A man for all seasons: Fritz Lang interviewed in 1967

Fritz Lang, the towering figure of German cinema’s golden era, talks to critic and biographer Axel Madsen about his life and times, and his long career in Germany, France and Hollywood.

Updated: 1 December 2023

By Axel Madsen

Fritz Lang photographed by Axel Madsen in California in 1967
Sight and Sound

At 76, he is a man for all seasons. To a growing number of cinephiles, Fritz Lang, who stumbled into films in 1916 and became the towering name of Germany’s haunting but brief Golden Era, is a many-splendoured figure of cinema history and, perhaps more important, of its rewrites.

This Viennese, who still sports the junker’s insolent monocle and knows more four-letter words than the Berlin cab-driving fraternity, has spent nearly half his life in America, but his vision has its origin in the atmosphere of a fallen Germany. He has never forgiven the Hitler folly, but Germans haven’t forgotten his exile and, like Marlene Dietrich, he is badly loved beyond the Rhine. To compensate and to justify, he has become Francophil, pilgrim of festivals and citizen of Beverly Hills. To a thinning circle of friends, he is a man of many moods, thoughts and beliefs, someone living intensely because these are the autumn years with their regrets of things left undone, but also someone at peace with the relativity of accomplishments. Lang doesn’t think highly of Man, but has indulgence for his arts. To him, the twentieth century is Dachau and Hiroshima more than it is Einstein, acceleration of knowledge and humanitarianism through abundance. Mankind’s history is written thicker in blood than in poetry, and notions of brotherhood and the approaching century will not necessarily mark man’s mutation to braver worlds or final solutions to needs and inequity.

This feature originally appeared in our Summer 1967 issue

While whirling down the Summit Ridge Drive on a starry night after an evening heavy with Langian philosophy and Lily Latte’s mousse au chocolat, I have wondered if his essentially apocalyptic view of man’s future, which seems so out of place in the Californian never never land, is eminently personal or the inevitable conclusion of a generation which twice saw the world go up in flames. Glittering their insolent denial below are the million and one lights of the Los Angeles basin, the toolshop where man’s most daring dreams are invented, blueprinted, mocked up, prototyped and turned into streaks into the blue yonder. The awesome Californian scientific community has written off the dire prophecies of Huxley, Orwell and their generation as obsolete fantasies of another era. But high above the lights in Benedict Canyon, where the Beverly Hills slope into the Santa Monica Mountains, sits Lang, a Goethian figure of splendid isolation, a man of other worlds and other times who has but forbearance for the self-confidence of the future planners below. Seeing me to the car after a long evening, he stops in the scented, semi-tropical night to look at a full moon. “It’s a night for evil spirits and prayers of unloved maidens,” he smiles softly.

But Lang is also here-and-now appetites and heated argument for argument’s sake. Tell him you think Metropolis is great and he will machine-gun you with staccato whys. Tell him you think that the episode of The Avengers he has insisted on seeing looks like a remake of a Die Spinnen episode, and he will ham up an answer to the effect that you are a perfect idiot only because you thought of it first. Lang hates adulation but blooms in bouncy conversation, good cigars and filial irreverence. Tell him you think a new era is dawning in American cinema and he will shut you up with a blunt “Name one great American film in the last 20 years.” You may stammer a couple of titles, but he will reiterate his question until you give up and are forced to admit that there aren’t any.

Fritz Lang (left) with cameramen Karl Vaß and Fritz Arno Wagner on the set of M (1931)

Georges Sadoul has written silly things about him, he says, but if historians misrepresent him, it is his own fault. An untiring talker, Lang reacts as much as he acts and his answers are coloured by the context, the tone and repartie of a conversation. Ask him cold his opinion of Le Mépris and he will come up with a neat and lofty defence of Jean-Luc Godard’s integrity; but put the same question to him some time later in a flow of pleasant after-dinner chatter and he will make a plea for creators’ right to failures. He will add sarcastic afterthoughts about the vicissitudes of film-making, conjure up examples from his vast storehouse of anecdotes, and gracefully floor you with cynical portraits of persons you thought would be sacred cows even to him. Lang’s best audience and living encyclopedia when stories have to be authenticated or fleshed out with detail is Miss Latte, a former Berlin writer, with whom he has shared his life for the last 30 years. “Mickey,” he will call out in her direction, “isn’t it true Harry Cohn nearly didn’t want me to direct The Big Heat because I showed up with glasses and he found me less authoritarian than when wearing my monocle?” Lily will confirm the story and sometimes add a punchline he has forgotten.

