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From Gray Into Black and White – Fritz Lang, Moral Ambiguity and the VOD Thriller
Moral ambiguity has kept many of Fritz Lang’s films as fresh as the day they were released. Lang’s cinema is one that constantly returns to questions of ambiguity – of blurring the lines between good and evil, between cops and criminals, between simple mistakes and shocking malice. As a storytelling device, moral ambiguity has a long history in fiction, but there are few directors whose use of and interest in ambiguous protagonists marks such a consistent element of their work and its lasting influence. Lang is key in laying down the crime genre’s visual language and its social concerns in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, across his Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933 and 1960) and M (1931), and later with his most enduring Hollywood pictures, such as Fury (1936) and The Big Heat (1953).
The world of VOD thrillers, populating the lower reaches of Netflix’s and Amazon Prime’s crime and thriller categories through serial killer schlock, vigilante cops and easy paychecks for aging B-listers, relies on that same murky moral stance, making them an unlikely descendant to the cinema of Fritz Lang. A film like Night Hunter (2018), directed by David Raymond, owes much to Lang’s cinema, even while misappropriating it in service of cheap plotting. Lang was a master of building and constructing moral ambiguity into a scene. Even when given lackadaisical scripts, he was often able to find some muddy notes to play, something to elevate the material. But in a bad film, moral ambiguity is just as much a narrative device to be tossed away within a weak script, a way of obfuscating the fact that a film has precious little insight.
What separates Lang, even amongst his contemporaries, is his ability as a social dramatist; his ability to dissect social structures and find ambiguous conclusions through his characters, as opposed to the use of moral ambiguity as an end unto itself or a script crutch. Fury, his first American film, starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney, is one of his most explicitly ambiguous. The plot focuses on Tracy’s Joe Spencer, a gas station owner arrested on flimsy evidence for a kidnapping in a small town en-route to his fiancé. With the police still mulling over charges, word gets out amongst the townspeople, who elect to take matters into their own hands, leading to a lynching in which the local jailhouse is burned down. Joe survives but stays in hiding, and with him assumed dead, the lynchers face trial for murder, carrying the potential for capital punishment.
Here is one of Hollywood’s many German émigré directors of the time, fresh off the boat, sticking the knife into the monster that is American civilisation. During the first act, Joe is an unequivocal ‘Good Guy’, the hint of a criminal past and low-level gangster associations of his brothers contrasted with his already-redeemed status, engaged and gainfully employed. The actions of a mob, wary of outsiders, turn Joe into a more complex figure, driven by revenge. Joe’s absolute pursuit of vengeance, with 22 people possibly being sent to the chair as a result, forms the crux of the film’s question to the audience – at what point in the act of murder do we lose our humanity, collectively or individually?
Like most young men of his generation, Lang was conscripted into World War I, before an injury saw him demobilised, spending the later years of the war in Berlin. It’s well-known he regarded the rise of the Nazis with fear. His films showcase a deep unease of identifying too closely with any particular segment of society, particularly in-groups and powerful, influential cliques. Where that power arises from is a frequent source of conflict in Lang’s films; in his German crime films, the structure of power is more effectively wielded by criminal factions rather than those on the side of the state. It is that structure that allows Dr Mabuse to run riot, and it is that structure that allows the underworld to take Peter Lorre’s child killer in M to trial. Given that the Weimar Republic was unstable, frequently weathering attempted reactionary coups and revolutions, it might have seemed to Lang that alternative structures of power were more effective, regardless of how morally reprehensible they may have been.
Though it may be Spencer Tracy who is the target of a lynch mob in Fury, any cognisant American at the time would have seen the parallels with the lynchings of black people. There is, of course, a studio-imposed ending (which Lang purportedly hated), in which Joe emerges, Lazarus-like, into the courtroom at the last moment to save the accused. Given that the Hays Code was established by Catholics and functioned as a separate power structure imposed on the studios, and Lang himself was brought up in Catholicism, there’s an interesting moral battle at play here, between a lapsed Catholic of Jewish heritage, resistant to mainstream religious morals, and a Catholic ideological structure imposing moral standards.
