Fritz Lang. The Complete Works
October 18 to November 29, 2012
This year’s joint retrospective between the Viennale and the Film Museum is dedicated to an artist whose life and career can be viewed as bridges from one empire to the next: a 19th century Austrian, a creator of the largest spectacles known to 1920s Europe, and a mid-century Hollywood artist. Fritz Lang is a Viennese born in 1890 but, above all, he is cinema. He reveled in the potentials and glories of narrative filmmaking in a way that very few other representatives of the art form could ever lay claim to.
Alongside Erich von Stroheim, G.W. Pabst and Josef von Sternberg, Lang is one of Austria's most important contributors to the classical era of cinema – these others, however, are far more strongly associated with their homeland than Lang. There is a symptomatic entry on Lang in Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon's Encyclopedia of American Film: The birthplace they give is correct, but then we read: "Fritz Lang is a German." And indeed: Lang was able to access the mythology and psycho(patho)logy of Germany better than any other foreign director who ever worked in that country. This is true not only of his German films, but also of the works made during his exile in the U.S., where Lang, apart from several explicit anti-Nazi films, also continued the themes and motifs from his German oeuvre – as if he were searching for that country wherever he looked. Germany, as every Austrian knows, is in the eye of the beholder.
Judging from the earliest published accounts, Lang has always had his place in film history, just like Chaplin and Eisenstein. And he always served as an example of what cinema is – but which cinema does this refer to? And what exactly is the Langian moment in all this? Various groups of cinephiles have lifted him upon their shields – usually stressing quite different periods and differing aspects of his genius: for one group, the only works that count are his 1920s epics (from the double Dr. Mabuse through Die Nibelungen to Spioneand Die Frau im Mond); others revere only the later, low-budget genre films he made in Hollywood (The Big Heat, Moonfleet, or Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Then there are those who are happiest with Lang when his work approaches the most simple form of adventure – in his early work (for example, Die Spinnen) or in his very last films (Das indische Grabmal or Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse). A fourth faction insists trans-contextually on Lang's importance as a social critic (from M through Fury and You and Me to While the City Sleeps), and a fifth group celebrates Lang's work as the perfect subject for the tools of psychoanalytical criticism (The Woman in the Window, Blue Gardenia, Rancho Notorious). It is, of course, this very quality that characterizes a legitimate resident of the Pantheon: that his or her work always remains different, new, and meaningful, and that new perspectives on the work can continue to be developed, generation after generation.
To this aspect, Tavernier and Coursodon also add a significant bonmot: "It is almost impossible to explain why Lang's masterpieces are masterpieces." A shining example of French cine-mysticism, the quote still expresses an important factor of Lang’s cinema: His uniqueness is easy to see, but difficult to describe. It is not enough to refer to the visual sense of this aspiring painter and architect's son, or to the peculiarly irritating, almost somnambulistic delivery of his actors (even in moments of exuberance), because all of this changes through the years, depending on where and when the work was made – while the young Lang aspired to a blazing richness of images, his later works were more defined by an abysmal emptiness, a shunning of all that was decorative. At any moment, however, the eeriness of his world is palpable – a knowledge of the fatal fragility of existence, of the abyss that suddenly opens up in life and can never again be bridged. This may also be a lesson learned by the oft-injured war volunteer Lang during the years 1914-1918. In this context, some biographers also highlight the (alleged) suicide of Lang’s first wife from a shot fired by his Browning pistol – as a "case", this biographical event very much reads like one of Lang’s darkest film fables.
In other words, Lang is better understood through this fragility, through the deep existential rift that runs through almost all of his stories, than through the hermetically sealed perfection of Metropolis. Which is also where the current "Lang problem" resides – the ceaselessly reconstructed leviathan that is Metropolis obscures the filmmaker's actual persona. Its vision of the future is still being imitated today, and the robot Maria has become one of those vulgar movie icons that adorn the walls of workplaces and living rooms all over the world. It seems quite fitting that Lang also gave the cinema an anti-icon, a figure which refuses all stable visualization: Dr. Mabuse, who is always someone else ...
Hangmen Also Die! is another Lang film that has been solidly handed down from one generation to the next – mainly because of Bertolt Brecht’s participation and because of the subject: the killing of Heydrich and the subsequent Nazi terror in Czechoslovakia, culminating in the massacre of Lidice. Like Metropolis, this astonishing attempt to merge the thriller genre with the Epic Theater is a film of certainty: heart and hand will unite, and the Czech resistance will oust the fascist occupiers. Lang's real strength, however, lay in doubt, in the fear of something bigger, the knowledge of forces of which people are generally unaware. The word "fate" is often associated with his work; again and again he relates what happens when the grindstone begins to turn: M, Fury, and You Only Live Once are about manhunts; Der müde Tod and Liliom describe a mesh of the here and now with the beyond; the Nibelungen films revolve around a curse and its consequences. One might call Lang the auteur of "original sin" – no other filmmaker has portrayed man as so fundamentally doomed. Except that, with Lang, there is no longer the option of hope. The 20th century took care of that.
Many films in the retrospective will be shown in restored prints; some, such as "Die Nibelungen" (2011 restoration, with an original score by Gottfried Huppertz), are being presented for the first time in Austria. Other special screenings include Giorgio Moroder's “disco version” of "Metropolis" (1984), Jean-Luc Godard's "Le Mepris" (1963) with Fritz Lang as an actor (appearing as himself) and five documentaries about Lang and his oeuvre by filmmakers as diverse as André S. Labarthe, Klaus Kreimeier and William Friedkin. In addition, several screenings will be introduced by the film historian and Lang scholar Bernard Eisenschitz and by Oliver Hanley, curator at the Film Museum.
A joint presentation of the Film Museum and the VIENNALE. A publication on Fritz Lang containing numerous original articles, interviews, autobiographical writings and texts about his films will accompany the retrospective.