Essays (book reviews)
The Films of Fritz Lang:
story: when I was a teenage cinephile, I had a rather vivid dream in which I
was raped by Fritz Lang. Actually, he started out as somebody else, another
director: Éric Rohmer.
was a kindly soul, speaking to me gently. But suddenly – like Jekyll turning
into Hyde – Éric began transforming, mutating. He shed his clothes, and grew
into Fritz, a giant, naked, menacing, King Kong-like beast. And, once
metamorphosed, this great director decided to pick me up, spin me around like a
doll, and then anally penetrate me!
does not have to be a certified Freudian to imagine that this dream
represented some sort of Conflict with the Superego within my young self – with
Rohmer as the good parental figure and Lang as the bad. Around ten years later,
my nightmare returned to me in a startling way: the French critic Louis
Skorecki made a film in which a character speculates (fancifully) about the “morbid
homosexuality” of Lang. And that film by Skorecki is called … Les Cinéphiles!
more years on, over a two-year period between 1998 and 2000, I had the
opportunity to write five long essays on Lang. (1) At many moments along the way, I was
gripped by the sense that these films were bottomless texts – that I had
entered a labyrinth from which I might never emerge. This, I gather, is not an
uncommon sensation among fans and scholars of Lang’s cinema. One reaches for
the grand, intricate logic of these films – the way that the content and the
form fit together so precisely and aptly, in each film and across the entire
career – and feels oneself falling short of grasping it (and certainly of being
able to demonstrate it) totally.
Caught in such a struggle, it is no wonder that the student of Lang can easily
come to feel haunted, even possessed by the spirit of this seemingly cold,
exacting master of the Seventh Art.
imaginary relationships between critics and filmmakers can be a fraught,
melodramatic business – crossing all national borders and eras, even stepping
beyond the grave. Critics often conjure intense and fully irrational love/hate
relationships of mirror-identification with those they choose to analyse. It is
a two-way traffic: few filmmakers, in their heart of hearts, can remain
unconcerned with how critics perceive them and write them (or not) into the
history books. No matter how much popular, commercial success a filmmaker is
fortunate to enjoy, there will always be that desire for legitimation by the
gatekeepers of our cultural institutions.
was certainly among those filmmakers who hoped to influence how the history
books (especially Lotte Eisner’s) would view him and place his achievement. The
price for this attempt at control has been, at the very least, the revisionist
biography by Patrick McGilligan (Fritz
Lang: the Nature of the Beast, Faber & Faber, 1997) which seeks to
expose some of the dark truths which the director kept hidden throughout his
life. But Tom Gunning’s superb, 528-page book gives the perpetual drama of
Lang-as-auteur a different, materialist twist.
central focus is the work, not the life. The public statements of the director
which engage his critical imagination are mainly those that amplify the kinds
of poetic emblems we find in the films themselves. So, for instance, Gunning
relishes Lang’s much retold version – however untrue or fancifully embellished
it may be – of his fateful meeting with Goebbels prior to fleeing Nazi Germany.
Gunning asks us to note the imagery of Lang’s narration, especially the
central, suspenseful device of a clock, with its hands ticking inexorably
toward a looming deadline. Clocks are everywhere in Lang’s cinema, and for
Gunning they are an emblem of what he calls the Destiny-machine.
Destiny-machine is what – with an appropriate touch of Langian paranoia – was
once called, in the 1960s and ‘70s, The System. A System moreover, run by a
mysterious They or Them. It is society grasped as a vast machine, an
all-encompassing prison. No detail of daily life, private or public, escapes
the surveillance mechanisms of this System. In Lang’s action-crime movies (such
as Spione, 1928), characters find
themselves constantly archived as a bundle of candid camera photographs, bugged
recordings and stolen fingerprint impressions. What a prophetic vision of our
Destiny-machine, for Gunning, is the world-system of 20th century modernity.
Extending his own work on the cinema of attractions in the medium’s first decades, and also the historical speculations of theorists
including Miriam Hansen [1949-2011], Gunning is keen to situate cinema as a
manifestation of industrial technology, and of a new regime of sensations aimed at spectator-citizens.
