Film: The beauty in the beast

Fritz Lang's films were violent, he regularly upset the people he worked with and he couldn't answer a straight question. All the more reason to love him, says Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture
I hated working with Fritz Lang," Stewart Granger commented after making the smuggling adventure, Moonfleet. "He was a Kraut and it was a bloody awful film." It is a typically Anglo-Saxon remark, but one that is echoed by other stars who encountered the film-maker. "Lang might as well have had puppets to play with," grumbled Viveca Lindfors, Granger's co-star in Moonfleet. "He didn't really like actors." Marlene Dietrich (star of Lang's revenge western, Rancho Notorious) was equally harsh, describing Lang as "the director I detested most".

The image of Lang that has filtered down to us today is of an autocrat in a monocle and an eyepatch; an ex-war hero who treated film crews as if they were soldiers under his command. No one knows quite how to place him. A film career that stretches from the end of the First World War to 1960 and encompasses Wagnerian blood and soil dramas (Die Niebelungen), sci-fi epics (Metropolis), serial killer films (M), westerns and norish thrillers defies easy classification. "He's as great as Hitchcock but much less known," suggests National Film Theatre programmer, Geoff Andrew. Film historian Thomas Elsaesser argues that rather than analyse his work, critics are too eager to caricature him. "Lang has entered a kind of limbo... it's as if Lang's films do not quite add up to an oeuvre, and the oeuvre does not add up to the idea of a director - so that the Lang brand name is free to conform only too well to the image of the Teutonic monster."

You can see hints of that Teutonic monster in the unfinished documentary which William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) made about him in the early Seventies. In take after take, Friedkin tries to prompt him to remember exactly what happened in Berlin in 1933 when Lang was called in to see Goebbels. The Nazis had been threatening to confiscate his thriller, The Testament Of Dr Mabuse, which they claimed "posed a threat to law and order and public safety" (Mabuse, the fiend running his criminal empire from within a mental asylum, is as ruthless and violent as Hitler himself). Whatever his misgivings about Mabuse, the Fuhrer admired the director and offered him the chance to oversee film policy in The Third Reich. The fact that Lang had Jewish ancestry was neither here nor there. "Mr Lang, we decide who is Jewish or not," Goebbels is reputed to have told him. Lang reacted (or so he claimed) by fleeing to Paris on the next train.

Friedkin's interview with Lang is fascinating, if only because of the sense of antagonism between the two men. It is not clear why the documentary languished for so long unseen. There is a rumour that Lang, by then in the last year of his life, "stole" the younger director's woman (Freidkin was married to Jeanne Moreau at the time). It's an example of the kind of gossip that has always surrounded Lang; too-potent, untrustworthy - that's how the world wants to perceive cinema's grand duke. It's more likely, though, that the project was abandoned because Lang proved too irascible and evasive a subject. It's clear that he has been asked the same questions about the Nazi era many times before. He seems to be dusting down old anecdotes for which he can't remember the punch line. He prevaricates, scratches his face, comes out with vivid but irrelevant details about how slowly the clock moved as he sat in Goebbels' office, scratches his face some more and then loses patience with his interviewer.

Lang left Europe for the United States in 1934. Like Nabokov, who used to sit at the back of buses to pick up teenagers' slang when he was researching Lolita, he immersed himself in American culture. As his biographer Patrick McGilligan notes, "he spoke with every cab driver, every gas attendant in a diligent attempt to soak up American daily life". He also reconsidered how he might continue scaring the wits out of audiences in what was, by then, a secular and consumerist society. No longer did anyone believe in "the devil with horn and fork tail". Nor did they worry about punishment after death. "So my question," he reflected, "was what are people fearing. The answer was physical pain and physical pain comes from violence."

Whether the threat of capital punishment (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), a wife's fear of her perhaps murderous husband (Secret Beyond The Door) or Lee Marvin hurling coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat, physical violence, or the threat of physical violence, is often at the heart of Lang's American films. His stories, as Francois Truffaut once pointed out in an essay, invariably dealt with "the man alone, conducting a struggle against a semi-hostile, semi-indifferent universe".

Lang died in 1976. Few of his old collaborators are still around. One film-maker who does remember him vividly is the Mexican director, Arturo Ripstein, who met him at his house in Los Angeles in the early Seventies. "I was a young man, maybe 28, I looked for his number in the phone book, it was there and I called him. I told him I knew Bunuel and he agreed to see me. I spent a couple of days with Lang - and with his martinis."

The Teutonic monster of popular myth is not the figure Ripstein encountered. "I wasn't one of his actors, but socially he was exquisite, a wonderful man, articulate and tremendously funny." When Ripstein asked him why he quit making movies in Hollywood, Lang replied tersely: "I didn't want to die of an overdose of shit."

A Fritz Lang retrospective, including footage from William Friedkin's interview with Lang, runs through January and February at the National Film Theatre