Fritz Lang

John Florens | Jun 23, 2023

Table of Content


Fritz Lang, full name Friedrich Christian Anton Lang (December 5, 1890, Vienna, Austria-Hungary - August 2, 1976, Beverly Hills, California, USA) was a German film director who lived and worked in the United States since 1934. One of the greatest representatives of German expressionism, Lang made the biggest-budget film in the history of silent cinema ("Metropolis", 1927) and anticipated the aesthetics of American noir ("M", 1931). He is also known for his films about the "super criminal" Mabuse (directing the entire trilogy).

Early Years

Friedrich Christian Anton Lang was born in Vienna on December 5, 1890, into the family of the architect Anton Lang and his wife Paula, née Schlesinger. Lang's parents were Catholics from Moravia. His Jewish mother converted to Catholicism when Fritz was ten years old. She took her faith seriously and raised her son in the tradition of Catholicism.

After graduating from the Folk and Real School, Lang, who had been interested in drawing since childhood, entered the Faculty of Architecture at the Technical High School in 1907, which he abandoned after the first semester. In 1908 he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and from 1911 in Munich at the School of Applied Arts (Julius Dietz's workshop). In 1913-1914 in Paris he attended the Maurice Denis School of Painting and the Académie Julian.

After the outbreak of World War I, Lang returned to Vienna. On January 12, 1915 he enlisted as a volunteer. He participated in battles in Russia, Galicia, Romania and Italy, was wounded three times and was repeatedly decorated. In 1918 after another wound he was declared unfit for military service and demobilized with the rank of lieutenant.

A Film Career in Germany: 1916-1933

As early as 1916 at the Vienna Hospital, Fritz Lang began to write screenplays on which such films as Joe May's Hilda Warren and Death (1917) and Otto Rippert's The Plague in Florence (1919) were made.

In August 1918, he met the Berlin film producer Erich Pommer, who invited him as a staff writer for the Decla film studio. In 1920, while working for May-Film GmbH, Lang met the writer and screenwriter Thea von Harbou, with whom he collaborated until 1933.

Lang's first wife Elizabeth Rosenthal died on September 25, 1920. The cause of death was recorded in the doctor's report as "accident, shot in the chest. On August 26, 1922, Lang and Harbaugh were legally married. Soon after the wedding, Lang was granted German citizenship.

Lang's first independent directorial work was the adventure film Harakiri (1919). His subsequent films developed romantic and expressionist motifs. At the same time, Lang usually gravitated toward extended, multi-hour productions. "Spiders" (part two, "The Diamond Ship," 1920) was an adventure drama about the search for the treasure of a lost civilization. "Tired of Death" (1921) is a philosophical and lyrical parable about love trying to defeat death. "Dr. Mabuse the Player" (1922) is a large-scale detective drama based on Norbert Jacques' novel about a super criminal. "The Nibelungs" (second part, "Krimhilda's Revenge," 1924) is an epic fantasy based on the ancient Germanic saga of Siegfried. "Metropolis" (1927) is a famous dystopia, which had a great influence on the development of social and science fiction of the 20th century. "The Woman on the Moon" (1929) was the world's first film about space flight, set in the light of scientific and technical ideas about the possibility of such an enterprise.

Fritz Lang's first sound film, the detective tragedy "M" (1931), is about a homicidal maniac who not only the police but also a syndicate of criminals are trying to catch. It is one of the most famous films in the history of cinema.

His last German film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), was banned by censorship on March 29, 1933.

On April 20, 1933, Lang divorced Thea von Harbou and finally moved to Paris on July 21, 1933.

Work in France: 1933-1934

In France, Lang directed one film, the dark romantic fantasy Liliom (1934) based on a play by Ferenc Molnár. The film's producer was Erich Pommer, who had also fled Germany to Paris, where he set up the European division of Twentieth Century Fox Studios.

Beginning of a career in the United States: 1934-1943

In 1934 Lang signed a one-film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with an option for several more, and moved to the United States. Lang would spend a total of 22 years in Hollywood, directing 22 feature-length films during that period, in various genres and for virtually every major Hollywood studio as well as an independent producer.

In 1934-35, the studio "MJAM" asked him to produce a number of films, but for various reasons, their production was interrupted. As a result, in September 1935 GM announced that Lang will stage a crime drama "Fury", also known by its working title "The Crowd Rules. The film, starring Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy, was strongly publicistic in nature, casting an indictment of the contemptuous attitude toward the law and the herd instinct of the mob. The film is based on the story of how in a small American town the rumored mob nearly mauled an innocent man, who then with no less fury took revenge on the mob, trying at all costs to get dozens of people punished for lynching. The picture was a great success both critically and at the box office, and was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. In 1995, the film was included in the National Film Registry, selected by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation at the Library of Congress.

