Picture credit: UFA We have been Langpilled! How did it happen? Who is to blame? When and why has Cinema Year Zero become obsessed with the work of the American-Austrian-German … Continue reading VOLUME 3: IN THE SHADOW OF LANG
There was a time when the West’s understanding of Japan wasn’t yet anchored to the soft power-wielding holy trinity of sushi, anime, and tech. Limited by its geographical binarism, the (Western) world of the second half of the 19th century spoke a rusty language of objectification and arrogance, discovering the Orient simply as an artistic influence, a beautiful ornament to embellish a decadent and luxurious fin de siècle European apartment. When Japan was forced to end its isolationist foreign policy in the 1850s, the term Japonisme slowly but surely slithered into the vocabulary. Along with goods of all sorts, aesthetic tokens of Japanism were imported too and promptly created a sensation amongst Western artists. Reduced to a fetishised postcard of colonised exoticism, visions of Japan popped up in art, literature, opera, and ultimately, in cinema. It’s in this artistic milieu that Fritz Lang eventually inscribed his own personal interpretation.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s fourth feature, cropped up in a Dutch vault in 1987 and to this day remains one of his lesser-known films. Despite its ominous title, which draws morbid attention to a very specific practice of ritual suicide mostly performed by samurai, the story of Harakiri is essentially the one of Madame Butterfly. Brought to international fame by Giacomo Puccini’s Orientalist opera in 1904, the first iteration of this tale dates back to 1898 when John Luther Long’s short story of the same title was first published. Based on the recollections of Long’s sister, who visited Japan with her husband — a Methodist missionary — his Madame Butterfly was also inspired by another Orientalist fable of colonial sexploitation, Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème (1887). Both stories reflect the fantasy of the Western white man who takes a liking to what he sees as an innocent, modest and inexperienced young Japanese woman, whom he decides to marry and later abandons once he returns to his home country. Lang’s Harakiri (script by Max Jungk) mostly follows the source material with just a few name changes; however, it also displays a problematic depiction of Buddhism, which reflects the political, racist stance of Imperial Germany.
After travelling throughout Europe as an ambassador, the daimyo Tokujawa (Paul Biensfeldt) — a rather anachronistic title as the era of these feudal lords ended soon after the Meiji restoration (1868) — returns to his daughter in Japan, the lovely O-Take-San (Lil Dagover), who has been receiving the unwanted attentions of a vicious Buddhist monk (Georg John). To have O-Take-San completely in his power, the monk wants her to become a priestess of Buddha and sends the Mikado (the Emperor of Japan) a letter accusing Tokujawa of conspiring against him. Tokujawa is promptly ordered to take his own life — his suicide foreshadowing O-Take-San’s own death — and O-Take-San is abducted by the monk. A servant of the temple lets her escape only to sell her to a tea-house where she is forced to become a geisha. Interspersed throughout, it’s the traditional plot of the fatal encounter between O-Take-San and Olaf Anderson (Niels Prien), a European naval officer stationed in Japan, which results in their marriage lasting 999 days, as was customary in the country. The second half of the film is a more faithful adaptation of Madame Butterfly as we see Anderson leaving Japan and a heartbroken O-Take-San, who is expecting his child. Upon his return a few years later, O-Take-San learns that Anderson is married to a European woman and in the face of her tragic, and impossible, love she takes her own life.
Harakiri’s menacing image of Buddhism isn’t simply a peculiar yet effective narrative feat. On the contrary, it reinforces the othering representation of the Orient as a dangerous rising power that was perpetrated by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s anti-Asian narrative. Through expressionist lighting techniques, Bonze (as he is introduced in the film) is visually framed as the story’s villain. Low-key, strongly contrastive lights underline Bonze’s intimidating presence when he makes his ominous appearance casting — pun intended — a racialist shadow on his character. By insisting on Bonze’s malicious intent, the misdeed committed by Anderson is, by contrast, lessened, almost condoned. In light of the vile schemes and predatory behaviour of the corrupt monk, what should we make of the exotic, romantic escapade of Anderson that is so often normalised in a heteronormative narrative? Parading their “boys will be boys” banner, onlookers will surely commend and covet this fine example of white machismo.
However, in Harakiri, things are complicated by the ongoing discourse on race and colonialism. No matter Lang’s maniacal strive for ethnographic authenticity — clearly a material adynaton — reflected in the rich set design curated by Heinrich Umlauff of the Ethnological Museum in Hamburg, his entire white cast naturally depends on the suspension of disbelief. Clad in fine kimono and often surrounded by flowers, the figure of O-Take-San exudes purity, discretion, beauty, and meekness. These qualities are insidiously ascribed to a gendered and racialised stereotype of Oriental womanhood. Quiet and submissive, the Oriental woman exists in her pre-modern community waiting to give herself to a strong, white man visiting from an imperialist nation and eventually take her own life before the inevitable tragedy that awaits her. This exotic fantasy conceived by the Western man is at the core of Madame Butterfly in all its iterations and Harakiri cannot help but be yet another vector. In this sense, the most striking scene comes somewhere half-way in. After moving into their new home, one day O-Take San shows Anderson her keepsakes. Among them is a little Sanzaru carving, a wooden sculpture of the three monkeys embodying the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. In an astonishing reversal, O-Take-San explains that the monkeys represent “the three virtues of Japanese women. They hear nothing, say nothing, and see nothing”. No longer merely implied by a sexist text, the retrograde and colonialist construction of the Oriental woman is now spelt out in all its horrifying glory.
