Fritz Lang

Doing our best to perpetuate the world of Internet polling, the moderators over at Masters of Cinema will be seeking votes for DVD of the Year. We won’t be tallying actual votes for a couple of months, but you may wish to start thinking about which disc you’ll pick. The DVD can be from anywhere in the world but must have been released sometime in 2003, and note: this award is not for the DVD with the most extras, but for the most important DVD release of the year.

While you’re there be sure and take a look at Nick Wrigley’s review of Eureka’s new Region 2 special edition release of Fritz Lang‘s M (1931), the landmark crime thriller that followed soon after Lang’s Metropolis (1927). European and Japanese viewers–as well as those with all-region DVD players–won’t want to miss this extraordinary 2-disc set, which features a newly restored print and many extras.

This also seems like an opportune time to plug a recent acquisition of mine, the formidable coffee table book Fritz Lang: His Life and Work, Pictures and Documents published by the Filmmuseum Berlin in 2001. Large format, hardback, and over 500 pages long, it’s a small workout to carry it from my bookshelf, but it fortunately offers hefty content as well.

Written in German, with included English and French translations, the tome offers a meticulously researched examination of Lang’s biography (1890-1976). Illustrated with a wide assortment of large photographs–from Lang’s Vienna birth certificate to sketches he made in the trenches of World War I revealing enemy positions, to storyboards and personal letters–the book functions as a lavish collection of memorabilia. One learns the details of Lang’s college enrollment, his military promotions, the mysterious evidence surrounding the death of his first wife in 1920 (shot in the chest in their home, her death certificate merely declares her death an “accident”), and even reveals documents of the FBI’s surveillance of Lang in America. Among other details:

Lang had a weakness for stuffed monkeys. His first one was probably a present from Gerda Maurus in Berlin. Even in production stills, a monkey can often be seen perched on a camera . . . Lang had a rather touchingly tender, sentimentally boyish relationship to Peter the Monkey: he took him with him on trips, put him to bed, dressed him up and posed in pictures with him. In the countless letters he exchanged with his lifelong friend Eleanor RosÈ, there are many passages devoted to Peter: for example, greetings from him for Magali, Eleanor RosÈ’s favorite cat; or letters directly addressed to Peter or “written” by Peter to Eleanor. “Peter sends his warmest regards. He is meditating a great deal and enjoying the California sun. He loves martinis, smokes a long pipe now and again, and has taken to chewing gum. He sends his compliments to Magali and wishes her the best.” (Fritz Lang to Eleanor RosÈ, July 30, 1963, Filmmuseum Berlin archives.)

But such information functions more than anecdotally. Lang exhibited a fondness for tall tales and personal elaborations which make it difficult to separate the man from the myth. His most famous story–one recounted in film books for years–involved a fateful encounter between Lang and Goebbels in March of ’33 when the Minister of Propaganda purportedly asked him to oversee the Nazi film industry, which ostensibly provoked Lang’s flight from Germany that very night. In fact, Lang was the only witness to this encounter and the incident never appears in Goebbels’ diary. There is also evidence to suggest Lang continued to visit Germany at least until July ’33.

The book also offers an informative examination of Lang’s artistic career. For M, it provides an essay Lang wrote on the film (“Anyone who makes the effort to read closely the newspaper reports about major homicide cases of the past few years…will find a strange similarity of events in most instances”), a critical jousting match between Gabriele Tergit and Rudolph Arnheim, a description of how the Nazis appropriated the film for anti-Semitic propaganda, a historical account of police procedures (including the new use of fingerprinting), and a description of the German debate on capital punishment during the early-’30s.

In short, this is a highly informative and picaresque journey through the life of a cinematic giant, both a historical record and a substantial tribute.

Those interested in delving into Lang’s extraordinary work shouldn’t pass up three DVD restorations, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis, as well as many other Lang films offered on DVD and VHS. Senses of Cinema offers an essay on his life and career, here. Kino International offers a website devoted to their theatrical rerelease of Metropolis, here.