Lang's relationship with the creative team during the making of the film did not work out, and only through the efforts of the film's producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, did the studio not suspend Lang from work. After the film was completed, Lang spoke negatively about M.G.M.'s work during the final editing phase of the film in a number of interviews, and ended up being out of a job.

Lang's Hollywood career was saved by actress Sylvia Sidney, who was one of the few who wanted to work with Lang. Sidney made a personal contract with independent producer Walter Wagner, with the condition that Lang would direct their film. In working on the crime drama "Life Gives Once," Wagner gave Lang complete freedom of action. The film tells the love story of an ex-convict (Henry Fonda) and a lawyer's secretary (Sylvia Sidney) who want to live an honest and happy life, but an unjust fate pushes them down a criminal path and flee from the authorities. Lang's unfortunate characters evoke sympathy from the audience, while at the same time Lang sharply criticizes the justice system, which is only concerned with brutally punishing the hero, and the media, which can't wait to see him convicted. Lang's production is characterized by "a pure expressionist style that has had a tremendous influence on postwar film noir: it's always night, it usually rains, and the camera hovers over the characters like the heavy hand of fate. The original 100-minute version of the film had about 15 minutes with violent scenes unprecedented for its time. The movie was critically acclaimed and had good box office results. Like Fury it was a precursor of the film noir genre and also laid the foundations for the subgenre that became known as Lovers on the Run. Despite a successful premiere in January 1937, "Lang made new enemies with his behavior and speech.

In May 1937, Lang concluded a two-year contract with the studio "Paramount" to create three films. Completed in the summer of 1938, a romantic drama with comedic and satirical elements of "You and I" was about two former prisoners (George Raft and again Sylvia Sidney), working in a department store, who are going to get married and simultaneously plan to rob their own store. The film was a complete disappointment, and Paramount blamed Lang for the failure. In the spring of 1939, Lang's contract was terminated after the only film he directed.

On August 14, 1939, Lang was granted American citizenship, and at the end of the year he met producer and talent scout Sam Jaffe, who "brought stability to his Hollywood career. Jeff knew that Twentieth Century Fox was planning a sequel to Henry King's western Jesse James (1939) and suggested Lang as a director. Studio head Darryl Zanuck approved the idea, and Lang signed on to direct The Return of Frank James (1940). This western, far from being historically accurate, is about the revenge of Frank James (Henry Fonda) on his brother's killers. In this film the future star Gene Tierney played his first role. Lang then went on to work at Fox with another western, Western Union (1941), also shot in Technicolor. Both films were critically acclaimed and successful with audiences. In the end, Zanuck was satisfied with both films and Lang was contracted by Fox to direct several more.

Lang's next film, the thriller Manhunt (1941), was about the Gestapo's pursuit of an English professional hunter suspected of attempting to assassinate Hitler. Critics listed it as one of the best films of the year, marking Lang's return to the ranks of Hollywood's most respected filmmakers. Lang hoped that the success of the picture would get offers from Zanuck to direct more interesting films. However, Lang's next two works were never completed. First he cited cholelithiasis and then left Fox in 1942.

In the same year, together with Bertolt Brecht, Lang began work on a screenplay about the assassination attempt on Prague Gauleiter Reinhard Heydrich (who had been killed by Czech resistance fighters shortly before) and the ensuing reprisals against civilians. The resulting war drama The Executioners Die Too! (1943), directed by Lang and produced by Arnold Pressburger, was critically acclaimed and nominated for two Oscars (for music and sound). In 1946 at the Venice Festival the film was awarded the International Critics' Prize.

Continued career in the United States: 1944-1948

In 1944, Lang reached the peak of his American career when two beautifully received films, The Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window, were released in wide cinemas at once.

Ministry of Fear (1944) was based on a novel by Graham Greene, the rights to which were owned by Paramount Pictures, and Lang returned to that studio to direct the film. The film is set in World War II London, where an unfortunate poor man (Ray Milland), fresh out of a mental institution, ironically becomes the object of persecution by both a network of Nazi spies and local police who suspect him of committing murder. This film marked the beginning of Lang's series of film noirs that brought him fame in Hollywood.

A month later the film noir Woman in the Window (1944) was released, which Lang directed at the suggestion of screenwriter and independent producer Nunnally Johnson. The film tells the grim story of an under-aged, well-behaved criminal psychology professor (Edward G. Robinson) who falls in love with a femme fatale (Joan Bennett), and by chance and his own weakness kills a man, covers up the crime, and then becomes the object of blackmail. The film shows that "good and evil are present in everything, and that moral choices are often dictated by circumstances.