Lang has the emigre passion for intrigue, but he has no taboos, only subjects he doesn’t care to dwell upon. One is his brief association with Bertolt Brecht in World War II Hollywood. Brecht was a haughty latecomer in the cautious German-speaking colony, arriving from his Scandinavian exile in 1941, and it was only because of an impassioned plea from Lion Feuchtwanger that the refugee playwright got the bread-and-butter writing job on Hangmen Also Die! (1942), the blatant propaganda picture both Lang and Brecht soon repudiated. Brecht had only contempt for cinema in general and for the Hangmen assignment in particular, but Lang manages to excuse his erstwhile screenwriter.

Hangmen Also Die! (1942)

“Brecht got a raw deal here. There were endless fights with producers and so on,” is about all Lang will say. If pressed, he will add that their acquaintance was casual, that Brecht’s Santa Monica house was a weird place full of emigres forever playing chess, that the Feuchtwangers, critic Eric Bentley, the composers’ nucleus of the German colony, and, towards the end of the war, Charles Laughton, were his friends and that he himself is no Brecht fan. “I mean François Villon did all that five hundred years ago, n’est-ce pas?”

Money is another realm Lang doesn’t care about. Lang is not unmindful of the need for commercial pictures and has made his share. A majority of his American pictures have been box-office failures and he has developed a thick hide and clever phrases against pecuniary considerations. His enemies, and they are numerous, say his wife’s jewellery financed his 1933 exodus; others have it that he left behind a fortune accumulated as Germany’s top director. None of his last pictures were successes, but he lives in frugal comfort.

Germany is a vast subject. Lang made his last three films – Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur), Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1958), Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, 1960) – in Germany. His return in 1957 was welcome and the German press only soured on him after the costly Tiger and Indian Tomb duo – advance-billed as surefire launching pads for a resurrected German cinema – turned out to be box-office failures.

The city of Berlin has honoured Lang and the West German government decorated him in 1963 (France made him ‘officier des arts et lettres’ two years later), but another instance of German officialdom has teased old wounds. Lang was a jury member at the 1966 Rio de Janeiro festival and because he sneaked to the men’s room during the screening of Michael Pfleghar’s Serenade für zwei Spione, a storm was kicked up with embassy queries for an explanation of his ‘snubbing’ of the official West German entry. “Hitchcock claims a film’s length should be related to the endurance of the human bladder,” he sighs after telling me the story.

Lang has not yet seen any examples of ‘Bubi’s Kino’ (vs. ‘Papi’s Kino’; Bavarian slang for boy’s cinema versus ‘cinema de papa’). Alexander Kluge (Abschied von Gestern) was an assistant on The Indian Tomb. Lang knows about Der junge Toerless and is happy that Volker Schlöndorff has been able to sign a six-film contract with Universal. He gleefully rubs his hands when told that Hansjurgen Pohland’s filmisation of Gunter Grass’s Katz und Maus has become a political issue in Bonn because of its irreverent treatment of yesteryear’s master symbols, but shakes his head in disbelief at the Berlin entrepreneur Arthur Brauner’s folly of remaking Die Niebelungen.

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924)

“These young Germans are frightfully insolent, but so were we. However, they lack self-discipline. Eckelkamp told me one of these boys came to him with a project, saying he would die if he wasn’t able to make it. Eckelkamp thought of the French wave and decided to produce it. After five weeks shooting and a million marks, the young man came to Eckelkamp and said he was sorry but he had lost his feel for it and wouldn’t be able to finish the film.”

Lang is instinctively with ‘Bubi’s Kino’ and has no ready-made explanation for Germany’s failure to spawn a second Golden Era as fertile and explosive as Berlin’s festival of the arts after World War I. He feels one reason could be a lack of producers with vision. “There are no Erich Pommers these days. Some say Pommer destroyed UFA; he said UFA destroyed him. I really don’t know, but he was a bitter man to the end,” Lang sighs. “Producers want to be sure their films make it, but nothing is sure. Even death; I sometimes wonder. “

If the Serenade für zwei Spione affair sticks uncomfortably in Lang’s throat, he admits anti-German anthologies such as Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler are unreadable today; and he finds there is something sick in U.S. television’s perpetual harping on World War II violence with series such as Rat Patrol, Combat, Jericho and Hogan’s Heroes. “But how can you imagine a country with 800 years of blood-drenched history becoming a model democracy overnight?” he asked me once with an expression that hesitated between anger and irony. More seriously, he admitted that the legendary heaviness and yearnings for netherworlds of the Teutonic soul are overworked cliches, and that no nation has any monopoly on cruelty. “What this country needs is perhaps an atomic war to learn to be human,” he added as a dark afterthought.

