Fritz Lang

From New World Encyclopedia

Fritz Lang
Date of birth: December 5 1890(1890-12-05)
Birth location: Austria-Hungary flag 1869-1918.svg Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Date of death: August 2 1976 (aged 85)
Death location: Flag of the United States.svg Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, United States
Spouse: Lisa Rosenthal (?1919 - 1921)
Thea von Harbou (August 26, 1922 - April 26, 1933)
Lily Latté (1971 - 1976)

Friedrich Christian Anton "Fritz" Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an Austrian-German-American film director, screenwriter and occasional film producer, one of the best known émigrés from Germany's school of Expressionism. His most famous films are the groundbreaking Metropolis (the world's most expensive silent film at the time of its release) and M, made before he moved to the United States. After emigrating to America he made more than 20 films. His American films are often credited with being the forerunners or founders of film noir, an important genre of American movies. Lang was known for an imperious personal style as well as his significant contributions to the development of both European and Hollywood cinema.

Early life and career

Friedrich Lang was born in Vienna on December 5, 1890 in the former Austria-Hungary. He was born into a family of wealth, to Anton Lang (August 1, 1860–1940), an architect and construction company manager, and Pauline "Paula" Schlesinger (July 26, 1864–1920). He was the second of two sons (his brother Adolf was nearly seven years older). Both his father and his mother were practicing Roman Catholics, although his mother was born Jewish and only converted to Catholicism when Fritz was ten.[1] Lang himself was baptized at the Schottenkirche in Vienna.

After finishing high school, Lang briefly attended the Technical University of Vienna, where he studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to see the world, traveling throughout Europe and, he claimed, Africa and later Asia and the Pacific area. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, France. The next year, he returned home to Vienna at the outbreak of the First World War. In January of 1914 he was drafted into service in the Austrian army, fighting in Russia and Romania during World War I where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries and shell shock in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films. He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at Decla, Erich Pommer's Berlin-based production company.

His writing stint was brief, as Lang soon started to work as a director at the German film studio Ufa, and later Nero-Film, just as the German Expressionist movement was building. (See the article Expressionism.) In this first phase of his career, Lang alternated between art films such as Der Müde Tod (Destiny, literally "Tired Death") and populist thrillers such as Die Spinnen (Spiders), combining popular genres with Expressionist techniques to create an unprecedented synthesis of popular entertainment with art cinema. In Der Müde Tod Lang rose above the pulp-film genres of his day and suggested the brilliant career that would follow. The story concerns a young woman bargaining with Death for the life of her beloved. It consists of three lavishly costumed episodes of tragic and forbidden love. Death agrees to spare her beau if she can save one of the lovers who is supposed to to die in each of the historical settings.

In 1920, Lang met his future wife, the writer and actress Thea von Harbou. She and Lang co-wrote the scripts for 1922's Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), which ran four hours in two parts in the original version and was the first in the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, 1924's Die Nibelungen, the famed 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, and the 1931 classic, M, his first "talking" picture.

Career in Nazi Germany

Many of the rumors and claims about Lang's life and career are hard to verify, including perhaps the most famous of all. According to Lang's story about it, Joseph Goebbels called Lang to his offices for a meeting in which he gave Lang two pieces of news: the first was that his most recent film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933) was being banned as an incitement to public disorder. The second was that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang's abilities as a filmmaker, he was offering Lang a position as the head of German film studio UFA (an offer that was later given to and accepted by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl). Lang had been, unbeknownst to Goebbels, already planning to leave Germany for Paris, but the meeting with Goebbels ran so long that the banks were closed by the time it finished, and Lang fled that night without his money, not to return until after the war.

The problem is that many portions of the story cannot be checked, and of those that can, most are contradicted by the evidence. Lang actually left Germany with most of his money, unlike most refugees, and made several return trips later in the same year. There were of course no witnesses to the meeting besides Goebbels and Lang, but Goebbels's appointment books, when they refer to the meeting, mention only the banning of Testament. No evidence has been discovered in any of Goebbels's writings to affirm the suggestion that he was planning to offer Lang any position. Whatever the truth of this story, it is known that Lang did in fact leave Germany in 1934 and moved to Paris, where he filmed a version of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom, starring Charles Boyer. This was Lang's only film in French (not counting the French version of Testament.) He then went to the United States.

The barest outline of this story is presented as fact in Jean-Luc Godard's film Contempt (1963), in which the aging Lang appeared as himself.

