Essays (book reviews)

The Films of Fritz Lang:
Allegories of Vision and Modernity

by Tom Gunning
(London: British Film Institute, 2000)


Inside The Destiny-Machine


True 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.


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!


One that 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!


Ten 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.


Such 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.


Lang 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.


Gunning’s 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.


The 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 digital era!


The 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 century.


This 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”.


Lang, 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 form.


Critics 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.


According 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!


The 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.


In 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”!).


By 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 embraced.


In 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 scène.


What 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).


Gunning 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!


All 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.


For 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).


In a sense, this work reminds us that, beyond all the determinations of material history, there is still indeed something lofty – and mysterious – about Lang the Artist.


Also 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.


These 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.


MORE Lang: Secret Beyond the Door, Cloak and Dagger



1. The history of the publication of these essays of mine is a saga spanning almost two decades. The relatively unproblematic cases are these: a long lecture titled “Lang’s Sound” for Philip Brophy’s Cinesonic conference in 1999 (included in the book of the event’s proceedings a year later), and the shortened version of it published here in 2015  after various non-English translations in the interim.
My detailed work on Spione (and on three extant versions/prints of the film), Scarlet Street and House by the River was commissioned in the late 1990s for the Movie Book of Fritz Lang project in the late 1990s, co-edited by Ian Cameron and Doug Pye. This (like a related Movie book on Hitchcock for which I also wrote an essay) never saw the light of day; indeed, by the time it was in a state to show to publishers, Gunning’s book had already beat it to the post, and effectively (as well as inadvertently) blocked its chance of ever appearing, at least not without extensive revision. Nonetheless, hopes for it persisted until Ian (a remarkable editor, among the best I’ve ever worked with) died in 2010. Elements of that project (including my Scarlet Street chapter, now reprinted on this website) finally manifested across two special dossiers in the relaunched online version of Movie in 2011 & 2012 (issues 2 & 3). All three Lang essays of mine were fused into one chapter of my 2006 PhD (“The Logic of Fritz Lang”);  that same year, I reworked the Spione part for Rouge magazine.  Finally, the House by the River piece was expanded for Joe McElhaney’s ace anthology A Companion to Fritz Lang (Wiley Blackwell), which (like the piece on Lang’s sound design) materialised in 2015. Never give up on your dreams, boys and girls! back


© Adrian Martin October 2000 / January 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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