Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was a Austrian-German filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor.
One of the best-known émigrés from Germany’s school of Expressionism, he was dubbed the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute.
His most famous films include the groundbreaking Metropolis (the world’s most expensive film at the time of its release), and M, made before he moved to the United States, which is considered a precursor to the film noir genre.
Lang was born in Vienna as the second son of Anton Lang (1860–1940), an architect and construction company manager, and his wife Pauline “Paula” Lang née Schlesinger (1864–1920). Fritz Lang was baptized on December 28, 1890, at the Schottenkirche in Vienna.
Lang’s parents were of Moravian descent and practicing Roman Catholics. His parents (his mother, Jewish born, converted to Roman Catholic) took their religion seriously and were dedicated to raising Fritz as a Catholic. Lang frequently had Catholic-influenced themes in his films. Late in life, he described himself as “born Catholic”.
After finishing school, Lang briefly attended the Technical University of Vienna, where he studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to see the world, traveling throughout Europe and Africa and later Asia and the Pacific area. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, France.
At the outbreak of World War I, Lang returned to Vienna and volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and fought in Russia and Romania, where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries and shell shock in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films.
He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at Decla, Erich Pommer’s Berlin-based production company.
Lang’s writing stint was brief, as he soon started to work as a director at the German film studio Ufa, and later Nero-Film, just as the Expressionist movement was building. In this first phase of his career, Lang alternated between films such as Der Müde Tod (“The Weary Death”) and popular thrillers such as Die Spinnen (“The Spiders”), combining popular genres with Expressionist techniques to create an unprecedented synthesis of popular entertainment with art cinema.
In 1920, he met his future wife, the writer and actress Thea von Harbou. She and Lang co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler; 1922), which ran for over four hours in two parts in the original version and was the first in the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, the five-hour Die Nibelungen (1924), the famous 1927 film Metropolis, the science fiction film Woman in the Moon (1929), and the 1931 classic, M, his first “talking” picture.
Considered by many film scholars to be his masterpiece, M is a disturbing story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre in his first starring role) who is hunted down and brought to rough justice by Berlin’s criminal underworld. M remains a powerful work; it was remade in 1951 by Joseph Losey, but this version had little impact on audiences, and has become harder to see than the original film.
During the climactic final scene in M, Lang allegedly threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs in order to give more authenticity to Lorre’s battered look. Lang, who was known for being hard to work with, epitomized the stereotype of the tyrannical German film director, a type embodied also by Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger. His wearing a monocle added to the stereotype.
In the films of his German period, Lang produced a coherent oeuvre that established the characteristics later attributed to film noir, with its recurring themes of psychological conflict, paranoia, fate and moral ambiguity.
At the end of 1932, Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, and by March 30, the new regime banned it as an incitement to public disorder. Testament is sometimes deemed an anti-Nazi film as Lang had put phrases used by the Nazis into the mouth of the title character.
Lang was worried about the advent of the Nazi regime, partly because of his Jewish heritage, whereas his wife and screen writer Thea von Harbou had started to sympathize with the Nazis in the early 1930s and joined the NSDAP in 1940.
They soon divorced. Lang’s fears would be realized following his departure from Austria, as under the Nuremberg Laws he would be identified as a Jew even though his mother was a converted Roman Catholic, and he was raised as such.
While his career had ended without fanfare, his American and later German works were championed by the critics of the Cahiers du cinéma, such as François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. Truffaut wrote that Lang, especially in his American career, was greatly underappreciated by “cinema historians and critics” who “deny him any genius when he ‘signs’ spy movies … war movies … or simple thrillers.” Filmmakers that were influenced by his work include Jacques Rivette and William Friedkin.
Lang died in 1976 and was interred in the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.