Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

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by Patrick McGilligan

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The name of Fritz Lang—the visionary director of Metropolis, M, Fury, The Big Heat, and thirty other unforgettable films—is hallowed the world over. But what lurks behind his greatest legends and his genius as a filmmaker? Patrick McGilligan, placed among “the front rank of film biographers” by the Washington


The name of Fritz Lang—the visionary director of Metropolis, M, Fury, The Big Heat, and thirty other unforgettable films—is hallowed the world over. But what lurks behind his greatest legends and his genius as a filmmaker? Patrick McGilligan, placed among “the front rank of film biographers” by the Washington Post, spent four years in Europe and America interviewing Lang’s dying contemporaries, researching government and film archives, and investigating the intriguing life story of Fritz Lang. This critically acclaimed biography—lauded as one of the year’s best nonfiction books by Publishers Weekly—reconstructs the compelling, flawed human being behind the monster with the monocle.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"As definitive a Lang as we are likely to get: entertaining, appalling, persuasive." —Steven Bach, L.A. Weekly Literary Supplement

"A beast Lang certainly was. . . . McGilligan, with ferocious research and a touch of wonder—throughout, he seems to be shaking his head in fascination—spreads [his] elements before us: the quasi-diabolist artist, the sadistic perfectionist with his actors, the fervent devotee of truth, the twister of facts, the elegant immoralist, the indefatigable amorist, the disturbing seer into the giant maladies of his epoch. McGilligan’s passion and thoroughness make his Lang biography a permanent resource." —Stanley Kauffmann, New York Times Book Review

Steven Bach
As definitive a Lang as we are likely to get: entertaining, appalling, persuasive. -- L.A. Weekly Literary Supplement
Mamoun Hassan
[A] brilliant biography...McGilligan's book will stand as the definitive biography of Fritz Lang for a long time to come. He has given us the man, his films, and the turbulent cultures and times he lived in.... By the end, McGilligan has helped us to understand the nature of the man and despite his faults, which are as epic as his early films, we come to like and admire him.--The Times Higher Education Supplement
Kirkus Reviews
An adroit and revealing biography of the talented director of such classics as Metropolis and M.

Few directors weathered the transition from silent movies to sound as successfully as Lang. His success in doing so may have been, in part, due to the fact that his aesthetic remained essentially visual, a masterful and calculated use of angles, framing, and lighting. Beyond their usefulness in creating tableaux vivants, actors were, he seemed to feel, more of an annoyance than anything else. Not surprisingly, the notoriously perfectionist Lang mistreated some very high-priced talent, including Peter Lorre, Spencer Tracy, and Marlene Dietrich, as well as a raft of hapless producers. As Henry Fonda once remarked: " `It just doesn't occur to him that actors are human beings. . . . He is the master puppeteer, and he is happiest only when he can manipulate the blank puppets.' " Only perhaps in M, the tale of a wretched child-killer, did Lang achieve a full and rich psychological portrait. With his ever-present monocle and soldierly bearing, Lang seemed the epitome of the autocratic Prussian, but in truth he was not only Viennese but half-Jewish and a committed leftist. Soon after Hitler came to power, Lang—then considered Germany's greatest director—went into self-imposed exile in Hollywood. He was a dedicated mythomaniac, and veteran film biographer McGilligan (Jack's Life, 1994, etc.) does an extraordinarily thorough job of separating Lang fact from Lang fable. Despite the constant battles on the set and budget overruns, Lang worked well into his 70s. His retirement years, however, were pure Sunset Boulevard, as the nearly blind Lang kept detailed diaries of the minutiae of his day, conversed with his wooden pet monkey, Peter, and had longtime live-in ex-lover Lilly Latte regularly procure him prostitutes.

McGilligan is not a graceful stylist, but he has a great story to tell, and he tells it with verve, originality, and insight.

