The Sunday Intertitle: Ich

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“What power is at work here?” asks the government man, and Fritz Lang cuts to his chief villain, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, who says, simply “I” — even though he’s in another room in another building in another part of town and can’t be conversing with the spymaster who doesn’t know he exists…

The idea of words connecting to images to bridge scenes is a big Fritz Lang trope, and he used it again, after SPIONE, the example quoted above, in M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE. And then he took it to Hollywood and did it a bit in FURY at MGM. And then he phased it out, as if he felt it were somehow un-American, until his return to Germany to make THE INDIAN TOMB and THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, and it came back in full force: a line at the end of one scene will be picked up by an image at the start of the next. A bit of film language that had lain dormant in Lang’s dark heart for decades, and suddenly burst into life again under the lights of Babelsberg.

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MGM seems like a peculiar home for Lang anyway, and indeed “that marriage did not last,” as Donald Sutherland would say, though in fairness none of Lang’s studio relationships lasted for more than a few films. His journey back to Germany may have been prompted by the fact that nobody in Hollywood would talk to him anymore, I don’t know.

But the weird thing is, there’s a beautiful example of this device in my favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — see here. And this was the very first MGM release. It was meant to be.

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7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Ich”

  1. artihcus022 Says:

    Lang apparently complained that Welles stole that bridging technique from him for Citizen Kane. Jonathan Rosenbaum said that M is the sound film that most clearly anticipates and prefigures Citizen Kane.

    I also think the reason its not there so much in the American films is that it needs the director to have a great deal of control on the overall production processes, which Welles had for CK and which Lang had on his German films, but he did not have for the American movies.

  2. Yes, Lang probably got assigned a lot of scripts he couldn’t change much — though Ministry of Fear seems knowingly patterned to fit him, and he did claim to have added the ending to Woman in the Window…

    CK certainly does use the same idea, and takes it even further. Whether it’s positively inspired by M or if Welles had used the notion in radio, I can’t say.

  3. M is one of the most creative early sound films in its conflicts between image and sound, and using that sound as a transition.

    Lang was surprised when he came to Fury (which, honestly, is not very good) and found that American producers were less open to the use of visuals as metaphor. As memory recalls, there was a scene where people gossiped and it cut to chickens nattering, an Eisensteinian dialectic (reminiscent of the base montage notion where a silent shot of a crowd yelling + a shot of a lion roaring is meant to = “the crowd roared like a lion”).

  4. Here’s what is was, an interview from 1967 with the great Michel Ciment, Goffredo Fofi, Louis Seguin, and Roger Taillauer in Positif:

    LANG: The Americans didn’t like symbols in their films. In Fury, I showed wome who gossiped, then I showed geese that honked. The producers told me, “We don’t want that.” And they were right. They added, “We aren’t so stupid that you need to show us geese to realize that they honk.” This was a leftover from the silent era and I no longer use such symbols. You won’t find that problem in Mabuse. But I remember that, in Der mude Tod we see a tree with little flowers, and it becomes a skeleton. That too wasn’t necessary.

    Of course, as with all Lang anecdotes, caveat emptor.

  5. There are certainly images LIKE that in Der Mude Tod, but one for instance is a vision experienced by a character, so it’s a story point.

    Fury was compromised all the way — it seems Lang really did want to deal with race, a no-no at MGM (and pretty much everywhere) — but the riot itself is terrifying and there are other strong scenes. Shame about the clinch at the end…

    I think the geese made it in…

    The other film that deserves mention alongside M is La Petite Lise, which is very hard to see. Not as great a film, perhaps, but its use of sound is startlingly avant-garde and would still seem bold in a modern film. In a nineties film it would have seemed NEW.

  6. I’ve always thought that John Ford’s “The Informer” is heavily influenced by “M”, almost a remake. McLaglen’s character is even put on trial by members of the “underworld” at the end.
    Just rewatched “Western Union”, one of Lang’s few westerns. Its story of the laying of telegraph wires to California makes me think it’s a mix of the historic western and films like “Transatlantic Tunnel”. Still a very good film. Randolph Scott is very good as the tragic hero. As is the rest of the cast. I see in the credits at imdb.com that in small supporting roles are Kermit Maynard, Charles Middleton, Jay Silverheels and Francis Ford. I think this is the only time Lang got to actually photograph in a spectacular landscape that he didn’t have to construct.

  7. I’ve held back on the Lang westerns, but I have seen that one. I hated the comedy relief, that’s the main thing I remember. But you’re right, it relates to the big German engineering/science films in a way. The grand project of civilisation.

    The Indian Tomb has some real, impressive landscapes, I recall. But that’s about it: the sea at the end of Moonfleet is a rare cameo by Mother Nature.

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