These notes accompany the Nordic Gods and Directors program, which screens on February 17, 18, and 19 in Theater 3.
In a sense, there are two Fritz Langs, with his life, career, and sensibility split almost literally in half by the rise of the Nazis. The German Lang is monumental, existing in a realm of the fantastic, the superhuman, the surreal. The American Lang is naturalistic, existing in a real world inhabited by ordinary earthlings, people with feelings, folks with whom we can identify. The crossover film was M (1931), Lang’s first talkie, in which Peter Lorre’s child murderer is accorded a sympathetic hearing, evoking the genuine emotion lacking in Lang’s work over the preceding twelve years. This is not to suggest that Lang (1890–1976) ever became a conventionally naturalistic and humanistic director in the course of his honorable and mostly successful American career. He was as much a progenitor of film noir as he was of the expressionism from whence it sprung, and his later ramblings—from Brecht to Zola, from the Philippines of Tyrone Power to Jean-Luc Godard’s Capri in Le Mepris—bespeak no ordinary career.
Peter Cohen’s documentary The Architecture of Doom (1989) (which was screened at MoMA a couple weeks ago in the exhibition Karen Cooper Carte Blanche) cites Richard Wagner’s “Rienzi” as a key influence on Hitler’s formative years and suggests that Hitler welcomed the destruction of his Reich as a fitting reenactment of the Götterdämmerung at the end of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There is no question that the spirit of German nationalism hangs very heavily over Lang’s Die Nibelungen (Siegfried’s Tod and Kriemhild’s Rache). How much the film foreshadowed the rise to power of the Nazis nine years later is debatable. (Thea von Harbou, Lang’s screenwriter/wife and the former wife of Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Doctor Mabuse), eventually became a full-fledged Nazi after Lang divorced her and headed west.) Film historian Lotte Eisner is primarily focused on the film’s artificial landscapes and stylized architecture. She writes, “The veil separating Nordic man from Nature cannot be torn down; so the Germans…construct an artificial Nature…. The massive architecture in Die Nibelungen constitutes an ideal setting for the stature of its epic heroes. Aiming for spectacular effects, Lang brought life to the grandiose rigidity of the architecture with a skilful use of lighting.”
Eisner does comment on certain racial implications in the film’s depiction of the Huns, but attributes this to Harbou’s later notoriety, not to Lang. The critic Siegfried Kracauer, on the other hand, points out the differences between Wagner’s operas and the film, but states that Lang “defined this film as a national document fit to publicize German culture all over the world. His whole statement somewhat anticipated the Goebbels propaganda.” Kracauer speaks of “the complete triumph of the ornamental over the human,” and makes a specific claim that the Nazis drew inspiration from Lang’s film for the mass rallies in Nuremberg in 1934 that were immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Ideology aside, Die Nibelungen is the most expensive, emblematic, and archetypal product of Universum-Film AG (UFA), the leading German studio between the wars. The entire film was shot indoors, and Lang would to go on to film Metropolis and Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) there as well. The studio in Neubabelsberg—where a young Alfred Hitchcock visited F. W. Murnau on the set of The Last Laugh and where Josef von Sternberg filmed The Blue Angel—was the wonder of the early film world. Here, a multitude of craftsmen seemed to perform miracles, oblivious to the petty reality of budgets. Lang’s grandiose film was justification enough for the studio’s existence, and one can only speculate what James Cameron might have done with its resources.
Also on this week’s program is a 1959 compilation of all-too-brief snippets from some of the great Swedish films made by Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller before they were lured to Hollywood. Although only one of these films was included in our series, the good news is that our colleagues at the Film Society at Lincoln Center are presenting a series (April 16–May 4) that includes Sjostrom’s Terje Vigen, Stiller’s Thomas Graal’s Best Film, and several other films of note. The entire schedule is available at www.filmlinc.com.