By Raquel Stecher
Director Fritz Lang was born in Vienna on December 5th, 1890. One of the most influential directors of the 20th century, Lang made his mark on the cinema landscape and his movies would inspire generations of filmmakers to come.
After serving in WWI, he dabbled in acting but soon discovered that directing movies was his calling. He made a slew of sweeping silent epics including his most famous silent Metropolis (1927) and transitioned into talking pictures with another stand-out film, M (1931). He worked with wife and frequent collaborator Thea von Harbou on his independent productions and films made for the German film studio Ufa.
The details are murky, but it’s generally accepted that Lang fled Nazi Germany after Joseph Goebbels simultaneously banned one of his films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and offered him a position as an official propaganda filmmaker for the Third Reich. Lang left Europe for the US, as many other émigré directors in his time did, and started making movies for Hollywood.
Lang directed some of the best films to come out of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. One of his strengths as a filmmaker was the ability to tackle almost any genre, including Epics, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Westerns, Costume Dramas, War Movies, Mysteries, Thrillers, Film Noir, and even a Musical!
He could always be found on set with his trademark monocle. He developed a reputation as a tyrant and proved to be very difficult to work with. Some actors or actresses could take one or two projects before refusing to work with him again. Despite his temper, Lang was a true visionary and, when he felt stifled by the lack of control over his projects, went back to Europe. After making a couple more movies, he retired but continued on in the industry by supporting emerging filmmakers.
There are so many great Fritz Lang films to rent on DVD Netflix including Spies (1928), Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), House by the River (1950), and The Blue Gardenia (1953). Let’s take a look at the films that represent the best of several of the genres that Lang mastered.
Retro futurism at its finest! Lang’s Metropolis was a landmark silent film boldly went where no one had gone before. Written by Lang’s wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou, this allegorical tale about social inequality is set in the distant future and comes complete with a mad scientist and one of the best robots in cinema history. It’s a visual masterpiece that influenced many films including the Star Wars franchise and music videos like Madonna’s Express Yourself.
Possibly one of the most underrated science fiction films of all time, Lang’s Woman in the Moon was another collaboration with Thea von Harbou which could explain why the protagonist is a headstrong woman scientist. This film is notable for its depiction of space travel in a time before human ever put a rocket into outer space. It correctly predicted some aspects of space exploration including loss of gravity.
Besides Metropolis, Fritz Lang is probably best known for directing M (1931). This thriller stars Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, a child serial killer who is terrorizing Berlin. The community tracks him down and takes justice into their own hands. M is shocking, eerie, and beautifully shot with a powerful performance by Lorre.
When Lang came to Hollywood he made several films about social injustice and Fury (1936) is one of the best. Spencer Tracy stars as Joe, a regular unassuming guy on his way to visit his girlfriend Kate (Sylvia Sidney). He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused for a crime he didn’t commit. Like M, this film explores the consequences of mob mentality. Fans of The Wizard of Oz (1939) will recognize Terry, aka Toto the dog, who plays Spencer Tracy’s trusty companion in Fury.
Fritz Lang made several WWII films both during the war and after. Man Hunt is one of the best. It stars Walter Pidgeon as a British sniper sent to kill Hitler. When his efforts are thwarted he’s hunted down by a Nazi Major (George Sanders) and finds an ally with city girl Jerry (Joan Bennett). There are some great performance including ones by Roddy McDowall and John Carradine. It’s worth watching along for the fantastic showdown between Pidgeon and Sanders.
Lang’s contributions to German Expressionism made him the perfect candidate for tackling Film Noir. One of the most universally acclaimed movies of the genre, The Big Heat, stars Glenn Ford as a police detective who takes on a mob syndicate. Lee Marvin plays the ruthless mob boss Vince Stone and Gloria Grahame delivers a stand-out performance as Debby, his wronged girlfriend. If you love good revenge movies, this is not one you’ll want to miss.
By the 1960s, Fritz Lang was retired as a film director, but he made an appearance in Jean Luc-Godard’s movie Contempt playing himself, monocle and all!
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past, or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.