focuses upon a crowd of bystanders who are laughing uproariously. Then, abruptly, all heads turn in unison, and the emotional atmosphere of the scene changes completely as their expressions alter. We know that something dreadful has taken place over there, but what? A reverse pan shot to one of the friends, knife in hand, on the point of stabbing the other.
In this way, using intelligent and dramatic cutting to reveal the image of the emotion before showing the action that stirred that emotion, the director makes his point far more forcefully than if he had merely followed a strict narrative line. Our very ignorance of the cause provokes a strong reflex of feeling.
Lang probably introduced this technique in Destiny, in the scene at the inn. In any case, it appears, in addition to the scenes I have mentioned, in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (the scene in the amphitheater) and once more in M (the arrival of the police to the basement room).
The Mise en scène
The very atmosphere of the film depends upon a physical system impossible on the stage: dwarfs turn to stone, mists swirl in the forest, a plain stretches out across the screen, in flames.
When M appeared, critics were quick to find fault with the courtroom scene. Even as they acknowledged its undeniable drama, they found it lacking in cinematographic qualities. It existed, they claimed, purely as a gratuitous effect. Yet this scene, which intercuts statistical and decorative elements very intelligently, could not have stirred audiences to a fever—as it did—if its message had not been, in the end, both final and inevitable. Those animate and inanimate forces came to a head in a manner that was filmic—far more filmic than theatrical.
There are, unquestionably, many reminiscences of the theater in Lang's pictures. "I see three bicycle riders," in Liliom; in M, the young beggar on Lorre's trail says to the blind man: "I see him. He's stopping . . . now he's going on again." These are rather clear examples and in the best stage tradition. Yet, why shouldn't the cinema incorporate elements of the stage?
In this article I have limited myself to an examination of a style and the elements which compose it. These elements are readily accessible to analysis, of course. But the ideas behind them, though they make themselves felt, are far harder to define. Perhaps the moving spiritual force behind Lang's films is best described as the search for energy, for the living force. It is a universal, even cosmic, concern, one of the great imponderables. No doubt this search is at the bottom of Lang's fascination with spectaculars. Great epic spectacles like Metropolis and Woman on the Moon, to name only two, allow a certain free play to the imagination. There are sequences in these films that are charged with tremendous power—the flood in Metropolis, or the rocket blasting off in Woman on the Moon. Though they are surely among the most beautiful moments in cinema, they are really not worth examining in detail. It is important, however, to remember that every type of spectacular event and disaster one can imagine have been used at one time or another by Lang, among them flood in Metropolis and Mabuse, explosion in Spies and Mabuse, and conflagration in Destiny and Fury.
The setting and decor are of primary importance in all these works. Elements of the background in many of these films take on the force of characters in themselves. The first one that comes to mind is the glass cabinet in the orthopedist's office which appears in the middle of M, as Lorre stops there to wait for a little girl. This glass cabinet is a decorative detail very typical of Lang's style—an ordinary object, remarkable only for a little black and white revolving spire, whose motion is seemingly infinite. And beside it, in contrast, a balance pointer which moves from side to side at a slow regular pace. In the same manner the nude mannequin in the shop window in The Threepenny Opera is typical of Pabst, and the haber-dasher's display case is representative of Rene Clair in The Italian Straw Hat.
In all these films, performances are characterized by extreme attitudes, energetic expressions, and nervousness of gesture. It is difficult to determine whether Lang discovers personalities, or exploits them. Whichever the case, the chilling magnetic charm of Brigit Helm, the mesmerizing presence of Bernard Goetzke, the physical power of Klein-Rogge, the intensity of Peter Lorre—these suggest a determination to impose a sense of force, not so much through the varied talents of the actors as through the evocation of archetypes, chosen for their dimensions. This, of course, calls for certain physical characteristics, a radiant active power, for example, as seen in Klein-Rogge as Mabuse, or a passive power (Sylvia Sidney in Fury). It is a problem, no doubt, to find actors whose physical attributes tally exactly with the role, but it also means that the director must spurn the rules of the drama school, and its methods, which stress finely shaded psychological interpretations.
For Lang, in effect, the role is not carried within the character, but upon it. His cinema is less an art of externalizing interior qualities than one of creating the appearance of a certain exterior in itself. It really does not matter to us if an actor is sincere provided his portrayal is true. It has to be, however, absolutely true. Anyone who confuses "apparent truth" with the "appearance of truth," that is, the embodiment of a quality as opposed to the representation of it, should make a point of seeing Bernard Goetzke's magnificent creation of Death in Destiny.
A safecracker, let's say, is not on the whole readily distinguishable from an academician. Only his hands are peculiar to his art. Therefore to them and to them alone Lang gives the task of characterization.
Certainly a concern with truth is unmistakable in these details of personal significance. It has become, indeed, a sort of personal signature for Lang. We have already observed his affinity for the riffraff, if there is such a thing, when respectability is in such bad odor. But it's not really a matter of simple affinity, which is hardly forceful enough to justify his glorification of alienation and crime. Lang sanctifies, so to speak, the underworld of crime. But to give him his due, his chosen spokesmen from this world are never weak or lacking in courage. Instead, these individuals often assume a very high-class polish. Lang seems to delight in this; and so, some gangland boss, as in M, might wear sleek black gloves or a young thug might appear to be the boy next door with a dash of distinguished debauchery. All in all, this super-criminal world emerges as so intelligent, and so very admirably organized, capable of giving such an impression of strength, culture, and breeding, that its omnipotence cannot be questioned.
In short, a world of self-willed individuals, projecting, as a group, a powerful magnetism which leads us back to the idea of energy, life force: spiritual and physical energy which touches our hearts from time to time—and our nerves always.
This study, perhaps, should have been entitled "Nerves on the Brink." It calls to mind a simple interpretive action; a signal, a gesture: Sylvia Sidney, in anguish, strikes her temples with her fists (Fury). This gesture is found, executed in exactly the same manner, the same rhythmic little blows, same clenched fists, in Destiny. It passes through Spies (the scene in the taxi), Woman on the Moon (the scene in the space ship), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (in the printing house). This little gesture is evidence of the spirit of precision in the director, a characteristic of an almost obsessional purpose. The affirmation of a very personal conception, manifested cinematically by style.
Cahiers du cinéma, no. 100 (November 1959)
Revised by the author from an article that first appeared in CINEMAtographe (March 1937).
Translated by Sallie Iannotti.