Lang's wife Thea von Harbou had started to sympathize with the Nazis in the early 1930s and stayed behind. She joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in 1932, leading to a divorce the following year. Dorothy Parker is said to have once commented, "There's a man who got where he is by the sweat of his Frau," implying that Thea von Harbou was actually responsible for much of Lang's success.

Metropolis, M and his life in America

Although some consider Lang's work to be simple melodrama, he produced a coherent oeuvre that helped to establish the characteristics of film noir, with its recurring themes of psychological conflict, paranoia, fate and moral ambiguity. His work influenced filmmakers as disparate as Jacques Rivette and William Friedkin.

In 1931, between Metropolis and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, Lang directed what many film scholars consider to be his masterpiece: M, a disturbing story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre in his first starring role) who is hunted down and brought to trial by Berlin's criminal underworld.

"M" presented a theme that obsessed Lang: sympathy for the compulsive criminal. "I always made films," he once said, "about characters who struggled and fought against the circumstances and traps in which they found themselves." M also began Lang's campaign against the death penalty. In the film, Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, the child murderer, whistles Edvard Grieg's “Hall of the Mountain King” when he contemplates his next murder; he is identified by a blind man who recognizes the murderer because of this song and writes an "M" in chalk on the back of his coat. The child murderer, cornered by the other underworld figures of the city because his murders are bringing out the police in great force and thus threatening their criminal livelihood, pleads insanity before them, claiming that he is helpless in his compulsion. This performance by Lorre is one of the most noteworthy in all of film.

M remains a powerful work; it was remade in 1951 by Joseph Losey, but this version had little impact on audiences, and has become harder to see than the original film.

Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Lang joined the MGM studio and directed the impressive crime drama Fury. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939. Lang made 21 features in the next 21 years, working in a variety of genres at every major studio in Hollywood, occasionally producing his films as an independent. These films, often compared unfavorably by contemporary critics to Lang's earlier works, have since been reevaluated as integral to the emergence and evolution of American genre cinema, film noir in particular. During this period, his visual style simplified (owing in part to the constraints of the Hollywood studio system) and his worldview became increasingly pessimistic, culminating in the cold, geometric style of his last American films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957).

One of his most famous film noirs is the police drama The Big Heat, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin. Noted for its uncompromising brutality, it is famous for a scene in which Marvin throws scalding coffee on his mistress's (played by Grahame) face, after he becomes enraged at her sympathetic attentions to Glenn Ford. (Ford plays a cop out for revenge after a car bomb meant for him, and planted by the mob, kills his beloved wife instead.)

Lang as a director and person

Lang epitomized the stereotype of the tyrannical, hard to work with German film director such as Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger. During the climactic final scene in M, he allegedly threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs in order to give more authenticity to Lorre's battered look. He even wore a monocle, an affectation he seems to have picked up in Vienna, that added to the stereotype. Both in Germany and the United States, he was one of the most personally disliked directors; this hurt him at times, especially in Hollywood, because some actresses and actors would refuse to work with him.

Lang was an avid collector of primitive art.

Lisa Rosenthal, Lang's first wife, committed suicide in 1921 by shooting herself in the chest. Little else is known about her; she was apparently a Russian Jew from Vilnius. However, it was and is believed by some that her suicide was perhaps brought on by the discovery of an affair her husband may have been having with his "friend," Thea von Harbou, whom he married about a year later. It has also been suggested that Lang shot his wife himself, in order to marry von Harbou. In all likelihood, though, the latter story was nothing more than a nasty rumor that spread easily simply due to Lang's bad reputation in Hollywood. According to some documents, 1919 may have been the year Lang wed her.

Late work and death

During the 1950s, Lang found it harder to find congenial production conditions in Hollywood and his advancing age left him less inclined to grapple with American backers. The German producer, Artur Brauner, expressed an interest in remaking not only The Indian Tomb (a story that Lang had developed in the twenties that was ultimately taken from him by studio heads and directed instead by Joe May) but Lang's earlier Doctor Mabuse pictures.

Fearing that Brauner would proceed with or without his assent, Lang abandoned his plans for retirement and, at the end of the 1950s, returned to Germany in order to make his Indian Epic, which is regarded as a masterpiece by a number of film scholars today. Following the production, Brauner was ready to proceed with his remake of Das Testament des Doctor Mabuse when Lang approached him with the idea of adding another original film to the series. The result was Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), made in a hurry and with a relatively small budget. It can be viewed as the marriage between the director's early experiences with expressionist techniques in Germany as well as the spartan style already visible in his late American work. Lang was approaching blindness during the production, making it his final project. Returning to the United States in retirement, he continued collecting research material and drafting screenplays, though he never made another film.