It took less than a century to finally subvert this stereotype. Loosely based on real events, M. Butterfly took flight for the first time in 1988 when the play premiered on Broadway, before being adapted into a film directed by David Cronenberg (M. Butterfly, 1993). Written by Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly follows the intoxicating love story between René Gallimard, a civil servant of the French Embassy in China, and the Peking opera singer Song Liling. Unaware that all the female roles in the traditional Chinese opera are played by men, Gallimard never fully realises — or does he? — that his 20 year-long relationship with what he describes as his perfect woman was, in fact, a romantic involvement with a man. The truth will be revealed in the play’s last act — and the film’s denouement — when the gender and racial issues the play is imbued with will further collide.
That Hwang challenges our notion of unitary identity is manifest right in the play’s title. The cunningly ambiguous prefix of M. Butterfly is — in an extremely welcomed and freeing way — shrank to a singular capital m, all its anachronistic connotations of a surpassed dichotomy of genders accordingly erased. The oppositional couples of East/West and male/female serve to entrap Gallimard’s Orientalist mind, which is unable to overcome the tight apparatus of male bravado, diplomatic constraints, and compulsory heterosexuality he has been immersed in for so long. Re-enacting while deconstructing the story of Cho-Cho-San and Lieutenant Pinkerton, M. Butterfly takes a step further when it eventually reverses the power dynamics that have dominated the scene so far. Confronted with the naked truth, and asked to reconceptualise their relationship, Gallimard refuses to discard the categories of “man” and “woman” — and with them all the attached connotations of Western dominance and Oriental submission — that are not only too narrow descriptors of their changing and layered identities but also the only fixed reference points he can hold on to. Victim of his self-imposed Orientalist cultural clichés, Gallimard is destined to annihilation by his own hand. Taking on the role of Madame Butterfly himself, both his racial and gender identities have been inherently subverted and yet death befall on the forlorn lover.
In writing this essay, I was profoundly indebted to Daisuke Miyao’s paper “The Hand of Buddha: Madame Butterfly and the Yellow Peril in Fritz Lang’s Harakiri (1919)” (Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 33:8) and to Dorinne K. Kondo’s “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity” (Cultural Critique, 16).
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Produced 90 years apart, Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) have a lot in common. Both Fritz Lang and Martin Scorsese utilise a central character in their respective works to castigate the corruption of society. For Lang, this character is Mabuse, a psychoanalyst who moonlights as a criminal mastermind in the seedy heart of Weimar Germany. Scorsese meanwhile tells the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life figure who, in the 80s and 90s, used his company Stratton Oakmont to make millions off the US stock market through massively corrupt practices that led many of his victims to financial ruin. Both men in these films profit from the misery of others and both are pursued by men of the law who function as charisma vacuums in contrast to the theatrical splendour of their targets.
According to German critic Siegfried Kracauer, “Lang himself called the film a document about the current world and attributed its international success to its documentary virtues rather than to the many thrills it offered”. The first part of the film is titled “an image of the time” which would not be out of place in a pull quote from a film critic straining for profundity. In his book, The Film Till Now, Lang’s contemporary, British critic and film-maker Paul Rotha attributes Mabuse’s appeal more to its “thrilling, and melodramatic” qualities.
The fiendish doctor is undeniably grotesque, but it is his cunning that produces the thrills. As a psychoanalyst in a time when Freud’s theories held much fascination among the public, Mabuse is infused with a certain intrigue. His cunning schemes provide the thrills which make the film a success. Meanwhile, state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who hunts the criminal mastermind throughout the film, is a stern man utterly devoid of humour. To quote The Simpsons’ Superintendent Chalmers, “The rod up that man’s butt must have a rod up its butt.”
FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who fills the von Wenk role in The Wolf of Wall Street, has a bit more personality, particularly during his first encounter with Belfort in which the two men engage in a bit of banter. Even so, his role as Belfort’s foil only serves to make the villain more interesting. In the end of both films, von Wenk and Denham are granted pyrrhic victories that reinforce their own impotence in contrast to their magnetic foes. For von Wenk, his victory over Mabuse and rescue of Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker) is undercut by her own disillusionment with the state prosecutor’s methods, most notably his cruelty towards the mabuse-obsessed criminal Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). There were hints of romantic tension between von Wenk and Told but upon rescuing her from Mabuse’s clutches, she cannot bear to look at him. Meanwhile, Denham, despite his work in bringing Belfort down, receives no real recognition or reward for his efforts. Last seen taking the subway, Denham’s situation stands in marked contrast to Belfort’s punishment in a prison that more closely resembles a country club with its tennis court. This reinforces the notion that it is ultimately the cheaters who prosper in society.
This uneasy relationship in Mabuse the Gambler between certain social realities and the visceral pleasure of watching a film can also be attributed to The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s study of Jordan Belfort is far from an endorsement of his actions. Scorsese has made his career by forcing audiences to rub up against the lives of men who act well outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour; the amoral vulgarity of Belfort and his cronies are no different. Yet the way in which the film presents the unrestrained hedonism enjoyed by Belfort and his colleagues at Stratton Oakmont make the fruits of their labour enticing to audiences. This discrepancy has always been at the heart of debates about the film since its release in 2013.
