The Europeans graced us with many great artists across many different mediums, but I will make this claim: none were greater than Fritz Lang. His body of work highlights and gives great weight to that of the German Expressionism movement, and his work also is a forerunner of most everything we know today. Lang’s DNA can surly be seen in the work of films like Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan) and The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon), but also in movies like Seven (1997, dir. David Fincher), Blade Runner (1986, dir. Ridley Scott), and even The Lord of the Rings (2002-2004, dir. Peter Jackson). Lang worked in a great variety of genres and left a cinematic thumbprint bigger than I think anyone can truly grasp.
No doubt Lang was instrumental in the creation of the modern science-fiction film, but also in the “epic”, and even in the infamous film-noir. Metropolis, typically considered Lang’s crowning achievement, still stands the test of time in regard to its special effects and thematic ideals. M, which I’ve written about a few times before, is the predecessor to not only the film-noir (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon), crime film (Scarface, GoodFellas), and courtroom drama (Anatomy of a Murder, 12 Angry Men), but also the psychological thriller (Silence of the Lambs, Memento), the police procedural (CSI, NCIS), and even the heist film (Oceans 11, The Italian Job).
His Die Nibelungen (Part. 1; Part 2) films clearly influenced movies such as Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings films. You would be hard-pressed to find a piece of modern filmmaking which does not, in some fashion, have its roots in the films of Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang is everywhere and modern cinema owes him very much.
His mother was a Jew by birth and a Catholic by conversion, but Lang was, for all intents and purposes, an irreligious man. However, he considered himself to have been “born Catholic.” Religious themes sometimes found their way into his work, but that seems to have been the extent of his religious life. Metropolis, for example, seems to be an extremely loose adaptation or interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
Eventually Lang left Germany and found his way to America. The stories and accounts of how he left Germany are varied and difficult to verify. The story Lang told was that Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi Propaganda, summoned Lang into his office to discuss a job. Goebbels was apparently so infatuated with Lang’s filmmaking skills (despite that during this same meeting he revealed that Lang’s film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was being banned) that he wanted him to become the main director and filmmaker for the Nazi regime. Supposedly Lang accepted but left the meeting, went home and packed, and immediately fled for France via train. Like I said, there is much debate surrounding these events, and it often sounds as though Lang is making the whole thing up.
That is sort of the charm of Fritz Lang, however. He was a spinner of yarns and a teller of tales. Whether or not the story was true did not matter: Lang aimed not only to tell it effectively but affectingly. The mysteries and the lies surrounding Fritz Lang and his sordid career are the stuff of legends, and they add an interesting level of mystique to his character and to his films. It is interesting, then, that many of his films deal with the falsity of appearances.
Lang would direct his final film in 1960, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and would star in the 1963 film Contempt directed by Jean-Luc Godard. He eventually lost his sight. A fate worse than death for such a visual artist. He would die in 1976, blind and mostly broke, and with little critical fanfare.
Thankfully, today his films are available from companies like The Criterion Collection, Kino-Lorbor, and The Masters of Cinema.