Fritz Lang's Jewish identity is a contested space. Although he referred to it occasionally in interviews, and his mother was clearly Jewish, he was raised as a Catholic and invoked his Jewish roots when it was useful in filling in the background for his leaving Germany after 1933. That said, I have no compunction about claiming him as a Jewish filmmaker, if only because his particularly biting brand of paranoid fatalism feels very Jewish to me. Hence, with a massive retrospective of Lang's work on offer at Film Forum, I penned the following for Jewish Week; it seems to have slipped through the cracks there, but I'm posting it here for your edification.
The legend is that Fritz Lang, the great German filmmaker, already renowned for “Metropolis,” “M” and the creation of the fictional criminal genius Dr. Mabuse, left Germany one step ahead of the Nazis who pursued him. Unlike almost all other German Jews, though, Lang was being pursued by Nazis who wanted not to imprison and kill him -- they wanted to hire him to run the German film industry. Although his mother was Jewish, Lang was raised as a Catholic, but given his acquaintance with such enemies of the Reich as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the director figured he’d better be on the next train to Paris.
Paris led to New York and then to Hollywood.
Lang thrived in Hollywood, working there for twenty years, from 1936 to 1956, and creating 22 films. Many of the films are works of genius, as a glance at the schedule of Film Forum’s upcoming program, “Fritz Lang in Hollywood,” reminds us. Lang even managed to reunite with Weill for the exceedingly odd and very Brechtian “You and Me” (1938), and with Brecht for the surprirsingly straightforward “Hangmen Also Die” (1943), Brecht’s only Hollywood screen credit.
Lang’s American work is a felicitous blend of his own concerns and style – fatalistic, doom-chased, and paranoiac, shadow-drenched, dark and brooding – with the great strengths of the studio system with its multitude of technical talents, munificent resources and rich corps of actors. From his first effort (in the unlikely precincts of MGM), the aptly named “Fury,” a super-heated denunciation of lynch-law mob violence and vigilante revenge, Lang’s work explores the underside of man as social animal. The potential for revenge is at the heart of every Lang film, but in almost all of his work the heroes turn away from that possibility at only the very, very last moment, allowing society to enact its own, slightly more refined justice.
It doesn’t take a big leap to see that the 22 films that Lang made in the United States were almost uniformly films about the grotesque society he had left behind. Four of the films are overtly anti-Nazi efforts – “Man Hunt,” “Hangmen Also Die,” “Ministry of Fear” and “Cloak and Dagger” – but Lang’s contributions to the film noir, among the most potent in the entire cycle, are impossible to read without an understanding of Fascism and its sinister appeal. Even a western like “Rancho Notorious” (1952) has faint but unmistakable echoes of Fuhrer-speak, heavily encoded within the sagebrush.
Eventually Lang would return to his native Germany to find a nation-in-transformation, stumbling towards the kind of capitalist democracy that he had left behind in America, shaky with Cold War fears and driven by corporate agendas. In a nation that was haunted by the ghosts (some of them not dead) of its recent horrific past, Lang did his part to raise the specters by returning to the films of his silent-era artistic youth, first with the delirious two-part “Indian Tomb” and then with the last of the Mabuse epics, his final film, “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.” Once more an omnipresent supercriminal stalked the streets of Berlin through his proxies. The only difference was that the black shirts had been replaced by charcoal-gray suits.
The program begins January 28 and will include several special guest speakers.
In the meanwhile, my Jewish Week article on the Hungarian series mentioned earlier this week is now online here. I think you'll find some of my remarks on Istvan Szabo of interest.