With or without the ending, the complexity and ugliness of revenge is there in all its glory. Lang regards with deep suspicion the inherent fascist potential of community; given the right outside interlocutor (in this case, a conspicuous stranger), a community can easily turn on those it deems as threatening to its survival. But Lang also tracks the reverberations of these communal crimes on both its victims and its participants. It corrupts Joe’s vision of the word and his vision of America as a place where the rule of law is upheld. But Lang also tracks how the community closes in on itself, imposing its own version of omerta.
Lang draws out the bloodlust of the lynch mob in all its delirious horror (one edit has a gaggle of chickens superimposed over gossip spreading like wildfire). The intensification of the riot is broken down into individual moments of escalation, a series of stupid mistakes conspiring with mindless anger. But what really makes Lang’s direction so effective is how he implicates the audience into this structure; when Joe reappears and announces his intentions to enact revenge, it’s difficult not to get swept up in his rage. The audience response to Joe’s bloodlust is as important as the film itself – how the spectator answers is critical to the very social context the film is describing.
But where Lang’s crime films track those structural reverberations, many of his modern descendants seem incapable of perceiving them. Night Hunter, with its absolute nonsense-generator of a plot, stars Henry Cavill as an overworked police detective with the usual litany of marriage problems, on the hunt for a serial killer who abducts and tortures women. Brendon Fletcher’s killer showcases plenty of the tics and mannerisms of an actor desperately showing you how crazy they are; there’s much of the same small, bug-eyed physique as in Peter Lorre’s Becker from M, 87 years previous. Ben Kingsley plays a vigilante who, along with his young protégé Eliana Jones, catfishes creepy older dudes and then castrates them, both of whom are also hunting for the serial killer.
There are parallels between Kingsley’s vigilantism, the cruelty of the killer, and Cavill’s inability to communicate with women – all figures attempting and failing to confront their masculinity. Each figure exists on their own, borne out of a vacuum, with no relation to a wider social structure other than the acts they commit in it. There is no attempt to implicate the audience and ask how a spectator responds to this behaviour. Do crime films have to do that? Of course not. But it’s key to note that a film which focuses on gendered crimes struggles to view women as anything other than victims (despite a determined Alexendra D’Addario in a joint lead role), and is completely unable to challenge its own point-of-view. It brings broad strokes of ambiguous motivations to its characters (Kingsley is a former judge who now operates on the other side of the law; the killer has a childhood steeped in abuse; Cavill teeters between upholding the law and breaking it by following Kingsley’s approach), but they are treated as a means to an end, rather than choices influenced by a wider ideological superstructure that defines our existence.
Night Hunter is one of a million schlocky thrillers out there giving their characters a veneer of ambiguity; so few rise above the surface precisely because of their inability to look beyond the surface, as Lang does, and find the internal contradictions between, say, a small-town society as seen in Fury and its ability to both protect and nurture its members on its own contradictory moral terms and violently eradicate outside influences. Moral ambiguity here is reactionary rather than a natural element of the human condition.
The recurrent problem with these thrillers is that they tend to individualize the moral ambiguity of their characters, where Lang nearly always collectivises that same trend of ambiguity. Night Hunter and its ilk see individuals changing a society, solitary figures devoid of context. Fury sees a society capable of changing an individual.
Therein lies the core of the misunderstanding in films that take Lang’s use of ambiguity and misapply it. That Lang was able to depict the moral greys of his characters and how they relate to a wider structure, in spite of working within the constricts of the Hays Code and Hollywood’s studio system, is a major reason why we still revisit his work. But when Night Hunter throws a cop, a vigilante, and a serial killer together, it is framed as individually miserable men within a film incapable of looking beyond its own myopia. Even though much of Lang’s work was considered a B-movie back in its day, their intelligence still shines through in a way that the great score of its equivalents today fail to do.