At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure in the film community and share our thoughts about their work. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
Fritz Lang made a name for himself as a leader of German Expressionistic silent film. His career is typically separated by critics into two distinct parts: his years in Germany followed by his experiences in Hollywood. Lang fled Germany upon the rise of Nazism, his classic film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse banned under Hitler’s regime. He arrived in the United States at the onset of the film noir genre, able to insert his Expressionistic influences into the classical Hollywood narrative. What ties Lang’s films together from both these periods is their unbridled exploration of darkness and sin. Trench coats, gloomy expressions, and nighttime aside, we hope you find enjoyment in our exploration of Lang’s work.
Alex Sitaras– Destiny was the first Fritz Lang film I saw and was the first foreign film that I had seen after I become interested in film. It is an eerie film that centers upon a woman’s (Lil Dagover) interactions with Death (Bernhard Goetze) after Death takes her husband (Walter Janssen) away from her. She attempts to barter in return for his life, Death offering her three chances to save the lives of others about to die, each of which takes place at an exotic foreign locale. If she can resist the will of God and save a life, then she will have proven that love is stronger than Death, and Death will let her husband return to her. Conceptually, Destiny is a very dark and interesting film. At the time I saw it, it was the first film where I had to really think afterwards about what I had just seen. Destiny is also a very comprehensive representation of what a silent film experience is, the film including detailed intertitles that narrate the story, an orchestral score, dated gender representation (theatre-esque) in acting, loftily created sets and practical effects, as well as expressive use of color tinting to signify the time of day and changes in setting.
Matt Schlee– There’s a really strong argument to be made that Metropolis is the most influential silent film ever made. It’s also certainly one of the most influential, and earliest, science fiction films. Certainly, for a film from 1927, the special effects are stunningly modern. However, the film really goes so far beyond its massive importance in terms of filmmaking.
The thing that stands out to me when I watch Metropolis is how strongly it makes its statement. I often find myself critical of modern films that feel reluctant to take a position or dance around the issues at the core of their story. Metropolis makes no such error. Lang made a significant career change midway through his career when he turned down an offer to make films under the guise of the German Nazi regime and chose to immigrate to America. In Metropolis, Lang makes an early political statement. He takes a strong stance against plutocracy in a film that could be viewed as an advocate for social revolution. Metropolis also tackles religious themes, confronting the idea of false prophets and allegorically citing Joan of Arc.
Indeed, Metropolis will likely always be thought of first for its visual splendor and influence, and rightfully so. However, when I think of the film I think of an era when truly iconic filmmakers couldn’t simply tell you a bedtime story. They had to give you something to believe in.
When coming up with the story for M, Lang was inspired by an actual police investigation of a serial child molester that was currently underway and his resulting creation practically invented a whole new genre of film. The harsh lighting and sharp angles that Lang used in his expressionistic cinema later became commonplace in film noir. Within the very opening of M, the audience is introduced to the child murderer simply with the image of his stark shadow. Sound is also used to display a distinctive characteristic of the killer by him hauntingly whistling ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King‘. The whistling of the song tells the audience that the murderer is present without him being shown, holding everyone in suspense. Even its omission has a profound impact. When Beckert, the serial killer, spots a potential victim’s mirror reflection displayed in a shop window, the sound of a busy street full of cars dissipates making the audience fixate on Beckert’s demeanor and infatuation. When the noise returns we are transported back into the real world, outside of Beckert’s thoughts. He attempts to compose himself showing that even he has difficulty condoning his crimes. Peter Lorre‘s famous impassioned speech as Beckert at the close of the film further evidences this feeling by claiming he cannot control these urges.
M seems to stand for so much more than murder, perhaps meticulously-made or even masterpiece. If this was the case, the fact that M‘s influence is still felt today suggests great prescience on Lang’s part.
Ministry of Fear (1944)
Kevin Jones– Based on a novel by Graham Greene– who was behind many classics from the 1940s such as This Gun for Hire, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man– Ministry of Fear tells the story of a man named Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), living in Britain during World War II. Released by an asylum, Neale goes into the surrounding town and stumbles upon a charity event. Deciding to go in, he enters a contest to win a cake by guessing the correct weight of the cake. Winning the cake, Neale goes off with his spoils, only for this cake to then lead him right into the midst of a Nazi spy ring.
Often cited as “lesser Lang”, Ministry of Fear nonetheless demonstrates just how talented the legendary director was as even in a “lesser” work he is able to conjure up great suspense, tension, and seamlessly blend those elements with strong wartime themes about the serious threat of the Nazis. In watching the film, an oddly strong companion piece to M, Ministry of Fear can certainly be seen as a warning regarding persecution of people without reason, a phenomenon that Lang saw occurring in 1931 Germany with the rise of Hitler. By 1944, the Nazis are still a threat but in an entirely different way in the setting of England. They are hidden in plain sight, moonlighting as anti-Nazi critics or average citizens going about their daily jobs. All the while, they seek to destroy Britain from within.
In viewing Ministry of Fear, not only would I not consider it to be “lesser Lang”, but I would complement its ideas for striking me the most. Ministry of Fear is a thrilling work in large part because of Lang’s directing ability, but also because of the strong writing behind it that smartly takes this spy film and turns it into an opportunity to remind audiences in 1944 that the enemy is not always going to make themselves known. Instead, it is often on average citizens – who will be called crazy for their beliefs – to unmask those who wish to attack our country through the information they steal or manipulate, rather than the guns they fire or the bombs they drop. Given today’s political climate, Ministry of Fear may very well be essential viewing.
Scarlet Street (1945)
Alex Sitaras– From its first minutes, Scarlet Street appears to be simple, whimsical film. It stars Edward G. Robinson as Chris Cross (not kidding), a shy amateur painter who meets a woman, Kitty (Joan Bennett), after protecting her from an attacker. He offers to grab coffee with her and the two sit together, the conversation drifting to art, Kitty believing Chris to be a great artist based on their conversation. Christ starts an affair with Kitty, she trying to extort him by selling his pieces of art under her name. Once he finds out, he is flattered rather than disgusted because his work is finally being appreciated. I’ve deliberately left out a lot of details, even in describing the start of the film, since the film lurches and churns its way into unexpected territory through plot twists and deceptions. Scarlet Street was not the cutesy romance film I thought it was setting itself up to be, and for that, all the better.
The Big Heat (1953)
Matt Schlee– The Big Heat is a bit late for a true film noir, which is probably why its tone and aesthetic feels so modern. It falls into certain familiar detective and noir tropes such as the police officer who gets too personally involved in a case and oversteps his bounds. Yet, the film still manages to feel refreshing and even iconic. The death of a major character around the film’s midway point took me by surprise on my first viewing, as it seemed especially bold and disturbing for a film of the Hays Code era.
Glenn Ford may have been the perfect film noir actor. The way he talked, the way he carried himself, even the way he wore his suits felt like pure noir. It’s no wonder that Lang wanted to work with him. He had the ability to play less than savory characters, but in The Big Heat he’s purely the hero of the film.
It’s impossible to say what Lang’s best Hollywood film is, but there’s a really strong argument to be made for The Big Heat. It’s one of the most captivating, well constructed, and upsetting films noir ever made. It bears a striking resemblance to the classic films noir of the 40s but also makes use of the advances made in the genre by the early 50s as well as brings its own new ideas into the fold.