In 1945 Lang, along with actress Joan Bennett, producer Walter Wagner, and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, created the production company Diana Productions, named after Bennett's daughter. Lang's first production for Diana Productions was the film noir Sin Street (1945), which was Lang's most independent film of his years in the United States, as the producers had no influence whatsoever on his work. This film, a remake of Jean Renoir's Bitch (1931), was in many ways also a continuation of Lang's previous film, telling the story of a humble accountant (Edward G. Robinson) who falls in love with a fatal beauty (Joan Bennett) and reveals both his unseen creativity and the depth of his moral fall. Lang is "peerless in his ability to convey the desperation of unfortunate, naive victims in the harsh real world." Work on the film dragged on, and in search of economic support, Lang signed an additional contract with Universal to participate in the project in post-production. Since the film's finale left the killer unpunished, the film ran into censorship problems, as such an ending was contrary to the Hayes Code in effect at the time. The film was a great box-office success. The film, like The Woman in the Window, is now one of the classics of the film noir genre, but it was not critically acclaimed at the time.

Lang then directed the spy thriller Cloak and Dagger (1946) starring Gary Cooper, intending to tell the story of the coming of a new, nuclear era after the end of World War II. However, Warner Bros. management rejected Lang's proposed ending, turning the film into a conventional romantic thriller about the hunt for nuclear secrets.

Lang's next film, The Secret Behind the Door (1948), combined elements of genre, gothic thriller, psychological horror and Freudian melodrama, telling the story of a young woman (Joan Bennett in her third and last collaboration with Lang) who suspects her husband of wanting to kill her. The film was expertly directed and beautifully acted by a skilled cast, but due to the poorly crafted script, it received mixed reviews from critics and completely failed at the box office. Universal, the distributor of the film, received record losses and decided to break off relations with Diana Productions, which soon afterwards ceased to exist at all.

Last years in Hollywood: 1950-1956

The last seven years of Lang's work in Hollywood were the most productive for him, during which period he directed ten films. However, this section of Lang's career was also the lowest quality of work, among which only "Skirmish in the Night" (1952) and "The Big Heat" (1953) can be classed as truly outstanding.

After the failure of The Mystery Behind the Door, Lang was forced to look for a new producer, contracting for two films with a small independent production company, Fidelity Pictures. The first of these films, the crime drama House by the River (1950), was Lang's only B-movie. Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of a hapless and vicious writer who accidentally murders his maid in an attempted rape and then enlists his well-meaning brother to cover up the crime. The brother ends up being the prime suspect, and the writer becomes famous for dedicating his new book to the murder. The film was a definite success in the U.S., but hardly sold abroad, eventually becoming considered Lang's most unknown work of the Hollywood period.

That same year Lang, who owed Twentieth Century Fox Studios one film, directed for it the war drama American War in the Philippines (1950), in which an American naval officer (Tyrone Power) organizes the struggle of Filipino guerrillas against the Japanese invaders in 1942. This film received the worst critical reviews for Lang and is considered one of the director's weakest films of his career, although it was quite successful economically.

Lang released three films in 1952. The western Notorious Ranch (the second film for the Fidelity Company) premiered in February, the drama Skirmish in the Night in March, and the film noir Blue Gardenia on Christmas Eve. The psychological western "Notorious Ranch" centers on the story of a young hero's revenge as he hunts down the killers of his fiancée. The film is memorable for a love triangle involving a young vigilante (Arthur Kennedy), the head of the bandits (Mel Ferrer) and a rancher (Marlene Dietrich) who serves as a hideout for the gang. Despite the fact that Dietrich was 13 years older than the first and 16 years older than the second actor, she continued to radiate sex appeal even in her 50s. The melodrama "Skirmish in the Night," based on the play by Clifford Odets, is about the tangled relationships of love, friendship, indifference, disgust and cheating that bind several married couples in a small fishing town in New England. Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan played the main roles in the film, with Marilyn Monroe also starring in a small role. In the film noir Blue Gardenia with Anne Baxter and Richard Conte Lang tells the story of the murder investigation of an artist (Raymond Burr), skillfully playing with the symbols of the urban environment of his time - the telephone (acting as a kind of instrument of destiny for the characters), the influence of the media and the growing spread of popular music (which is represented by Nat King Cole).

In the first half of 1953, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, offered Lang a contract, and surprisingly, the uncooperative Lang worked well with the temperamental Cohn. Lang's first production for Columbia was the film noir The Big Heat (1953). The film's protagonist, a police detective (Glenn Ford), engages in a battle with a mob that controls the city after the brutal murder of his wife, stopping at nothing and ignoring the fact that his actions indirectly cause the deaths of four innocent women. The film is known for an unprecedented high level of violence for its time, in particular, in one memorable scene the bandit (Lee Marvin) pours boiling coffee in the face of the heroine (Gloria Graham). The film became one of Lang's most successful films internationally, although it achieved only moderate success in the United States. In 2011 the film was added to the National Film Registry, selected by the U.S. National Film Preservation Board for preservation at the Library of Congress.

