Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Fetish of Tragedy

Film director Fritz Lang was born on this day in 1890 in Vienna.

Following the wishes of his architect father, Lang studied architecture for a time before joining the Vienna Academy of Graphic Arts to pursue a course in painting. Facing his father's disapproval, Lang moved to Brussels around 1909 and made his living selling sketches. In 1910, he took to the sea, visiting North Africa, Asia Minor, China, Japan and Bali before settling in Paris, renting a studio at Montmartre and studying at the Academie Julien.

During World War I, Lang found himself in the Austrian Army; blinded in one eye after being wounded, Lang spent his time in military hospitals writing film scripts. He wrote several scripts for Erich Pommer's Decla film company in Berlin before directing his first film, The Half-Caste (1919), followed by the first episode of a popular adventure serial, The Spiders (1919). He was slated to direct Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) based upon a scenario to which he contributed, but instead he was assigned to direct another episode of The Spiders serial; Caligari became a classic in the hands of Robert Wiene.

Annoyed at losing Caligari, Lang left Decla for a time, but returned to direct his first international success, Destiny (1921), the visual style of which caused comparisons to Durer and Grunewald in the French journals. From a thematic perspective, Destiny also typified Lang's preoccupation with despair and the inevitability of fate, or as Lang himself described it, his "fetish of tragedy." In 1922, he completed Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, the first of a series of films featuring the fiendish criminal mastermind, which he followed with two films based on the German legend Die Nieblungen (Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, 1924). In 1926, Lang completed the greatest of his silent films, Metropolis (with Brigitte Helm), a social melodrama set in the year 2000 against "an exaggerated dream of the New York skyline, multiplied a thousandfold and divested of all reality." (L. Eisner)

Although Metropolis was not a box office success, Lang's preeminence among German directors was assured as he began work on his first sound film, M (1930; with Peter Lorre), a film about how the criminal underground organizes to capture a child murderer whose activities are bad for business. In 1934, Lang arrived in the U.S., where he made a pair of dark, moralistic character studies, Fury (1936; starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney) and You Only Live Once (1937; with Sidney and Henry Fonda).

Lang's early efforts in Hollywood did not endear him to the studios, which favored light material with happy endings, nor did his insistence on detail. Nevertheless, Lang survived, making such eerie minor classics as the stark western, The Return of Frank James (1940; with Fonda); a Graham Greene mystery, Ministry of Fear (1944; with Ray Milland); the twin nightmares Woman in the Window (1944; written by Nunnally Johnson) and Scarlet Street (1945) (both with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea); and The Big Heat (1953; with Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin). His career went into sharp decline after 1956, although his films continued to be appreciated by younger film directors; in homage to Lang, Jean-Luc Godard cast Lang as himself in Contempt (1963). Lang died on August 2, 1976 in Beverly Hills.

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Blogger Jeff Duncanson said...

Nice post - Someone who wants to treat themselves should seek out some of the lesser known Hollywood stuff that you mention, such as "Scarlet Street", or the criminally neglected "Ministry of Fear"

Love your blog, BTW

10:10 AM  

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