The People Magazine critic Alynda Wheat wrote at the time that The Wolf of Wall Street is a “self-indulgent glorification of excess that treats women like blow-up dolls and doesn’t even stop to consider Belfort’s working-class victims. In other words, it’s a party – but we’re not invited.” The most revealing aspect of this condemnation is the final phrase, which implicitly suggests that the excess and demeaning of women is permissible so long as some nebulous “we” can partake as well. That it is the exclusion from indulging in this excess that makes the film morally reprehensible rather than the consequences of that excess in and of itself. This suggests that even among those critical of the film, there lies a deeper desire behind the spectacle of criminality and the rewards it grants.
The German title Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler can be translated literally as Dr. Mabuse The Player, as opposed to Gambler. Although the title refers to how Mabuse defrauds wealthy victims in gambling dens, the idea of Mabuse as a player offers a broader definition of his actions. He plays dress-up through his disguises; he toys with the lives of others. It would not be a stretch to say that he treats Countess Told as a doll in the way he tries to possess her by locking the woman in a room that has the superficial trappings of comfort. Viewed in this way, Mabuse’s exploits are stripped of any seductive mystery that the gambler title holds, and instead he is reduced to the status of a petulant child. Sex and drugs are considered adult activities, yet in The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort and his cronies indulge with the unrestrained gluttony of spoilt children. This regression to a child-like state is at the heart of why the scenes of excess hold such attraction in Wolf of Wall Street. It represents the ultimate liberation from adult responsibility, a type of liberation that only money can buy.
The most addictive drug that Belfort and his cronies consume in The Wolf of Wall Street is power, specifically a power derived from fucking people over. It doesn’t matter who they are, rich or poor, so long as they can put themselves above others. Scorsese shows through his film that this is capitalism in its unmasked form. He does this most spectacularly by having Belfort addressing the audience directly to the camera, flaunting his naked amorality in our faces through both his words and his physicality: “Was any of this legal?” he poses with a cheeky grin. “Absolutely fucking not”. The issue here is that for many who watch the film, they don’t see the problem with a corrupt capitalist system that Belfort (or Mabuse for that matter) can take advantage of, it’s that they aren’t the ones doing the fucking. Critic KA Bradeley, in her review of the immersive London theatre adaptation of The Wolf of Wall Street in 2019, observed that audience members were “suspiciously enthusiastic about racist slurs and misogyny.”
In the years following the release of Scorsese’s film, there has been a proliferation of online personalities whose imagery of excess is inspired by The Wolf of Wall Street. More often than not these are fake online business gurus. Perhaps there is no clearer example of this than Belfort himself, who now has his own podcast where he interviews a variety of public figures ranging from Youtuber Logan Paul to conservative commentator Tomi Lahren. Paul, whose on-screen antics mirror that of Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, and Lahren, whose racist rhetoric keeps her rich, both embody the continuation of amoral exploitation as depicted in Scorsese’s film. Belfort, along with other wannabe social media capitalists, like business mentor Max Tornow, utilise images that are inspired by the scenes of excess in The Wolf of Wall Street: young, beautiful women, luxury cars, swimming pools. These images are sanded down from an R rating to a more marketable PG. For instance, hard drug use goes unseen and the sex is merely implied by the presence of women rather than grotesquely depicted in Scorcese’s film.
Belfort goes even further with his promotional material by using actual screenshots from a film that shows him (as played by former teen heartthrob DiCaprio) hitting his wife and sexually assaulting female airplane staff. He also borrows the visual design of the film’s marketing material: the use of yellow, and a similar font to the film’s title card both feature prominently. Despite some superficial statements of regret over his past life, Belfort still uses the notoriety from that film to promote his personal brand and profit from it to this day. Far from ignorance or stupidity, Belfort utilises this because he knows that many people (mostly men) who watch the film long for the lifestyle it depicts despite Scorsese’s implicit critique of it.
For years, it’s been a popular talking point that Gordon Gecko’s famous “greed is good” speech in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street was embraced by brokers on Wall Street, despite the film unambiguously condemning the character’s philosophy of unregulated capitalism. In this speech, Gecko, played by 1980s yuppy incarnate Michael Douglass says greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” This invocation of Darwinism is unsurprising given that Darwin’s theories, even in his own lifetime, were used by numerous groups, both right and left, to lend legitimacy to their ideologies. Take what works and omit the rest that doesn’t.
The way ideologies adapt themselves to maintain a hold on the minds of the people was as true then as it is today in the age of neoliberal capitalism. It can also be seen in the Weimar Republic, through the fictional character of Mabuse and an all-too real Austrian corporal. When one of his henchmen is apprehended by the police, the doctor disguises himself as a proletariat agitator, enters a pub and rouses the working-class patrons to halt a police van carrying his colleague. He achieves this under the false pretence that the van contains a local activist. This forces the police to remove the man from the van so that Mabuse can have him assassinated before this accomplice has the chance to tell the police anything about Mabuse’s criminal organisation. In this section of the film, Lang illustrates how people’s politically informed passions can be utilised by unscrupulous figures for their own individual ends at a time when that Austrian corporal was learning to do the same. This chimes with the way Belfort’s representation in The Wolf of Wall Street and his real-life counterpart take advantage of their audience’s desire for wealth to line their own pockets.