“The History of German Cinema is yet to be written and it won’t be Enno Patalas and the Filmkritik clique that will do it. But Sadoul has also written silly things about German cinema and me. What? Taking the sentence ‘We are all descendants of Cain’ out of one of my early films, he concludes that the all-obsessive theme of my life is guilt. I’m interested in other things also – in what happens to my characters. That’s why I don’t think Antonioni is very healthy for the younger generation, because his pictures say that there is nothing to hope for.”

But if Antonioni feels negativism is the message today?

“No. Film is too vast a medium for self-indulgence. It’s a dangerous tool and you must be responsible when you use it.”

You’re limiting cinema, then?

“And why not? I still think that the struggle is the important thing in life, even more important than goals. Brutality is permissible – dramatically. People no longer believe in hell and brimstone, or even in retribution, but they fear physical pain; so brutality is a necessary ingredient in dramatic development and denouement, as I’ve said before. But to tell people there is nothing – no.”

Destiny (1921)

The son of Paula (nee Schlesinger) and Anton Lang, a prominent Vienna architect, Fritz is a graduate art student, painter and caricaturist making his first steps in Munich and Paris bohemia when the shot rings out from Sarajevo. Arrested by French authorities as an ‘enemy alien’, he manages to escape and to reach Vienna, where he is drafted into the Imperial Austrian Army. He serves on the Western Front, becomes a lieutenant and nearly loses his right eye when a shell explodes 50 feet from him. Evacuated to Germany, he sees a Max Reinhardt show for injured servicemen, plays in a Red Cross revue and feels the performing arts are to be his life. During a lengthy convalescence, he starts to write playlets and simple scenarios and in 1916, Joe May cranks out a two-reeler from a Lang scenario. At the end of the war, Lang mingles with Berlin’s demobilised artists. He soon gravitates toward cinema, newly discovered by dadaism and expressionism, meets Pommer, producer at DECLA (Deutsche Eclair) and works as a reader of scripts. He marries Thea von Harbou, already a well-known writer of thrillers. Together they collaborate on scripts. Pommer encourages Lang’s directing ambitions, and in 1919 Lang makes his first picture (after his own scenario), Halb Blut (Hal/breed), an exotic latter-day Madame Butterfly allegory.

Von Harbou, whom Lang divorced in 1934, has had a profound influence on the Golden Era, not only as the writer of her husband’s big silent movies but also as screenwriter for Murnau, Ewald Dupont and others. She never leaves the country and continues her career under the Nazi regime and through the post-war era, writing for Veit Harlan, Josef von Baky, Gerhard Lamprecht and others.

With Pommer producing and his wife writing, Lang makes three Die Spinnen serials, starring a fearless character named Kay Hoog, who is a cross between Judex and a Teutonic Dorian Gray forever fighting a secret, world-wide crime syndicate called The Spiders with headquarters in a Central American jungle. (Philippe de Broca pays tongue-in-cheek homage to The Spiders by ending L’Homme de Rio in a similar way-out decor with the same two-dimensional characters.) Lang specialises in exotica and makes a half- dozen small pictures laid in faraway lands, and follows up with Der müde Tod, a tale of romantic necrophilia in which Death allows two lovers to live their destiny over again three times; and, in 1922, the smash hit Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler.

UFA absorbs Deutsche Eclair and gets Pommer and Lang in the bargain. Die Niebelungen, which makes Lang world-famous, is a UFA double-feature taking seven months to shoot during 1923-24. It is a national monument to Germania and expressionistic architecture in which an Aryan Siegfried, loved by a long-tressed Kriemhild, rides through colossal, half-medieval, half-cubist sets to express primitive guilt, wrath and vengeance and foretell Wagnerian doom.

