Legend has it that in 1933, film director Fritz Lang was ordered to meet with Hitler‘s propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels. Lang, then 42, was already world-renowned. His masterpiece Metropolis (1927) had not only made his name but had transformed the way people everywhere imagined the future. “The Fuhrer saw your Metropolis at a low point in his life, and wept,” Goebbels told Lang, then offered him the leading post in the German film industry. Lang, as he later recounted it, smelled a trap. His other masterpieces, M (1931) and The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (1933), were either implicitly or explicitly anti-Nazi. Lang gamely pointed this out. Goebbels merely shrugged. The party’s objections were matters of mere nuance, and how you end a given picture. Lang, whose whole genius is a matter of nuance and fearlessly hard endings, began to sweat and watch the clock. Legend also has it he fled to Paris that night with the clothes on his back and whatever cash he could scrounge up.
The biography of Lang by Patrick McGilligan dumps cold water on this marvelous story — in truth, Lang had several talks with Goebbels that spring, and prudently lined up a job in Paris before making his exit. But the essential fact remains: Lang renounced the temptation to which Leni Riefenstahl and other talents such as G.W. Pabst succumbed. In so doing, he not only reinvigorated his own art — he escaped to America and reinvigorated ours as well, helping to pioneer the style we‘ve come to know as film noir.
The films from Lang’s American period make up the first wave of a two-part retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that commences this week. The second, which begins this fall, will showcase the German period. The German films have a dreamy majesty, the power that grows out of the spectacle of an artist freely inventing an art form, but the American films have an intense energy and beauty — an entertainment value — born of their maker‘s fierce will to grab hold of an audience and hold it in thrall. Lang had to learn a language (he knew little English when he landed here), and, more important, he felt the need to learn a culture, to take on American aspirations and dreams. He accomplished this by reading newspapers, particularly comic strips, through which he became an encyclopedic font of slang and snappy wisecracks. From there he chatted up cabdrivers, shop girls, Indian chiefs. (He spent eight weeks on a Navajo reservation, an experience that fed and deepened his first-rate westerns The Return of Frank James and Western Union.) His assimilation was passionate and meticulous, in firm keeping with his methods as a director.
His American films enjoy the most succinct, highly charged titles this side of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: Fury, The Big Heat, Hangmen Also Die, Clash by Night, You Only Live Once (a title Fleming admired enough to spoof), Moonfleet, Ministry of Fear, Man Hunt. The explosive narratives these titles deliver are mostly concentrated into 90 minutes or less. Fury (1936), which kicks off the retrospective, begins with Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney arm in arm as Joe and Katherine, eyeing wedding furniture in a store-window display — film-noir protagonists sharing doomed dreams, according to the tradition that begins with this shot. Before they know it, the lovers are overtaken by catastrophe.
Joe is held for questioning in a sensational crime for which he is blameless, but hysteria so grips the small town where he‘s jailed that he is apparently burned to death by a torch-bearing mob. Watching, Katherine is so overwhelmed by the horror that she collapses into a catatonic state. At this point the movie is only half over — and Lang has masterfully removed any signposts that might clue us as to where it will go. The pace is too swift for the story to become depressing, too sure an appeal to our consciences and consciousness to be purely “entertaining.” Lang was an enchanter, an entertainer who worked with primal understandings. He used the visual grammar and sweep of his German period (all those homey, rustic faces made monstrous by torch light) to take a stand against a particularly American brand of tyranny — mob rule.
Tyranny is an evil Lang viewed as universal, a demonic potential in every individual. Even sympathetic heroes like those played by Tracy, or by Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once, cave in to it in their weakest moments and start giving the world deranged orders. This is why the memory of Lang’s encounter with Goebbels was so necessary to him, however much he might‘ve embellished it. In that moment — right down to the sweating hero, the ticking clock, the superficially civilized villain — Lang became an American storyteller. Whatever transpired with Goebbels, Lang plainly emerged more deeply in touch with the terrors suffered by history’s victims, and with an even more stringent view of the dark acts those demons can awaken in anyone, in any time.