They are both indebted, further back, to Walter Benjamin, who intuited the
sorts of daily, mechanised shocks (including the perceptual shocks provided by
cinema) that were conditioning the citizens of the great urban capitols of the
tradition of work has, in recent years, been extended by Ed Dimendberg in his
magnificent Film Noir and the Spaces of
Modernity (Harvard University Press, 2004), and by Anton Kaes in his
illuminating excavation of M (BFI
Classic, 1999). All these critical works tie Lang closely to movements in
social and political history, especially German history – a corrective to the
idea of the lofty auteur who tells timeless and universal tales and is true
only to himself. “To know the questions to which M’s emphatic modernism was the answer”, writes Kaes at the
beginning of his monograph, “is already half the battle”.
who explicitly embraced a cinema of sensation, is the perfect, indeed essential
subject for a study of the birth and growth of audiovisual modernity. But he is
not a mere (or handy) reflection of this social condition. Lang made the system
of the Destiny-machine – and the endless struggle within and against it – not
only the thematic core of his work, but the very key to his mastery of cinematic
have long remarked on the slightly disturbing similarity between the grand and
villainous enunciators in these films
– men like Dr Mabuse with their prodigious skills of audiovisual manipulation –
and Lang himself as director, infamous for the degree of tyrannical control
wielded on set over the slightest detail of the mise en scène. Gunning goes much further than simply noting this
rhyme. He locates the true drama – the pathos, even – of these films in the
invariable failure of even the most
demonic genius to ever actually master the Destiny-machine. No single person
can control the System; all are crushed by it in the end.
to the ingenious argument of this book, both the cinema apparatus and the
cinema industry are manifestations of the Destiny-machine. Lang struggles to
overcome it, but must always contemplate the likelihood of his own erasure
within iits oversize cogs. This is Roland Barthes’ notion of the Death of the
Author turned into a hard, modern, industrial reality. Once Lang moves from
relative freedom and independence in Germany to being just one more craftsman
within the Hollywood Factory, this sense of the embattled, precarious self
becomes more intense – and its presence within the films themselves more
subterranean or (as Manny Farber would say) termitic.
(David Thomson has suggested something similar concerning Robert Siodmak and
his ‘40s noir projects.) Lang’s films
thus become like encrypted documents that call out, across time, for a decoding
by viewers and critics. No wonder we get trapped by them, in turn!
disembodied hand which, in a striking insert shot, signs a note, cracks a safe,
or raises a gun (often, literally, Lang’s own hand); the many indices (like the
clocks, or Lang’s famous geometric overhead shots) that cue us to the existence
of the Destiny-machine; and what Gunning calls the visionary moment when all veils fall and the true, horrific,
deathly nature of this social machine suddenly becomes visible to a character
and to us: these are the key motifs upon which Gunning constructs his account
of the deep, consistent, inner logic of Lang’s cinema. Nobody has ever
suggested anything so detailed and encompassing as this analytical model.
a move to counter contemporary audience resistance to what can seem archaic,
corny or over-emphatic elements in Lang’s work, Gunning argues for the artist’s
profound indebtedness to an allegorical mode
of stylisation and storytelling – particularly evident in his silent
productions, but never entirely absent from any phase of his career. The plots
that stop dead, in Lang’s early works, for the retelling or remembering of some
grand legend (rendered in frozen tableaux) are matched in the ‘50s by the sight
of Marlene Dietrich standing starkly, addressing the audience, and spinning the
Wheel of Destiny in Rancho Notorious,
as a country’n’western ballad plays on the soundtrack (with its charming
refrain of “fate, murder and revenge”!).
the same token, Gunning still, to my estimation, tiptoes around certain low-art
aspects of Lang’s work – such as his taste for actorly histrionics and
caricatural humour – which virtually no critic has confronted, let alone
relation to a book that is already so full and useful, it may seem churlish to
complain about those major Lang films that the author has chosen to leave out.