Through Jordan Belfort, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has effectively updated Lang’s Mabuse figure for a contemporary audience. Yet despite his formal sophistication as a storyteller, the years since the film’s release have highlighted Scorsese’s failure to construct a meaningful critique of the socio-economic system that allows men like Belfort to thrive. Under capitalism, we all crave the mabussy.
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The Limitless Control of the Robot
Fritz Lang’s urban dystopia Metropolis (1927) is a cornerstone in the evolution of the robot in Science Fiction. In it, the privileged son of the wealthy master of the city, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a lowly worker from below the titular city. Together, they try to bring the workers and the masters together and end the class war taking place there. The story hinges on a robot, which is used to incite disruption amongst the workers, grinding Metropolis to a halt. The robot is both the source of wonder and opportunity, as well as the catalyst of the destruction inflicted on the people of Metropolis. But who is actually responsible for the robot’s actions? If a robot, disguised as a woman but controlled by a man, could wreak havoc and bring a city to its knees, the audience has to wonder Lang’s choice to give his robot the image of a woman and what it says about technology, control and how women are portrayed in science fiction.
The robot’s inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), wishes to bring back to life the women he loved, planning to steal someone’s image to imprint on his creation. Not only will he have back what he believes he lost, but he will also have complete and utter control of her. This need to transform women into the image they want and control them has been a continuous theme in literature since Ovid’s Pygmalion, and throughout science fiction. One of the most memorable contemporary portrayals of the female robot within an enclosed society was in Ira Levin’s 1972 satirical thriller novel, The Stepford Wives, later a 1975 film. It depicts a perfect world where everyone is happy in a 1950s-esque idealised Americana, where men are in charge, and where the women stay in their homes as obedient and non-sentient beings. In fact, it is later discovered that the women have been transformed into robots and are controlled by the men, in a distinct echo of Rotwang’s despotism.
Similarly, the (usually coded female) robots or androids of the UK-USA co-produced television series Humans (2015-2018) are literally reduced to objects, being available to purchase in shops for all manner of uses, from the performance of menial domestic tasks to sex work. Throughout the show’s run, the androids themselves make the discovery that some models have been awoken to sentient feelings and are able to think for themselves beyond their programming, like when one of these models is sold to a brothel and forced to perform sexual acts against their will. This moment explores the possibility that, even with androids, there are lines that can be crossed.
Blade Runner (1982) also explores the idea of robots as objects, to be used as is needed. The film’s visual design is heavily influenced by Metropolis, English director Ridley Scott sculpting landscape and towering buildings of the LA skyline to resemble the above and below city of Metropolis. These ‘replicants’, in the film’s language (and that of Phillip K. Dick, who wrote the 1968 novel on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), are humanoid robots who serve as soldiers, entertainers, terminators and sex workers, all at the behest of their creators. The control over the replicants reaches as far as limiting their existence and planting false memories. Having control means having power, and men (they are all men in Blade Runner), will do anything to gain it, even overstepping boundaries and claiming they are doing what is right, like the husbands of Stepford. The replicants are portrayed as dysfunctional, and their presence on Earth illegal, therefore they must be terminated. As in Metropolis, the blurred lines of what is an acceptable way to treat robots tells us that they must stand in for the oppressed in whatever setting. Rotwang kidnaps Maria to steal her likeness for his robot so he in turn can control the rebellion within and execute his own personal plan. Artificial intelligence has always been used as a tool of higher, totalitarian power: reducing Maria the robot to the status of an object to serve these two men, thus reduces women to less than human. Maria begins the story as a woman with a mission to right wrongs, but she is turned into an object to be used by men to get what they want. Men who believe they can get revenge through women, making it seem like she is at fault.
Made in the image of male desire, women are seen to be used as and when it pleases men. The robots created on screen are largely made by men. Male characters build robots, use and abuse them but are still confused when their creations turn against them. They become fearful of what they have made. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), the inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaacs) creates various models for his own experiments and pleasure, boasting to his human guinea pig Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) that he has purposely built the robots with vaginas. He eventually uses Ava, as well as Caleb, to test her intelligence, and in turn satisfy his own ego. As Ava is the one who exacts revenge on her creator, she is the one who is to be feared, as demonstrated in her abandonment of Caleb, leaving him to die. This portrays the female gendered robot and to an extent, female characters in science fiction as cold calculating beings, getting what they want, no matter the consequences. But as Ava is still a robot, she has been built by someone else so it could be stated that she can never truly be considered the evil one over her creator. In Metropolis, once Robot Maria is let loose, she isn’t the love that Freder thought he had as she wreaks havoc amongst the workers and incites riots to destroy the machines. Robot Maria is only causing all this destruction because she has been programmed to do so by Rotwang, her inventor. Both Rotwang and Nathan Bateman ultimately die as a result of their own hubris: Rotwang because he thought by controlling a woman, he could get his revenge through her; and Nathan because he thought he was more intelligent than what he created.
Although there are many enduring images from Metropolis from the skyline of the city to the great machines below the surface, it is that of the robot, before the likeness transference of Maria, that is the most frequently used to represent the film. It is embedded in our memories: even if someone hasn’t seen the film, they are familiar with this moment. Like an image of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Maria is one of the first robot characters to be portrayed on-screen with a gender and a downfall. She incites chaos and ruins people’s lives; she is the wanton woman who leads men astray. But she is also a creation of man. No one likes to be reminded of the latter fact. Women will be compared to who came before and if all women are inherently evil, like Eve, they are damned forever.