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University of Minnesota Press
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6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

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The director offered, on various occasions, different versions of the inspiration for "M." He sometimes denied that a certain real-life case had shaped or influenced him; other times he admitted that, why, of course -- that very case had not only influenced the scenario but dictated some of the storyline's defining moments.

Lang and Thea von Harbou had begun the script with the vague intention of focusing on an antisocial villain, a "writer of poison letters." It is conceivable that the setting of the story, initially, was Vienna, although the actual setting of the finished script would be obscured -- so that the events could be taking place anywhere. A German would recognize it distinctly as Berlin, but like "Dr. Mabuse", the film of "M" would have a universality that accrued to its advantage, addressing moviegoers of every origin.

One day ("I don't know what made me do it...I said, 'Wait a moment...'") Lang was hit by a lightning-bolt idea -- as if he were once again glimpsing the Manhattan skyline for the first time, or dreaming of rocket ships in a sleeping car. The director must have been perusing the newspaper as usual when, not for the first time, his eyes fastened on recent reports of the exploits of mass killer Peter Kürten, whose dirty deeds in the Düsseldorf vicinity had led the press to dub him the Monster of Düsseldorf.

Kürten's name resounded throughout Germany in 1930. Lurid daily headlines catalogued Kürten's crimes, offered interviews with eyewitnesses, trumpeted new theories from police. The story developed dramatically, leading to his arrest that May. Though Kürten killed both adults and children, one of his final victims would figure into "M"; in newspaper articles, this victim was shown to be an eight-year-old girl, who was slain behind a church, her body covered with knife wounds, doused with petrol and burned.

One of the first times Lang formally reminisced about the genesis of "M" was in response to a questionnaire, sent to him by a Princeton University scholar, which he filled out in March of 1948. Lang admitted that although Germany was suffering a wave of "unconnected sex crimes and mass murders" around this time, the Monster of Düsseldorf was the criminal who most grabbed his attention while he was developing the script. (Thea von Harbou, interestingly, goes unmentioned in this account.)

Lang remembered noticing a remarkable item in the Berliner Tageblatt. This particular report described how the underworld organization of Düsseldorf, upset that their "legitimate" criminal activities had been disrupted because of the intensive police investigations, had taken it upon themselves to help stalk and arrest the killer. A beggars' organization had assisted the underworld group.

This twist was not all that unique, however; it had manifested itself on the stage in Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1928 "Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera)", which went on to be filmed all but contemporaneously with "M" by G. W. Pabst, for producer Seymour Nebenzahl and Nero-Film. Members of the Düsseldorf underworld may not have attended Brecht and Weill's celebrated ballad-opera; Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou most certainly did.

The "M" script was revised and completed with Peter Kürten in mind. The original poison-pen concept was salvaged and survives in the film in diminished form, with Hans Beckert, the killer, writing anonymous boasting letters to the press and police. Not only did Lang and von Harbou draw on the rash of daily newspaper articles about Kürten, but the director maintained regular contact with the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and was permitted access "to the communications and secret publications" of Berlin's force -- which enabled him "to document exactly the police procedure used to capture such a criminal." Von Harbou's secretary Hilde Guttman confirmed that the director and his wife not only visited Alexanderplatz but traveled to London, where they consulted and compared notes with Scotland Yard. They also toured prisons and lunatic asylums to observe and interview sex offenders.

The news items, the underworld angle, the access to police files, the procedural authenticity -- all this contributed to the script's transformation into "a synthesis of facts," in Lang's words. For it was growing increasingly important to Fritz Lang that his scripts were fundamentally factual and verified by eyewitness testimony, police documents, and newspaper clippings; in his eyes, it gave his work a claim to respectability. (How ironic, then, that in the case of some of his best films, such as "M", the factual underpinnings do not matter -- indeed, seem almost irrelevant -- to an appreciation of the film.)

Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 1997 by Patrick McGilligan.

Meet the Author

Patrick McGilligan is the author of several definitive biographies, including Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light and George Cukor: A Double Life (Minnesota, 2013), a New York Times Notable Book.

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