Born in Vienna in 1890, Fritz Lang was brought up in Viennese middle-class comfort by his Roman Catholic father Anton and his Jewish mother Paula Schleisinger who both hoped that young Fritz would become an architect. But like so many middle-class children of the new century, Lang was fascinated by the pulp and fantasy literature of his day, the art world both in and outside Vienna and a potent new form of entertainment that invited artistic scrutiny and craftsmanship, the motion picture. Though the teenaged Lang attended school as his parents wished, he secretly haunted the cafe's and cabarets of Vienna and intended to become a painter like his idols Klimt and Schile. At aged 21 Lang's yearning took him to Paris where he lived in Bohemian splendor until the outbreak of W.W.I. Returning to Vienna, Lang enlisted in the Austrian army where he repeatedly saw combat, was wounded at least three times and decorated twice.
It was while on leave recuperating from one of these wounds that Lang teamed up with a young acquaintance and sold several film scenarios to film director Joe May. Through May, Lang was to meet producer Erich Pommer for whom, after the armistice was signed, Lang worked as a story editor in Berlin. Pommer soon permitted Lang to direct one of his own scenarios, HALBBLUT (THE HALF-BREED) in 1919. Lang's third directorial success for Pommer, DIE SPINNEN, set the tone for much of Lang's German films, mixing pulp adventure thrills with a particularly fatalistic outlook on human nature. Around the same time Lang married his first wife, identified in Patrick MacGilligan's exhaustively researched biography of Lang FRITZ LANG, THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, as Lisa Rosenthal.
For Lang's sixth film (in less than two years) Pommer introduced Lang to Thea Von Harbou who would become Lang's collaborator on the scripts of the rest of his pre-war German films and, after the mystery-shrouded suicide of Lisa Rosenthal, Lang's second wife. Together, Lang and Von Harbou created, amongst others, the strum and drang of DER MUDE TOD (DESTINY AKA, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS) '21, the sensational paranoid thriller DOKTOR MABUSE, DER SPIELER (DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER) '22, a spectacular two part Wagnerain obsessive revenge fairy tale often mistakenly referred to as proto-Nazi propaganda DIE NIEBELUNGEN (THE NIBELUNGS) '24, METROPOLIS '27, an expertly polished thriller, SPIONE (SPIES) '28, Lang's second and final science fiction film for which Lang invented the countdown, DIE FRAU IM MOND (WOMAN IN THE MOON) '29, Lang's first sound film the lurid, serial murderer masterpiece, M '31 and a second film featuring Lang's master-criminal creation DAS TESTAMENT DES DR. MABUSE (THE LAST WILL OF DR. MABUSE) '33. As the Nazis beckoned, Lang left Germany and his Nazi sympathizer wife Von Harbou who would shortly divorce him. After a year in France where he made LILLIOM '34 with Charles Boyer, Lang continued on to Hollywood.
In Hollywood Lang married his personal artistic obsessions, most eloquently described in the singing Greek chorus of his 1952 western RANCHO NOTORIOUS as "hate, murder and revenge", with the popular genres of the American studio film. His American debut, FURY '36 was an unblinking portrait of a lynching starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney made for MGM. Though FURY was a hit, it's tortured genesis set the tone for the unending disagreements with producers and often despotic treatment of actors and crew that would keep Lang from remaining at any one studio for very long. Lang's 1937 crime drama YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE is the template for such better remembered lovers-on-the-lam films as BONNIE AND CLYDE. His two Westerns for Twentieth Century-Fox, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES '40, and WESTERN UNION '41 generously reflect Lang's boyhood affection for the mythic American west of Karl May. Lang collaborated with fellow German expatriate Berthold Brecht (though co-collaborator John Wexley ultimately usurped credit to Brecht's frustration) on the stridently anti-Nazi HANGMAN ALSO DIE '43 and also made the taut propaganda thriller MINISTRY OF FEAR '44.
Lang's unending studio tribulations and his uncharacteristically cordial collaboration with star Joan Bennett on 1944's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and previously on MAN HUNT '42, led Lang to create Diana Productions with Bennett and her husband, independent producer extrodinaire Walter Wanger. Lang, who sought the same star director status as Alfred Hitchcock, intended for Diana to make him a household name so that he could presumably enjoy the freedom to indulge his perfectionism without interference. Throughout his American career Lang courted the press as Hitchcock did, writing magazine articles and giving copious interviews but rarely with Hitchcock's ingratiating ease or expertise. Diana barely survived two films, SCARLET STREET '45, not only one of Lang's absolute masterpieces but also one of the finest American crime films of the forties, and SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR '48 a creative and financial disaster. Wanger described working with Lang as, "two and a half years of misery."
Despite brushes with HUAC (Lang ultimately eluded the black-list on the say-so of the also notoriously despotic Harry Cohn), Lang continued to work in Hollywood from the war years into the fifties. Highlights include 1946's spy drama CLOAK AND DAGGER, a claustrophobic piece of grand guignol titled HOUSE BY THE RIVER '50, the crackling, operatic revenge western RANCHO NOTORIOUS '52, the Clifford Odets scripted CLASH BY NIGHT '52, 1953's unforgettable THE BIG HEAT, the studio bound period drama MOONFLEET '55 and the vigorously seamy WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS '56. Though his budgets declined Lang's mastery of his chosen medium characterized by astute, nightmarishly ominous framing, emotionally eloquent camera movements and unnervingly precise montage, remained consistent. The jewels of Lang's American output like THE BIG HEAT, SCARLET STREET and RANCHO NOTORIOUS stand as uniquely personal, fatalistic and technically accomplished works of art that rival Hitchcock's films and the films of Lang's fellow Viennese expatriates Otto Preminger, William Wyler and Max Ophuls.
Lang's experience making his final American film BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT '56 proved so unpleasant and his efforts to get any of his own projects off the ground proved so fruitless that he accepted an offer from a German producer to return to the country of his initial success. Sadly the result, an East Indian adventure yarn based on an unrealized script of Von Harbou's and Lang's, proved to be another debacle. The two part DER TIGER VON ESCHNAPUR and DAS INDISCHE GRABMAL was released as a mutilated single film in the US titled JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY, in 1960. His next directorial effort THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE '60, a post-war revisit to the criminal mind of Lang's arch-fiend Dr. Mabuse, wasn't the success it needed to be and it became Lang's final film. Lang appeared (as himself) in young acolyte Jean-Luc Godard's CONTEMPT in 1963 while continuing to try to get his own pet projects produced. But as the sixties spiraled on, Lang's failing eyesight and age began to take a substantial toll. Lang returned to Hollywood where he lived modestly in Beverly Hills with his longtime mistress Lilly Latte, granting interviews and making film festival appearances until his death in 1976.
Though out of vogue amongst the current generation of historically apathetic filmmakers, Lang was revered by the film history obsessed movie brat generation of the seventies. George Lucas has often acknowledged the debt that STAR WARS owes Lang's METROPOLIS and Martin Scorcese actually cut clips from THE BIG HEAT into the climax of his own fatalistic crime masterpiece MEAN STREETS. FRENCH CONNECTION and EXORCIST director William Friedkin shot hours of interview footage of Lang discussing his films and methods for a never completed documentary in the 70's. But director Peter Bogdonavich's epitaph probably states the case for Fritz Lang's body of work most accurately. "His dark vision," Bogdonavich wrote, "was very much representative of what the 20th century was like. Unfortunately that has not helped his reputation."