All the same, I did wonder why Gunning does not pursue the implications of Lang’s
full-blown return to the allegorical mode in the exotic films of the ‘50s, Moonfleet, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The
Indian Tomb – films which rate as deathless masterpieces for many hardcore
Lang devotees (such as Raymond Bellour or Jacques Lourcelles). Gunning’s
inability to connect with these films may stem not so much from what he may
perceive as their non-relevance to his central themes, but rather a certain
lack of engagement, evident throughout the book, with the small-scale
felicities of Lang’s astonishing mise en
do I mean by that? Although offered as a stylistic study, this book is mainly about
the many and varied modes of linkage (transition, rhyme, alternation, etc) that knit shots and scenes into an
organic form – not really about the fine detail of light, shape, space, rhythm
and acting performance. (It is illuminating to compare it with Gunning’s own,
later critique of Bellour’s highy systematic film analyses.) It is a book about
the logic but not really about the texture of Lang’s cinema. In that sense,
it connects with the equally brilliant analysis of Lang – as, like Hitchcock,
the maker and un-maker of narrative and social linkages – in Jacques Rancière’s
remarkable essay collection Film Fables (Berg, 2006).
has read a lot (in several languages) about Lang, and respectfully builds upon
much of it. Nonetheless, there are a few bibliographic gaps that bother me a
little. Gunning admits his particular debt to what he calls the “French moment”
of Lang criticism – indeed, Thomas Elsaesser [1943-2019] in his Weimar Cinema and After (Routledge,
2000) has gone so far as to claim that, in a sense, Lang “became a director of
French films”, not because he made films in France (there’s only one of those),
but because we have all learned to see his work through the eyes of his French
exegetes since 1947!
the same, Gunning overlooks the significance of those French critics known as
the MacMahonists in the 1960s –and who are still, in some cases, active in
diverse ways today. This loose grouping of critics, associated with the
MacMahon cinema in Paris and with the magazine Présence du cinéma in the ‘60s, shared a canon of great directors
(Losey, Walsh, Lang, Preminger) and a certain aesthetic creed or ethos: they
sought a blinding, crystalline, formal
purity in a filmmaker’s work, where the rigour of construction and
composition sang more loudly than the content or the genre of a film.
the MacMahonists, the signature of a director was always something a little bit
abstract – although it was realised, etched in celluloid, via very concrete,
material means! Serge Daney (like his boyhood pal, Skorecki) was very
influenced by this particular vision of Lang proposed by the MacMahonists. In
the annals of Lang scholarship, we must look, for the traces of the MacMahonist
analysis or attitude, to the many pages devoted to the director in Jacques
Lourcelles’ stunning Dictionnaire du
cinéma: les films (1992); or to Gérard Legrand’s very extensive work on the
director in numerous Positif articles
and also in the central section of his masterly book Cinémanie (1979).
a sense, this work reminds us that, beyond all the determinations of material
history, there is still indeed something lofty – and mysterious – about Lang
missing in Gunning’s vast book is due acknowledgement of a number of critics
associated with the English-language magazines Movie and Cineaction in
the 1980s and ‘90s, whose insights at many points strikingly anticipate Gunning’s
own. Robin Wood, for instance, addressed Rancho
Notorious (a film which Gunning marginalises) in this way in 1988: “Fate
for Lang is becoming more a matter of social mechanism than of metaphysical
principle: the individual is trapped and ultimately helpless, but the
entrapment can be subjected to analysis and explained”. The terms of a
pioneering 1990 essay on Secret Beyond
the Door (1948) by Michael Walker are unknowingly reinvented by Gunning:
where Walker proposed that Lang’s film “yokes together material from [... ]the
persecuted wife melodrama and the ‘psychological investigation’ movie” – and
discusses Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945) as the respective prototypes
of these sub-genres – Gunning tells us that it offers “the psychoanalytical
mystery, interbred with the ‘paranoid woman’s’ melodrama, especially under the
sign of Alfred Hitchcock”! Truly uncanny stuff.
are minor complaints, however, about Gunning’s principal achievement. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of
Vision and Modernity is a furiously original, endlessly fascinating and
profoundly important contribution to cinema studies. If Lang’s films most
certainly are, as Gunning asserts in his final sentence, “among the most
precious records of the 20th century”, then this book is a fitting testament to
that enduring legacy.
© Adrian Martin October 2000 / January 2006