In 1933, Fritz Lang found himself summoned for a meeting with
Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s propaganda minister. Goebbels
offered him the leadership of the German film industry, which
was to be mobilized in the service of Adolf Hitler’s societal
vision. Before the end of the year, Lang fled to the United States.
In some respects, Goebbels’ choice was an odd one. Fritz Lang was a force in German "Expressionist" cinema, which used stark light and shadow and a distinctive stylization of both the production design and human forms, transforming the outer world to reflect the (often grim) inner one. One could easily see the Nazis sneering at Expressionism as yet another example of the "degenerate art" they despised. Furthermore, Lang’s latest release, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse," had been banned for portraying an insane supercriminal’s reign of terror as an allegory for the Nazi regime.
Still, who else? Lang (1890-1976) was the foremost director working in Germany, a film artist with few peers for international renown. In the late silent era, he had helped lead his country’s cinema into a Golden Age, the only time in history when it truly competed with American movies. But the legacy of his years before Hollywood has been difficult to appreciate fully, as most of the work has long been seen in woefully incomplete versions.
BAM Rose Cinemas’ retrospective, "Fatal Passion: The German Cinema of Fritz Lang," running Nov. 1-28, represents a leap forward. The 10-film series focuses on landmark restorations of several classics. (Some of the prints are apparently so fresh they don’t yet have English subitles; the German will be translated live.) Six of the movies boast a remarkable amount of additional footage.
"The Nibelungen" (1924) is a two-part blockbuster based on the 13th century epic poem of Norse gods and heroes. The current U.S. video edition runs slightly over three hours total; the one showing at BAM comes to nearly five. (The two chapters, "Siegfried" and "Kriemhild’s Revenge," play on consecutive evenings, Nov. 8 and Nov. 9.) For not the first or last time, Lang took full advantage of the gargantuan resources of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA), Germany’s dominant studio - he and his designers created forests, mountains, rivers, castles and armies on the backlot, not to mention effects such as a fire-breathing dragon, all without a single mouse click.
The restoration is especially well-timed in light of the similarly ambitious "Lord of the Rings" screen trilogy coming up. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, an author who took inspiration from the same myths, should find the imagery and story elements familiar. This is to say nothing of opera goers who love Richard Wagner’s "Ring" cycle, a group which certainly included Hitler. Lang unintentionally won the rising demagogue’s favor with his mythic epic, which Hitler saw as reflecting his racial and cultural obsessions.
Always one to top himself, Lang came close to bankrupting UFA with "Metropolis" (1926), a science fiction allegory of oppression and rebellion, set in a futuristic city-state. It remains Lang’s most famous work. The monumental visuals exert an undying influence right up to "Blade Runner," "Batman" and Madonna’s "Express Yourself" music video.
Its theme of technology used to consolidate the power of the few over the many becomes more relevant with every passing year, despite the dated qualities of an often lugubrious scenario by Lang’s wife and frequent collaborator, Thea von Harbou. Paradoxically, its intended form has been even more unknowable than usual for Lang’s silents - it circulates in a bewildering array of different cuts. The restoration showing at BAM on Nov. 28 is the definitive one to date, though still short of an original that was perhaps in the neighborhood of three hours in length.
Such otherworldly visions may have made the filmmaker’s reputation, but the underworld was the enduring preoccupation of his career, right from his first commercial success with the 1919 serial "The Spiders" (not showing in the series). This was doubly true in Hollywood, where, without the creative control and behemoth budgets that he had at UFA, crime stories were his bread and butter. Lang was among the German expatriates who cast the shadow of Expressionism across American thrillers - a legacy which haunts the genre to this day.
Series opener "Spies" (1928), for example, is a major forerunner of countless movies about glamorous secret agents, seductive femmes fatale, megalomaniac archvillains, invisible inks, hidden passages and devious disguises. With all that to pack in, "Spies" admittedly feels a little cramped - but the restoration literally doubles the amount of footage and the film clocks in at 175 minutes.
Film historians are fond of reading premonitions of Germany’s future into Lang’s fondness for megalomaniacs. Certainly he created one of early cinema’s greatest in "Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler" (1922) - an endearingly understated way of referring to a man who uses hypnotism, extortion, disguise, and murder in his climb to power. ("Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler" Part 1 will be screened Nov. 15 and Part 2 on Nov. 16.) The epic two-parter a la "Nibelungen" spawned a sound sequel with the aforementioned "Testament of Dr. Mabuse" (1933), wherein the indefatigable doctor manages to control his criminal empire even from within an asylum cell, and eventually from beyond the grave. "Testament of Dr. Mabuse" will be screened Nov. 20.
By that time, of course, Lang was ahead of today’s critics, having made his own connections between the mad villain of his fiction and real ones even he would have scarcely dared imagine.
"Fatal Passion: The German Cinema of Fritz Lang" will be screened at BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) Nov. 1-28. For complete schedule of dates and times, go to www.bam.org. Tickets are $9, $6 for students and seniors. For more information, call (718) 636-4100.