These notes accompany the screening of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once on January 12, 13, and 14 in Theater 3.
The American-made films of Viennese-born Fritz Lang (1890–1976) will be the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at New York City’s Film Forum from January 28 through February 10. A number of his German classics appear in our own Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares exhibition, and a restored Metropolis (1926) recently had a run at Manhattan’s largest movie house. So it would be hard to argue that Lang is a forgotten director. The conventional book on Lang was that he was a great innovator in Germany who was forced to do hack work in Hollywood. However, through the efforts of Andrew Sarris, Peter Bogdanovich, David Thomson, and others, his 40-year career is now viewed more as a totality, with a continuity of themes and style.
The overriding theme is that of Fate, of humanity’s lack of control over its essentially tragic destiny. This is often expressed stylistically with glowering, menacingly dark, almost otherworldly imagery. Lang is sort of the punch line of the joke about the paranoiac who really has somebody out to get him. In Howard Rodman’s novel Destiny Express, the familiar story is told of how Joseph Goebbels offered Lang control of the German film industry in 1933, and Lang took the next train to Paris. Although details may vary, the story seems essentially true. If he had stayed in Berlin he might have made Triumph of the Will and not have had to endure the often-humiliating behavior of Hollywood producers. Lang, however, whether out of fear, honor, politics, or whatever, left the Reich, filmed Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (1934) in France, and then sailed for America. His wife and scriptwriter, Thea von Harbou, stayed, became a good Nazi, and even directed a few films herself. Lang’s politics are not clearly defined, and his reputation among his coworkers was that of a petty tyrant, if not a uniformed Nazi. (There is even one reported assassination attempt.) It would be difficult to make a case that, in either his life or his work, he was a conventional humanist like Jean Renoir or a committed romantic like Charles Chaplin. Yet there are moments of genuine poignancy (Peter Lorre’s confessional in M, much of The Big Heat, the protagonists in You Only Live Once) that betray Lang’s having “normal” human feelings. His interviews show a cunning charm, but Ernst Lubitsch he is not.
You Only Live Once, his second American film, is one of his best. It is technically impeccable. (The Museum has for decades circulated a reel showing the filming of the bank robbery and the sequence as it was finally put together. This “textbook” lesson shows Lang the master craftsman.) However, the Bonnie and Clyde protagonists (Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda) fit perfectly with Lang’s obsessions—people (organized society) are out to get them, and inevitably succeed. Somebody in the 1930s should have called Sylvia Sidney’s choice of men to her attention. She was a fine actress, but after Phillips Holmes, who is convicted of murdering her in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Cary Grant, who deserts her and drives her to suicide in a nonmusical Madame Butterfly, and Oscar Homolka, the wacko anarchist to whom she is married in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent), three-time loser Henry Fonda would seem to be an especially bad risk, even if they had appeared together without much too much trouble in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. (Fonda would shortly become a respected American icon as a result of such John Ford films as Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath.) It is interesting that Sidney’s Hitchcock film was sandwiched between her two Langs, the other being Fury (1936). There were many instances of these two major directors borrowing unashamedly from each other in the course of their careers.
Lang went on to make a Brechtian comedy, You and Me (also starring Sidney), several Westerns, and a number of first-rate anti-Nazi films. As World War II wound down, he returned to unadulterated explications of his principle themes, and we will return to him later in the series. In the meantime, the series at the Film Forum offers an excellent opportunity for a compact survey of a major director’s work.