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Prison, at the very least, offers clarity for its inmates. This is the abiding message of William Faulkner’s 1939 novel, The Wild Palms, formed of two tales, intercut chapter by chapter. “Wild Palms” centres on Harry and Charlotte, who escape their mundane and unfulfilling lives by bouncing across America, in pursuit of heady idealism and earthly pleasures. It ends with Harry killing Charlotte in a bungled abortion procedure and facing a lengthy custodial sentence. “Old Man”, meanwhile, features a tall convict, commanded by the local authorities to rescue a pregnant woman on the flooded Mississippi River. During the dangerous and circuitous route, the nameless delinquent longs for the order of the penal system.
Aside from Faulkner’s effortful weave of themes and rhythms, it is the final setting of Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary of Mississippi, that unites the storylines. Harry rejects a cyanide pill in one of its cells, famously choosing grief over nothing, and the tall convict acquiesces to increased jail time on his voluntary return, content with life in a regulated institution. Faulkner suggests in both instances that these characters only have the illusion of choice. Within the safety of confinement, where physical liberty is contained or withheld, the mind devises its own freedoms.
In M (1931), co-written and directed by Fritz Lang, questions of choice and freedom throb impudently beneath the surface. In the climactic scene, set in a disused distillery, hosting a kangaroo court composed of Berlin’s nefarious underworld, Peter Lorre’s blazing, ocular child murderer, Hans Beckert, pleads his innocence on the grounds of compulsion and by gesturing towards the hypocrisies of his captors:
What right have you to speak? Criminals! Perhaps you are even proud of yourselves! Proud of being able to crack into safes, or climb into buildings, or cheat at cards. All of which, it seems to me, you could just as easily give up, if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you were not such lazy pigs. I cannot help myself! I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me—the fire, the voices, the torment!
Hans, understandably, would rather face the civilized judgment of the Weimar court. Fortune bursts in from behind us. The police arrive in time before the mob smothers him, and the closing moments show the precipice of a judicial verdict, followed by a direct-to-camera appeal from one of the bereaved mothers, tearfully imploring the audience “to keep closer watch over the children.” The viewer is left to speculate on the relative justice of events, which goads a preference between the prongs of the pitchfork and the promises of state rehabilitation.
Yet the ruminating, philosophical discussions on law and morality are mostly secondary in Faulkner’s text and Lang’s film, because both employ strikingly comparable innovations in storytelling to structure their respective narratives. For Faulkner, the separate stories function as counterpoints, whereby one alternately brings the other up to pitch. Woven together, they encourage the reader to detect a textured pattern that feeds the dialectic of escape and imprisonment. The dual structure of the novel invites connections between the characters’ assorted pleas for autonomy and subservience, bringing into relief broader questions about the nature of private selfhood and sovereign authority. That, and Faulkner thought the stories too weak on their own terms, requiring some crude formal trickery to beef up the various melodramas. Through sonic semantics—the self-coined use of “counterpoint”—his blunt creative decision took on a faintly orchestral murmur, as something to lift it.
Lang uses a cinematic cousin of literary counterpoint, parallel editing, to persuasive and disturbing effect. While allowing Hans’ whistling of Edvard Grieg to thread itself through the plot as an operatic leitmotif, indicating the presence of evil, Lang also deployed a version of cross-cutting to show simultaneous actions in different locations. Memorably, this technique frames the early demise of schoolgirl Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), the first and only victim afforded to the viewer. As the camera tracks Elsie’s encounter with Hans, the film variously cuts to her mother’s kitchen, the empty place at the dinner table, a ball rolling along grass, and a balloon floating past a set of power lines. The sequence starts from a perch of ominous irony, before swooping down into the dreaded act itself, suggested only through images of human absence rather than those of graphic violence. Lang reapplies this style of editing for comic purposes: to mirror against one another the combustible debates of lawless gangs and local enforcement, both of whom wish to end the social instability inflicted by the killer’s reign of terror.
Endless streams of shallow focus, in opulent lairs and austere offices, suggest the fear and confusion Hans has wrought upon the city, which by contrast is rendered throughout in detailed plans and blueprints. Both Faulkner and Lang placed great value on mapping the geographies of their art, just as they were confounding conventional artistic processes. Faulkner produced elegant geometric drawings of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, wherein many of his novels are situated. Lang’s interest in technologies, old and new, manifests itself on numerous occasions in M, through the multiple shots of road maps, traffic and transport networks, architectural designs, circuit systems and building layouts. By giving prominence to these tools of accuracy and precision, Lang sharply refocuses the disorder induced by Hans’ murderous spree, which transgresses all cultural norms and civic codes, legal or otherwise.
The formal and thematic legacies of Lang and Faulkner stretch across cinematic culture, exemplified by their sedimentary appearances in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Its jump cuts and discontinuities, common to characterizations of the French New Wave, echo Lang’s startling use of parallel editing. Faulkner’s presence in Godard’s film is even more explicit. In a scene of entwined lovers, Patricia (Jean Seberg) quotes in wistful cadence the immortal line about grief and nothing to budding felon, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). His fair rejoinder, which discards guilt for volition, undercuts the logical fallacies of Harry and the tall convict, and the ethical conundrums disputed by Hans and the baying mob. Why embrace incarceration and, in doing so, shoulder an eternal burden of despair? Michel doesn’t consider this to be particularly tricky. “Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing.”
