Book Review: Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
Fritz Lang – director of M, Metropolis, Fury, The Big Heat – his very name is a sort of talisman for cineastes the world over. The name conjures the best of German expressionism and the name forms a vital link in the mind of the bridge between the most exemplary of those expressionist films and the form known as film noir that was to follow. Few film directors are expansive enough to contain that kind of multitude, yet Fritz Lang is. And yet… Lang was cagey and spent a lifetime insisting that his personal life had nothing to do with the work. Film biographer Patrick McGilligan begs to differ and in his Lang biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast lays out the ways in which the man’s life affected his art.
Could there be a more challenging subject to pen a bio about than Fritz Lang? Ever the story teller, Lang wove a patchwork of myths and tales about his life, constructed with an eye for the entertaining or suspenseful yarn rather than the truth, per se. McGilligan sets himself the monumental task of teasing out the actual from the mythic and then the even more monumental task of interpreting those actuals back into the myth of the work. The mind reels! But McGilligan is a cracker-jack researcher and the supporting evidence is thorough in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – when it exists. He’s also candid about when it doesn’t.
The framework facts are few – Fritz Lang was raised in Vienna, served a brief stint in the Austria army during World War I, and eventually made his way to Berlin. As is true of so many in the earliest film industries, mere happenstance brought him to the job. But with films like Die Nibelungen (Siegfried), Der Mud Tod (Destiny) , Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler) and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), Metropolis, and – of course – the immaculate M, Lang became a rockstar of the early German film industry. Then history interceded in the form of the Nazi party and WWII and Fritz Lang fled to first France and then the US.
McGilligan does an excellent job in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast of illuminating the differences between the German film industry and the American one and how those differences crippled Lang. In the US, the director was but one cog in the studio machine, not the little dictator of the set Lang was accustomed to being. His entire Hollywood career, as so thoroughly detailed by McGilligan, was a battle of sorts – with studios, producers, actors and actresses, script writers – and it was a battle Lang lost as often as he won. And yet, yet… the work endures. In his dotage, Lang rued the missteps and wrong turns that he perceived and regretted never creating another film that equaled M. That’s a tough bar to jump, even when it’s your own.
I would like to mention a gross disparity I found between my own perception of Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast and some notions that others seem to harbor. There’s a lot of criticism in the comments section at Amazon (among other places) that McGilligan was unduly harsh on Lang. While reading this biography, I was struck several times by the notion that McGilligan might be a bit too lax. While reading these comments, I wondered if I and these commentors had read the same book. For example, Fritz Lang had a first wife whom he never, ever spoke about (his second wife was his German collaborator Thea von Harbou, who chose to stay behind when Lang fled Germany). Lisa Rosenthal died rather mysteriously, either by her own hand, by von Harbou’s, by Lang’s, or by some collusion between von Harbou and Lang. McGilligan never asserts that Fritz Lang murdered his wife. He does posit two facts: 1.) the police suspected and questioned Lang in connection with his wife’s death and released him; and 2.) rumors circulated in Berlin that Lang did indeed murder his wife and those rumors trailed him to the emigre community in Hollywood, where many chose to accept them as fact.
It’s is patently ridiculous to hold a biographer responsible for the facts – even when those “facts” are really consensus opinion – about his subject. The truth is that Fritz Lang was a complicated man, and apparently a little bit of a sadist (ask his actors and actresses) and quite a bit of an asshole. So don’t believe the hype – McGilligan never avers that Fritz Lang murdered his wife, only that many, including the authorities believed he did. McGilligan never accuses Lang of being a Nazi – he only notes that many others did. McGilligan does debunk Lang’s pet myth regarding a meeting with Goebbels that resulted in a midnight lam, because the facts just don’t support Lang’s story. It was a great story though, which is why Lang told it so often.
All in all, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast does a fantastic job of teasing out the legend from the fact, and painting a complete portrait of Fritz Lang. The man was not a saint, for sure. But he is one of the finest film director’s in cinema history and the details of his life – a dead first wife, whether a suicide or a murder – affect that work profoundly. After all, both suicide and murder are cornerstones of Lang’s best (and worst) films. In the end, this book is a weighty tome – as weighty as Lang’s career – and an excellent addition to the scholarship of Fritz Lang.