Lang never publicly acknowledged his older brother Adolf (or "Dolf"), who was born March 19, 1884. Nothing else is known about him except the fact that he was shorter than Fritz (he was 5' 11" while his brother was 6') and that he took no interest in artistic pursuits, and in time became a staid businessman like his father, a bank manager. It is not clear whether he married or had children.

After Lang's divorce from von Harbou, he had relationships with many other women; he was a ladies' man who was also accustomed to a lavish lifestyle.

In 1964, when he was nearly blind, Lang was president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1971, Lang wed his long-time girlfriend Lily Latté (1891-1984). They met in 1926 while Latté was Lang's personal secretary. After Lang fled Germany she followed him in his campaigns against the Nazis and they soon became engaged. The wedding was so secret that there were no official documents. The marriage lasted until Lang's death. He died in 1976 and was interred in the Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.


Metropolis and M demonstrated that Lang was no minor talent, but a great and visionary one. Those two films are still part of the canon of greatest films in history. Metropolis is a huge film constructed on a scale so massive that it still often provokes astonishment; it cost so much to make that it did not recoup its investment. It also influenced a lot of subsequent science fiction film, such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

While his career had ended without fanfare, his American and later German works were championed by the critics of the Cahiers du Cinema, especially Jean-Luc Godard who later cast Lang in Le Mépris, in addition to considerable critical adulation in the US from critics such as Peter Bogdanovich.

A noteworthy piece of trivia is that all of Lang's films feature a shot of his hand. Alfred Hitchcock would later follow Lang's ritual with cameo appearances in his films.


  • The Half Castle (Halbblut) (1919)
  • Spiders, Part 1: The Golden Lake (Die Spinnen, 1. Teil: Der Goldene See) (1919)
  • Harakiri (Madame Butterfly) (1919)
  • The Plague in Florence (Die Pest in Florenz) (1919)
  • Master of Love (Der Herr der Liebe) (1919)
  • Spiders, Part 2: The Diamond Ship (Die Spinnen, 2. Teil: Das Brillantenschiff) (1920)
  • The Wandering Image (Das Wandernde Bild) (1920)
  • Destiny (Released in Germany as Der mūde Tod. The German title means "the weary death") (1921)
  • Four Around a Woman (Vier um die Frau) (1921)
  • Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler) (1922)
  • Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried) (1924)
  • Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge (Die Nibelungen: Kriemhelds Rache) (1924)
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • Spione (Spies) (1928)
  • Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) (1929)
  • M (1931)
  • The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (1933)
  • Liliom (1934)
  • Fury (1936)
  • You Only Live Once (1937)
  • You and Me (1938)
  • The Return of Frank James (1940)
  • Western Union (1941)
  • Man Hunt (1941)
  • Confirm or Deny (1941) (uncredited)
  • Moontide (1942) (uncredited)
  • Hangmen Also Die (1943)
  • Ministry of Fear (1944)
  • The Woman in the Window (1944)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • Cloak and Dagger (1946)
  • Secret Beyond the Door (1948)
  • House by the River (1950)
  • American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • Clash by Night (1952)
  • The Blue Gardenia (1953)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • Human Desire (1954)
  • Moonfleet (1955)
  • While the City Sleeps (1956)
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957)
  • The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) (1959)
  • Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, or: Journey to the Lost City) (1959)
  • The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse) (1960)

In Fiction

  • Fritz Lang was a minor character in the Fullmetal Alchemist movie. The protagonist, Edward Elric, confused him with the homunculus Pride, who was one of the central villains of the series. When he was introduced, he said his name was Mabuse, but his true name was finally revealed near the end.


  1. The Religious Affiliation of Director Fritz Lang,, 2005. Retrieved December 21, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Armour, Robert A. Fritz Lang. Boston: Twayne Pub, 1978. ISBN 0805792597
  • Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. New York: Praeger, 1967. ISBN 0289796040
  • Eisner, Lotte H. Fritz Lang. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1986. ISBN 0306802716
  • Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. ISBN 0060156260
  • Humphries, Reynold. Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. ISBN 0801836999
  • Kaplan, E. Ann. Fritz Lang, A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981. ISBN 0816180350
  • Lang, Fritz. Fritz Lang: Interviews. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. ISBN 1578065763
  • McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. ISBN 0312132476
  • Youngkin, Stephen D. The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre.  University Press of Kentucky, 2005. ISBN 0813123607

External links

All links retrieved April 15, 2024.


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