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.
Of all that’s become synonymous with Fritz Lang––the conspiracy, the compositional dexterity, the keen comprehension of both silent and sound cinema––one of the most consistent realized throughlines has been the enfolding of violence into the film’s environment, regardless of its inherent artifice or realism. As if to further visualize the byzantine plots almost always existing behind the curtains, Lang fills his films with objects and systems of unremarkable mundanity that are then reappropriated by their film’s conflict, sometimes to brutal results. In Rancho Notorious (1952), there’s a mirror that’s the receiver of a stray bullet (which foresees the later, concluding tragedy) and a lockpick smuggled into a jail in a bottle of champagne; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) sees a whole German city as a blueprint for terrorism; the crux of Fury (1936) is the method in which a mob torches a jail, with its prisoner still inside; Ministry of Fear (1944) unravels a whole Nazi plot when a man accidentally wins a cake at a local carnival; and most unforgettably, the always terrifying Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953), reaching for the nearby coffee pot just to throw its scalding contents into Gloria Graham’s face.
By pure happenstance, however, directors Edward Dmytryk and Don Siegel each respectively released films in the 1950s through Columbia––the studio responsible for Lang’s The Big Heat and Human Desire (1954)––that, whether willing or not, recast Lang’s vision within the realm of ostensible realism. This means no heroic POVS and an unnerving use of real locations; both The Sniper (Dymytrk, 1952) and The Lineup (Siegel, 1956) opted for San Francisco, which, among other things, was the latter director’s favorite city in the entire United States.
Both films also cleave their runtimes neatly in half to follow what can be considered the villain(s) of each film––whose occupation of the roles is more befitting of an agent of good––and the actual “good guys” who pursue them. Neither Siegel or Dmytryk feign personability, and one won’t find themselves rooting for the serial murderers and drug runners on the screen; instead, both directors achieve an arresting distanciation, in which characters operate as if in one narrative mode (fulfilling the pressing task at hand) while truly fulfilling another one (proving themselves to be villains along the way). These are bad guys as viewed from behind glass, left are we with little to do but observe.
For Lang, however, this physical network of bloodshed only toed the nihilistic. Populated are his films with protagonists who fulfill at least the platonic ideal of a specific hero model. Glenn Ford is vengeful and full of spite in The Big Heat, but such emotions are yoked to a catalyzing loss, in which his wife was the victim of a car bomb meant for him. And the always benevolent Henry Fonda, even if more hardened behind his usual hangdog eyes, strikes a figure of sympathy as one wrongly accused in You Only Live Once (1937). It could be argued that without these performances at the films’s center, Lang’s borderline dystopian vision would become overbearing, those immovable systems they so ruthlessly visualize not even facing the necessary opposition that the director’s richly rendered characters shoulder.
In The Sniper, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) becomes something of a subject to the combined efforts of the San Francisco police force himself. Eddie kills women he feels mistreated by (all are innocent, of course) with an M1 carbine, a compulsion he tries over and over to mitigate, first by getting admitted to a hospital after intentionally pressing his hand against an electric stove, and then later by writing an anonymous letter to the police. Dmytryk presents what is now a standard case of violent misogyny for countless noir and noir-adjacent projects in tandem with twin systems––law and medical––that are ill-equipped to counter it, much less even identify the signals. Eddie is on the verge of psychiatric admittance, but the understaffed hospital is suddenly inundated with the victims of a gunfight, and thus his doctor is whisked away. Later, the head of the investigation, Lieutenant Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), learns of early applied psychology techniques by his department’s resident therapist in an expository interval that predates Psycho (1960), and frames the lieutenant as little more than a feckless lawman.
The conceit and subsequent construction of Dmytryk’s film strays from Lang’s noblemen, who retain identifiable qualities, no matter how corroded they may be by the film’s end, or how much they may experience vengeful tunnel-vision throughout. However, the wedding of San Francisco––both the location and the people therein––to Eddie’s string of murders is what positions The Sniper as a spiritual companion to not just Lang’s Columbia films, but even those reaching back to when Dr. Mabuse first materialized. Dmytryk creates an anti-city-symphony, leaving San Francisco unnamed just like the metropolitan center of M (1931, this American city is otherwise too recognizable to not realize what it is) as its physical makeup becomes its own conduit of violence. Bullets pierce glass windows and shatter marquee signs, discomfiting implications of bloodshed when the actual murder is elided.
Lang traces the rippling effects of the plots at his films’s centers, which is exactly what Dmytryk does by objectively folding in the aftereffects of the killings into the intertwining responsibilities of the police who are after Eddie, and the hospital who turned him away. Most intriguing, however, is the way in which Dmytryk ropes in the general public to the spree, who are always present at the scene. These crowds are less bloodthirsty than the pyromaniac lynch mob in Fury, but they still are attracted by the promise of being in tangible contact with the committed crime, and are thus always assembled, always craning their necks to get a better view of the body, or at least the aftermath.
