1923. Germany. In the aftermath of the humiliating defeat in the War to End All Wars (later to be known as World War I) and the even more humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German economy inspires a new definition for the term...
Fritz Lang emerged as one of the finest directors working in Germany's film industry during the silent era, and would cement his reputation as one of the all-time greats thanks to his agile transition into sound film and career in Hollywood. Unfortunately, that Hollywood career was necessitated by a forced emigration, when Lang had to flee from the Nazis in the middle of the night.
Lang was born in Vienna in 1890, the son of an architect. After briefly studying architecture in Vienna, Lang dropped out to study painting in Munich and Paris. He'd spend his formative years traveling the world, only to end up back in Vienna near the outbreak of World War I. There, he was conscripted into the army and injured multiple times. It was during his convalescence that Lang took up writing crime fiction and screenplays, which he had some success selling.
He married his first wife Thea von Harbou in 1920, who was herself a popular crime fiction writer and who went on to co-write Lang's masterwork M with him. Lang started directing around this time, and made an international splash with the film The Tired Death. The special effects in that film would go on to be reused in Douglas Fairbanks's The Thier of Baghdad.
The period between the first and second world wars (the time-span for the reign of the Weimar Republic) saw Germany's film industry boom, and Lang was be central to it. During this time he made his popular Dr. Mabuse films as well as the innovative science fiction epic Metropolis, which flopped at the time but went on to be considered the first great science fiction feature.
He released his first sound film and magnum opus M in 1931, right around the time when the Weimar Republic was disintegrating and the Nazis were quickly gaining influence. His final film during this initial German stint, The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse, was immediately banned by the Nazi party for clearly challenging the party's leaders. Nonetheless Joseph Goebbels invited Lang to head the Nazi's film enterprise given Hitler's adoration of Metropolis. Lang accepted the position on the spot and then fled that night to Paris. His bank accounts were locked by the Nazi party and he lost all of his money. His wife Thea von Harbou stayed in Germany and became a Nazi collaborator throughout the war.
Lang quickly found work in Hollywood and directed a number of acclaimed films, including the film noir classics Fury and The Maltese Falcon. But many critics feel that Lang lost the spark during that Hollywood period, and over time his reputation for being difficult to work with would leave him with fewer and fewer fruitful connections for getting his films made. A tendency to try to steal away other men's wives and girlfriends didn't help his cause much either.
Lang eventually returned to Germany in the '50s to direct the last of his films, two more Dr. Mabuse entries. Those would be his last. After appearing as himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, he more or less fell off the film industry's map. He lived out his days in Beverly Hills, spending the money that he made during his career. This is where Lang passed away in 1976.
Study Guides on Works by Fritz Lang
M is one of the high watermarks of Fritz Lang's career, and more broadly of German cinema from the Weimar era between World Wars I and II. Co-written by the director Fritz Lang and his wife Tea von Harbou, M traces the story of a child murderer,...
The story of Metropolis is the result of one of those examples of the ineffable sparks of creative imagination capable of linking seemingly unconnected concepts. German film director Fritz Lang was sailing to American when the ship pulled into the...