In 1925, Lang comes to America, stays eight weeks in Hollywood and on his return says he was “unbelievably impressed.” While on the boat waiting for the quarantine officers, he glimpses the Manhattan skyline and begins to plan a vast fable of the future.

Spione (1928)

The making of Metropolis, with its gigantic sets and cast of thousands, nearly ruins UFA, but the film impresses the German public and is widely discussed abroad. Picking up the Mabuse theme again, Lang makes Spione (1928), a story of a master criminal turning into a kind of Dr. Strangelove. The film is a hit, but Frau im Mond (1928), a science fiction yarn featuring a quite credible rocket trip to the moon, doesn’t impress. In 1931, Lang makes his first talkie, M, his most famous and, to himself, best film. Like so many Germans of the period, he is a profound romanticist, fascinated by cruelty, fear and horror. He personally knows and studies a number of murderers, including the notorious child slayer of Dusseldorf. M, based on this almost clinical interest, arouses comment all over the world.

German exhibitors beg Lang for another Mabuse picture. He is himself looking for some way in which to show his distaste for Hitler and his Brownshirts and makes Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, the story of a mad scientist. Lang places Nazi philosophies in the mouth of the madman and the film is banned. The new regime is ready, however, to make allowances for Germany’s best known filmmaker, and Propaganda Minister Goebbels offers a leading post in the soon-to-be reorganised industry to Lang just before he leaves the country. In Paris, he adapts fellow Austro-Hungarian Franz Molnar’s Liliom with moderate success. David 0. Selznick, then vice-president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is visiting Paris and signs up the director.

Lang spends a long year in Culver City watching and learning English, and makes his American debut with Fury, an indictment of lynch law and mob rule with a front office- imposed ending, which is universally praised when released in 1936. After Fury, Lang leaves M-G-M and begins to freelance. You Only Live Once (1937) is a bitter tragedy of a young couple dogged by the police, and You and Me (1938) again stresses the responsibility of society to prisoners and ex-convicts. All this time Lang is studying American ways, and makes long trips through Nevada, Arizona and Navajo territories, leading to his pair of Westerns for Darryl Zanuck – The Return of Frank James (1940), with Henry Fonda in the title role, and Western Union (1941). Time magazine says of the latter that it has “the same swift pace and scenic beauty that distinguished John Ford’s Stagecoach.”

Scarlet Street (1945)

Between Pearl Harbour and VJ Day, Lang makes Man Hunt (1941), the story of a renowned English big-game hunter (Walter Pidgeon) who goes out to kill his biggest game; Hangmen Also Die, inspired by the slaying in a Prague street of Hitler’s Czechoslovakia Kommandant Reinhard Heydrich; The Ministry of Fear (1943), a Graham Greene adaptation starring Ray Milland; The Woman in the Window (1943) with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, and Scarlet Street (1945). After two 1946 policiers, Cloak and Dagger and The Secret Beyond the Door, Lang directs in 1949 House by the River and the next year the war movie American Guerrillas in the Philippines.

His next is his third and best Western, Rancho Notorious (screenplay by Daniel Taradash), followed by an adaptation of Clifford Odets’s Clash by Night (1951), the Anne Baxter-Richard Conte thriller Blue Gardenia, and the very successful The Big Heat with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. His last four American films are Human Desire, an adaptation of Zola’s La Bete Humaine, the Niebelungen-accented Moonfleet (both in 1954) and the cheaply made, tightly constructed thrillers While the City Sleeps (1955) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

The majority of the last dozen pictures are box-office failures, and in 1957 Lang returns to Germany at Brauner’s invitation to recoup. For CCC Films in Berlin he makes two costly Eastern epics-remakes of his ex-wife’s Tiger from Eschnapur novel (von Harbou had died in 1954) and of Joe May’s 1921 serial The Indian Tomb; but these attempts at resurrecting the past are commercial disasters. “The world of these films had died with their public,” wrote Filmkritik, “and the missing dialogue with the sound screen … paralyses all bravura.” In 1960, Lang makes his 43rd and, to date, last film – The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, a moderate box-office success. In 1963, he plays himself in Godard’s haunting big-budget fiasco Le Mepris, writing most of his own lines himself.