The Lineup’s production was initially more roundabout in asserting its Lang-indebted mastery.; Siegel was tapped by Columbia to direct the film after contributing his efforts to a few episodes of the television series of the same name. Siegel himself wanted The Lineup to solely focus on the two hitmen, Dancer (a perfectly unstable Eli Wallach) and Julian (affable, though no less sinister, Robert Keith), sent as collateral to San Francisco after the drug smuggling operation they serve suffers a blow from an unperforming mule. The studio however insisted on including the same characters from the police force as seen on TV, and so Marshall Reed and Warner Anderson reprise their roles as Inspector Fred Asher and Lieutenant Ben Guthrie, respectively (not unlike Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann in both M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).
Siegel’s disinterest with the inspector and lieutenant is palpable –– in the disappointingly short chapter dedicated to The Lineup in his autobiography, the director writes mostly of the closing car chase and not much else. This imposed decision however imbues Siegel’s film with a similar effect of that of The Sniper; the police are ineffectual in combating a criminal system which has seemingly metastasized through the entire city and beyond, near powerless are they in quelling the rising bodycount. As in The Big Heat or Fury, Siegel has Dancer and Julian’s downfall come at the hands of one not associated with the law, exacted in the form of one Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche), whose daughter unwittingly applies the heroin smuggled inside a Japanese doll to that very doll’s face, mistaking the powdered drug for makeup. The doll landing in the wrong hands already set Dancer and Julian back, but the young girl’s actions cause the dominos to then fall even faster, a particularly Langian turn of events, considering the narrative significance of the inanimate object which the drugs come packaged in.
Julian and Dancer’s cleanup efforts send them pinballing across San Francisco, and Siegel expertly wields his love of the city against itself, those hilly avenues taking on an endless, ominous quality. That is, until the final chase sequence––surely one of the best ever committed to film––as the two men’s alcoholic driver, Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) attempts escape from the police through the intertwining roadways of the yet-as-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, before coming to an unceremonious, four story drop. Otherwise, Julian and Dancer navigate the villainous system they themselves are cogs in, like a flipped The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: servants are felled by gunfire in decadent townhouses; the two men take a trip to the city’s aquarium to try and intercept Dorothy; and Dancer himself comes face to face with his boss in hopes of smoothing over the day’s mistakes at the Sutro Baths and Museum. In a final, Langian twist, the head of the syndicate is simply known as “The Man”, played by a gruff, wheelchaired Vaughn Taylor, who Dancer promptly pushes to his death, his body splayed out crudely on Sutro’s rollerink.
The shared location shooting of Dmytryk and Siegel imagines an entire world as a Langian gameboard, a true to life analogue to a director whose films have their roots in the thrilling artificiality of German expressionism. Whether or not Lang is an admitted aspirant, the parallels speak enough for themselves, considering the director was at the forefront of popular film, with one foot in the silent era, and the other in sound; a good handful of his films are the very definition of cinema for many. The Sniper and The Lineup don’t just offer illusory callbacks and superficial similarities, but verifiable reckoning with a formidable body of work, and how its merits could be reinterpreted for the everchanging popular film landscape.
One of Fritz Lang’s most prolific spiritual descendants is Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. Since beginning his career in the 1980s, he has directed or co-directed, credited or uncredited, nearly 60 films, and he has an expansive range of genre interests (in the last decade alone, he has directed several rom-coms, a musical, and crime films of varying moodiness and depth). Look only to the films for which he is known in the Euro-American sphere, however, and one notices a more specific fascination with the function of social structures. That fascination is symbolised in the subjects of three To films – Election (2005), Sparrow (2008), and Drug War (2012) – each of which suggests its own internecine sense of organisation, whether external or internal. They might involve the rigid, pseudo-governmental operations of criminal syndicates, the binary oppositions of cops and robbers, or the navigational prowess of small-time crooks within the larger rat run of a city.
As a genre filmmaker, however, To’s style is only distinct because of his incredible spatial dexterity and the intricacies of his narratives. Take Throw Down (2004). With its reduction of complex characters to emblems in a formal exercise, To abstracts the crime movie’s construction. Like squinting at a painting to better understand its constituent parts (or watching a movie at four-times speed to better understand its structure!), it is the narrational equivalent of the painting’s daubs of colour and light, practically unchained from the concrete details of plot. Like Fritz Lang, To can be found here in possession of “an intellect that transforms images into ideas”, as was put by Andrew Sarris in his essential acclamation of Lang in The American Cinema.
In Election, To uses anonymity to disorientate the viewer. The film follows a crime syndicate – a triad society – attempting to fill the role of chairman, first through “legitimate” means of an election, and then through the chaos of buy-offs, smuggled power totems, sword fights, and phone-calls. (The latter, with its implications of interconnected communication and a rapidity associated with the modern, is also a key object in many of Lang’s films, especially 1928’s Spies.)
It is also a very strange film. Here is a movie that is propelled forward through transfers of information, loyalty, and, as a result of these, power, a film which spends much of its first act very precisely delineating the fissures within the triad, yet nonetheless hinges on a centrepiece action sequence in which the exact identities and affiliations of the participants, who are all chasing after a MacGuffin anyway, are completely unclear. The fulcrum of the film’s events, the civil discussions that provisionally solve the dispute, all happen offscreen, while onscreen, the fight sequences and motorbike chases would suggest thuggery, instability, and winner-takes-all disorder.