Lang's second and last film for Columbia was the film noir The Human Wish (1954). The film is based on Emile Zola's novel The Beast Man (1890) and is a remake of the 1938 film of the same name directed by Jean Renoir. The film is set in an American railroad hub in the Midwest in the years following the Korean War, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Graham in the lead roles, as in Lang's previous film. "Though not one of Lang's noir masterpieces, this merciless tale of infidelity and blackmail reminds us once again that even Lang's passable films remain alive, exciting and compelling."

In 1954 Lang returned to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to direct the costume-adventure melodrama Munfleet, about a smugglers' hunt for a priceless diamond in the British coastal town of Munfleet in the mid-18th century. Despite a strong cast (Stuart Granger and George Sanders) and a fairly high quality production, the film brought the studio a loss of over a million dollars.

Lang's last two works in the United States were film noir While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1956), both produced by independent producer Bert E. Friedlob for RKO Studios. The film noir, While the City Sleeps, is set in mid-1950s New York City. Combining elements of a detective thriller about a maniac hunt, the poignant drama of a power struggle at a giant media corporation, and social commentary about media mores (including the negative impact of comic books on the minds of young people), the film features a great performance by an all-star cast that includes Dan Andrews, George Sanders, Vincent Price and Ida Lupino, among others. In his last American film and his third "newspaper" noir, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1956), Lang explores the subject of the legitimacy of the death penalty based on circumstantial evidence and again touches on the media in modern society. Despite quality production work and the use of stars (once again starring Dan Andrews), the film suffered from a poorly written script, unimpressive acting, and visual monotony due to limited funds. During filming, Lang constantly clashed with producer Bert E. Friedlob. After the completion of the work, Lang poured out all his anger against the Hollywood machine and said he did not want to make any more films in Hollywood. After that he prepared a few more scripts, but this time none of the prominent producers expressed a desire to work with him.

Finishing a film career in Europe: 1957-1963

In 1956 Lang visited the FRG for the first time, discussed several projects, but returned to Beverly Hills without concrete plans. At the end of 1957 he responded to an offer from the German producer Arthur Brauner and directed The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal, 1959) and Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960). In 1963 Lang played himself in Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" (Le mepris). In 1964 he was the President of the Jury of the Cannes Film Festival.

Personal Life

From 1919-1920. Lang was married to Elisabeth Rosenthal, 1922-1933 to Thea von Harbaugh.

In 1971 he secretly married Lily Latté, a secretary, assistant, and life partner whom he had met in the early 1930s.

There were no children in any of the marriages.

Fritz Lang died in Beverly Hills on August 2, 1976. He is buried in the Hollywood Hills.


  1. Fritz Lang
  2. Ланг, Фриц
  3. Patric McGilligan. Fritz Lang. The Nature of the Beast. Farber and Farber, London 1997, p. 11-12
  4. Peter W. Jansen, Wolfram Schütte (Hrsg.): Fritz Lang. Hanser Verlag München, S.143
  5. Patric McGilligan. Fritz Lang. The Nature of the Beast. Farber and Farber, London 1997, p. 87-88
  6. Prononciation en haut allemand standardisé retranscrite selon la norme API
  7. M. Dowd & R. Hensey, The Archaeology of Darkness, p. 7, Oxbow Books, 2016 (ISBN 9781785701948).
  8. Andreas Weigel: Fritz Langs familiäre Gars-Verbindungen und Fritz Langs unterbundene Hilfeleistung. In: Stars in Gars. Schaffen und Genießen. Künstler in der Sommerfrische. Herausgegeben vom Museumsverein Gars. Zeitbrücke-Museum Gars, Gars 2017, ISBN 978-3-9504427-0-0, S. 9–174, hier S. 76 ff., 123 ff. sowie S. 169 (Anmerkungen).
  9. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. Abgerufen am 11. März 2023.
  10. Sterbebuch - 03/19 | Gars/Kamp | Niederösterreich (Westen): Rk. Diözese St. Pölten | Österreich | Matricula Online. Abgerufen am 11. März 2023.
  11. ^ Aurélien Ferenczi, Fritz Lang, Cahiers du Cinéma, 2007.
  12. ^ Sandro Bernardi, L'avventura del cinematografo, p. 134.
  13. ^ Jean-Luc Godard, Il cinema è il cinema, traduzione di Adriano Aprà, Milano, Garzanti 1981.
  14. ^ Sequenza iniziale de Le mepris di Jean-Luc Godard in cui recita Fritz Lang

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