Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Fritz Lang
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Each picture has some sort of rhythm, which only the director can give it. He has to be like the captain of a ship."-Fritz Lang

It would be impossible to dig too deep into the meat of the auteur theory without coming across the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which featured the birth of the theory in an essay by Francois Truffaut in 1954. The magazine was populated by the best and brightest film critics in France, many of whom were also en route to becoming the best and brightest French filmmakers of their generation (among the magazines contributors were Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Truffaut). These critics gathered to praise what they saw as the best of cinema, and lauded great early filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, and this column's subject, Fritz Lang, as true auteurs"”that is, they believed these great directors transcended any limitations placed upon them and managed to make each of their films a personal statement that could have come from no one else.

Hailed by many as one of the fathers of film noir, Fritz Lang's American movies were the focus of much of the praise dealt out by Cahiers. They saw strong differences between the movies he made in the 1920's and early 1930's before fleeing Germany to avoid persecution by the Nazis, and those he made once he arrived in America. The differences these critics pointed out, however, highlight what I see to be a flaw in their original auteur theory. These critics were more impressed by Lang's ability to leave an individual mark on his American movies not because the actual films were better, but because the conditions he was under while making them did more to strain his artistic vision.

The Motion Picture Production Code (known popularly as the Hays Code) was a set of industry-wide censorship guidelines that governed the vast majority of American movies made between 1930 and 1968. The Code enumerated three general principles, all of which complicated the films of Fritz Lang once he began the American chapter of his career. These principles were: 1. No picture will be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented, and 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. These guiding principles explain much of the story contrivances that often plague older movies. This is why the gangster has to die or go to prison at the end of every gangster movie. The entire genre of the comedy of remarriage (in which a divorced couple are thrown back together by circumstance and fall in love all over again) was borne as a way around the Code's principle that pre-marital sex could not be shown in a movie; therefore, instead of having two people with a sexual history finally work things out, filmmakers simply had a married couple, who would clearly have had sex before, coming back together. Fritz Lang was so highly regarded by the critics who created the auteur theory in part because he was able to take full authorial control of his movies, even when the Hays Code directly interfered with his vision. Instead of focusing only on the films that required him to use narrative trickery and compromise story points due to censorship, however, this column will examine a theme that runs through his early work in Germany, and continues through his American movies, albeit toned down by the Code. The theme that seems to have been the focus of the majority of Lang's career is an examination of what drives people to commit crimes, whether against the laws or the customs of their societies. Lang was less interested in the right and wrong of a particular act, and more fascinated by the situations that might drive someone to commit it.

In Metropolis, Lang's 1927 opus with the distinction of being the most expensive silent film ever made, Lang examines the decision by an upper-class man in a strongly classist society to break with the upper-caste and champion the rights of the workers who toil in near slavery in a mechanistic underground city. The film was co-written by Lang and his then wife Thea Von Harbou, and though Lang later disparaged its seemingly socialist message and heavy handed symbolism, it stands as an early example of his drive to examine the impulse to commit crime, and how even a criminal can be a sympathetic figure.

This theme likely reaches its most obvious apex in M, Lang's first "talkie," released in 1931. The film follows Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer who preys on children, and the efforts of both cops and criminals to apprehend him and bring him to justice. M is exactly the kind of film Lang never could have made under the Hays Code, as even MGM studio head Irving Thalberg admitted. Upon the film's release, Thalberg gathered all of his writers and directors together for a private screening of the film, admonishing them to make films of a similar power and caliber. Yet he privately admitted that he would never have green lit such a controversial project under the Code. The film condemns Beckert for his actions, and even condemns the criminals who try to stop him using vigilante justice, yet the movie is also sympathetic to the situation each of them is found in, taking pains to examine why each person commits the acts they do throughout the movie. In an impassioned plea for his life before a kangaroo court assembled by the criminals who have captured him, Beckert describes the daily torture he goes through as he attempts to avoid giving into his darkest urges and struggles not to kill again. He then calls out each of the criminals who form the "jury of his peers," pointing out that many of them have committed murder before. True enough, the criminals are so desperate to stop Beckert because his crime spree is bringing extra law enforcement attention on the illegal acts in the city. Understanding the financial strains that lead to this brand of mob justice, and the deep, unsettling madness that drives Beckert to abduct and murder innocent children does not make their actions right, nor justifiable, yet it does make them more sympathetic than nearly any other film of the time could have or would have.