Lang shies away from questions about future plans, usually saying that he is superstitious about announcing projects but managing to imply that something is pending. Recently, he wondered aloud to me if he shouldn’t imitate his neighbour Jean Renoir and tell whatever he has to say on paper rather than try to mount a production. “The medium really doesn’t matter as long as you can express yourself,” he sighed.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)

Who is Mabuse? If the question is put to Lang, he will squash all notions of transcendency, philosophy or of a Germanic ‘Ubermensch’ figure. “The 1922 Dr. Mabuse was a routine adaptation of Norbert Jacques’ thriller,” he says. “It grew out of its time. Germany was a place where every type of excess was encountered and the film reflected the inflationary hysteria, the anarchistic streak, the despair and vices of the time. The public loved it, as they did The Spy. Now, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse 11 years later was of course a veiled commentary on Nazism. The original of The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse was a newspaper article describing an experimental U.S. Army bullet that leaves no marks, and I wanted to make a brutal and realistic picture.

“In the original film, I had left Mabuse in a madhouse and I hesitated to bring him out again when Seymour Nebenzal thought we could make a pile of money in 1932. I saw the possibilities of snide commentaries with this story of a director of a lunatic asylum hypnotised by his patient. It was rather sophisticated, but Goebbels banned it on March 29, 1933 even before any trade screenings were held. Goebbels apologised and told me that he and Hitler had seen M together in a small-town moviehouse and they wanted me to make films for them.”

Jean Domarchi has formulated nebulous theories to the effect that Lang’s American movies are superior to his Berlin output. Lang refuses to cleave his work nationally but acknowledges that the 1920s were his most creative and independent years. He rather likes his three Westerns and tells how an Arizona old-timer wrote him that Western Union was the most authentic Western he had seen. Lang was to have made a fourth Western in 1950, Winchester ‘73, but after his option on Stuart N. Lake’s novel expired, Universal assigned Anthony Mann to direct it.

Lang has no love for the U.S. film industry and says he would never again make a Hollywood picture. Retrospectively, however, he admires the iron fists of ‘czars’ like Cohn and Mayer. “Hollywood exists only to make money. I haven’t seen an American picture in years that I would like to see again and that’s some sort of guideline for me. I hate over-dialogued cinema and that’s where America is right now. I have seen a lot of TV recently, for reasons… anyway, TV is awful, it’s like looking at a play with opera glasses.”

To Lang, directing is applied psychology and a good director is simply a good analyst. “The power of the screen has always been its intimacy– at least up to CinemaScope, which I hate. The director would command an audience to see only what he regarded as dramatically important. He used the close-up to say something without distractions. But Godard never uses any close-ups, which is contradictory since he and his contemporaries are interested in form. I’m more interested in content, I must confess, but something does come out of the form-over-content thinking.”

Le Mépris (1963) production shot

Lang cites the Jack Palance-Brigitte Bardot fatal car accident in Le Mepris as a revealing example of the generation gap. “Now, we would have shown the whole thing – the car at high speed, whining tires, impact, all those things – but Godard is more interested in what the accident does to the story, the surviving characters. His interest is in the consequences of things. There is a great difference in work methods also. My generation, when we started in the silent era, had to think in terms of action. We created pictures in motion. Godard, who is very consistent, goes to great pains to continue our work. Our methods are different, of course. I come to a studio in the morning knowing what I want. I don’t change.

“Sound is rarely used dramatically these days and yet the world is becoming auditive, Easternising itself. Our civilisation is moving away from the visual toward the auditive. The visual is the only sense that gives us detachment, objectivity, rationality. All the other senses are irrational, discontinuous and disconnected, especially sound. We’re Easternising ourselves…”

Lang thinks Metropolis is pretty bad today (“that shot of Eric Masterman holding back the man-sized hands of the clock is really too much, isn’t it?”), but he doubts whether a new Metropolis could be made, whether there is really anything new to say. “All right, so man has to live with the machine,” he says with an annoyed gesture of helplessness. “Is that a message today? He still has to live with himself first.”

Lang can make an eloquent plea for youth and on more than one occasion has gone out of his way to help young Europeans coming to Hollywood. I have seen him spend an hour painstakingly composing and rewriting a letter of recommendation for a young German trying to break the union barrier, gallantly offering to say the youth was his assistant on his latest picture if it would help.

Lang thinks the Californian university youth with its generosity and golden insouciance is beautiful, as are its revolts, but he has a father’s apprehension for its future. “They shouldn’t fight their parents’ battles although it’s hard for us to admit,” he smiles. “Let’s not diminish their birth-right.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 4 August 2020