Archive for Fritz Lang

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

The Sunday Intertitle: Die, Pest!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by dcairns

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DIE PESTE IN FLORENZ — the plague in Florence — is a 1919 German epic scripted by Fritz Lang in his usual cheery style — the Florentine’s throw off the shackles of religious repression, and life becomes one non-stop orgy, at which point a plague descends and kills everyone. Lang’s grim sensibility is remarkable in the sense that it was commercially successful despite being so unremittingly bleak — look at DIE NIBELUNGEN, in which everybody is morally compromised and everybody dies. Can this really have been the Nazis’ favourite film? If they saw themselves in it, it’s prophetic, and also suggests a self-destructive drive at the root of their movement. I have my doubts. I’m not sure they had that level of insight.

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A slightly wishy-washy reconstructed intertitle, but we can make up for that with an ecstatic gallery — The Triumph of Death!

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Heavily inspired by Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, I assume, this movie ends with the Plague Personified (Juliette Brandt, the best actor in it) fiddling among the splayed corpses of the city, descending stairs towards us like Norma Desmond, though alas director Otto Rippert doesn’t have her fill the lens with a grotesque soft-focus close-up. But I like that she’s so chirpy, skipping and grinning away, reminiscent a little of the bandaged apparition of Simone Choule in Polanski’s THE TENANT. It’s a happy ending, for Death.

In other news — am contemplating staying up all night with friends, watching the Oscars, in which case I shall probably live-blog it. Since the event doesn’t really have much to do with movies, I guess I’ll just be ranking the frocks and political speeches and noting how few, if any, of these films I’ve seen… If I go for it, watch out for an ever-expanding blog post here. If I feel too sleepy, watch out for nothing.

The Sunday Intertitle: Ich

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 5, 2017 by dcairns

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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.