Lang's first American film, Fury, is a similar indictment of mob justice that even through the strictures of the Code manages to examine the realistic motives that lead people to commit sadistic acts. The film follows Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man who is mistakenly arrested for participation in a kidnapping, and then is lynched by an angry mob who sets the jail on fire in an attempt to punish him for a crime he did not commit. Wilson narrowly escapes death at the hands of the mob, and plans to execute revenge by having the entire mob prosecuted for his murder. The studio (MGM, clearly impressed enough by M to hire Lang when he came to America) exerted great control over Lang's first effort, forcing Lang to make Wilson innocent of the crime he is lynched for and also requiring a tacked on ending that has Wilson reconciling with the fiancé (Sylvia Sidney) who he manipulated into testifying in the case. Even with these studio interferences, Fury is still an examination of what drives an idealistic man to become disillusioned with the concept of justice and morality, and to become consumed with the desire to enact revenge. In effect, Lang took the requirement that Wilson be innocent as a loophole through which he attracts audience sympathy to the selfish and cruel acts Wilson commits in his attempts to punish those who tried to lynch him.

Lang clearly exercised more control over his next film, 1937's You Only Live Once, which follows career criminal Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) as he tries, and fails, to reintegrate into society, and the effects that has on his relationship with his wife Joan (Sylvia Sidney). The film dodges the Code in two ways that still allow Lang to pursue his examinations of the motivations behind criminal acts. First, he has Taylor framed for a bank robbery that leads to six murders, in order that the criminal is innocent of the charges that put him in prison. Additionally, he ensures that when actions conspire to make a real murderer out of Eddie Taylor he is already on a tragic road that will ensure he is punished for his crimes. Even this film was censored in part by the code, as PCA director Joseph Breen objected to the "realistic violence" of the robbery scene and demanded that the final film contain, "no flash of a man's face contorted with agony, no showing of a woman lying on the sidewalk, no hurling of bombs, no cop lying on the street, his face contorted with pain, no truck crushing out the life of a cop, no terrible screaming, no shots of bodies lying around, no figure of a little girl huddled in death, no shrieks." Lang had to cut the violence out of the movie, but he was able to keep the message in"”Eddie Taylor may have been a career criminal and an eventual murderer, but that did not make him an unsympathetic monster. Rather, he was more a victim of circumstance than a true villain in any way.

By the time Lang made The Big Heat in 1953, the Code was still in place, but the studios had become much better at working within its strictures, using innuendo and sly plotting to imply anything they could not show directly. The film is a classic noir, following Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) as he attempts to bring down a crime syndicate and loses everything in the process. Bannion is eventually taken off the case by a corrupt superior, yet he continues to act as a vigilante in an effort to secure vengeance for the lives of four women destroyed when they crossed his path. Bannion is in no uncertain terms the hero of the story, and his actions are more directly moral than those that Lang tends to examine, yet we as an audience are still privy to illegal acts and violence throughout the film, all of which is arguably justified by Bannion's quest for vengeance.

Throughout his career, Lang continually returned to examinations of criminals and in-depth looks at the sympathetic side of their immoral actions. Lang was not a champion of crime, nor was he amoral in his depictions of it; he simply sought to create a gray area in the era of black and white. Instead of throwing his characters into the camp of "Good Guys" or "Bad Guys," Lang strove to populate his films with real people, flawed though they may be. He condemned them when they were wrong, and championed them when they did right, but he never lost sight of the fact that even the most depraved among us is still a human being, and is still relatable, even if we fear relating to them. Whether he was operating with near total freedom or working under the strictures of the Hays Code, Fritz Lang found creative ways to keep his vision intact, and ensured that each movie bearing his name was a true expression of his own personal aesthetic.

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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone
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