Introductions to Great Film-makers Week Three: Fritz Lang

29 January 2010

It can be difficult getting to grips with the masters of cinema. Where in their vast canons do you start? Won’t it be boring? Do you really want to watch a lot of old films? At TCS Film we’re here to help introduce to the best ways to get into classic cinema…

Who is he?

Fritz Lang was the last of the great silent film directors and one of the most brilliant exopnents of German Expressionism…wait, wait, come back! After being forced to leave Germany in the 1930s, Lang went to Hollywood, where he became one of the most respected film noir directors.

Why should I watch his films?

German Expressionism might sound really boring, but Lang’s films are anything but. Throughout his career, Lang crafted a series of superb film noirs, mysteries, and psychological thrillers. Lang’s films are often brutal, cold, and uncompromising in their depictions of shadowy underworlds, but he was hugely popular throughout his career, both in Germany and America. Moreover, Lang also infused his works with the Expressionist style – a bewildering world of bizarre, futurist geometric environments, full of shadows – and put this style to terrfying and beautiful effect in these films.

Where to start:

M has aged better than perhaps any other film from the 1930s, when studios, actors, and directors were making the awkward transition from silent pictures to sound. M passed this test with flying colours, even making sound into a major plot point. It follows a city gripped by fear after the attack of a serial killer (who we hear eeriely whistling the Peer Gynt theme) to the extent that ordinary criminals begin to hunt for the killer. It’s a tense film, and Lang’s direction is superbly complemented by the excellent acting of Peter Lorre (as the murderer), Otto Wernicke (as the police chief), and the cast of criminals.

Where not to start:

Lang’s “masterpiece”, Metropolis, on the other hand, has not aged well. In part, that’s because several scenes are actually missing, which makes the plot somewhat incoherent. More than that though, the problem is with the film’s themes. While the film is beautifully shot and has some iconic, incredible sets, the plot and themes of class struggle being resolved through the power of love, as Lang himself later admitted, is simplistic and saccharine.

Next steps:

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear, The Big Heat, Rancho Notorious