This ultimate restoration of order through chaos, which is in any case stained with the black spot of murder in the film’s closing moments, indicates the dark symbolism of To’s film. In the film, systems of democracy are ultimately only there to be subverted by the highest bidder. The title Election is thus an ironic one, a metaphor for the purely symbolic importance of even holding a ballot for triad chairman in the first place. Compare this with 1931’s M, and its horrifying zero-sum game kangaroo court denouement, and it’s clear how much Fritz Lang would have appreciated To’s cynicism on this front!
In To’s world, it is not always doom and gloom. In Sparrow, Hong Kong is To’s playground, and indeed that of the pickpockets who are the protagonists of the story. Grappling with a malevolent gangster who has a veritable femme fatale in his clutches, the four sparrows (slang for pickpockets) at the film’s centre traverse horizontal and vertical mazes of corridors, lifts, rooftops, streets, alleys, small and large businesses, etc. Like a funhouse version of the crooked city Kenport in The Big Heat (1953) or the interconnected network of Dr Mabuse’s Berlin in The Gambler (1922), the city is mapped out laterally. Geographic and hierarchical straight lines intersect left and right, up and down, with individuals speeding through the maze of Hong Kong like mice in a lab.
Its tone is light and self-aware, with the film often bathed in a soft-focus sheen reminiscent of Hollywood’s Technicolor glory days. The score is just as shameless, evoking even that most sweet of movie confections: the Disney sound. It’s all in good jest, and though To certainly displays another quality that Andrew Sarris once attributed to Lang – that he was “obsessed with the structure of the trap” – it is purely for the purposes of fun and spectacle.
Not so for Drug War, one of To’s bleakest works. “You betrayed me!” a criminal splutters at Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), before Zhang headbutts him. “I’m a cop; you’re a drug dealer,” Zhang replies. “I didn’t betray you. I busted you.” For Zhang, positions within the social structure are determinate of one’s actions, markers of an unbreakable code that one must follow to the bitter end. It is this very philosophy that proves to be his undoing, as To upends Zhang’s binary compartmentalisation and ends the film staring agape at the cruelty and inflexibility of the societal structure itself.
But, before one even reaches that point, Zhang’s philosophy is immediately challenged. As he forces drug producer Timmy Choi into becoming a police informant to capture Choi’s supplier, Uncle Bill, Zhang must also perform different social roles as he impersonates both sides of a financial transaction between Uncle Bill and drug distributor, Haha. Already, Zhang’s unambiguous delineation between his own social role and that of the criminal’s begins to crumble, a process abetted by Johnnie To’s stone-faced direction. There is not an ounce of heroism in Zhang’s pursuit, nor is there honourable mischief on the side of the thieves. Both are treated as organisations that operate through deception and cruelty, all performed by the various actors that call themselves “cop” or “criminal”.
The comparisons to Fritz Lang’s suspicion of infrastructure are infinite, especially when we consider that Lang’s ultimate affinity was to the people who fell victim to his determinist vision of society at large (he never laid blame at the door of one particular organisation, but the idea of organisation itself). Henry Fonda’s Eddie Taylor in You Only Live Once (1937) is brought to his knees by his own distrust of the system, drilled into him by years of being ground down in courtrooms and prisons. Two Lang films within a year of each other – Rancho Notorious (1952) and The Big Heat – feature murdered wives as catalysts for the male protagonists’ revenge stories. Spies, despite its rightful recognition as the inspiration for hundreds of globe-trotting espionage movies, centres on a surprisingly touching romance.
But where Lang displays compassion for his doomed protagonists, Johnnie To cuts those protagonists out of the picture entirely and makes Drug War a question of the organisations themselves facing death. That Captain Zhang, for example, begins the movie with that badass one-liner without ever developing into someone sympathetic is indicative of To’s desire that we see the characters in Drug War as emblems in his thesis on the horrors of law enforcement.
Andrew Sarris indeed described Fritz Lang’s cinema as that ‘of the philosophical dissertation’. If there is one Johnnie To film that best fulfils that Lang comparison, it is Drug War, which ends in a manner where narrative is not nearly as important as geography. The various collected members of Uncle Bill’s drug ring (all of whom are, in fact, different facets of an invented “Uncle Bill” persona) are ambushed by Zhang’s team on the road outside a school, only to fight back and scupper the sting operation. But as an immaculate shootout begins, as in Lang’s Dr Mabuse The Gambler, To weaponises the anonymity that was so essential, yet sparingly deployed, in Election and pushes it to extraordinary heights of symbolism. The cars belonging to the cops and the criminals pull into each other, run off and back onto the road, and block the street entirely. More than once, we are forced to question exactly who is shooting at whom, until there is nobody left to shoot or to be shot at.
To’s final statement becomes depressingly clear as each character – and it is nearly all of them – gets picked off: conflict between cops and criminals is a ten-car traffic jam on a straight road with no way out. Everybody loses. “The world,” Sarris again writes of Lang, but might as well have written about Drug War, “must be destroyed before it can be purified.”
If we’re talking penultimate works, The Beatles have Abbey Road, and Fritz Lang has The Indian Epic. Just like Abbey Road’s victory lap gains an intergalactic resonance through its extended length, synth breakthroughs, and giving Ringo a drum solo, in The Indian Epic Lang returned to German producers to deliver a film on the scale of his silent works, one that crystallises the director’s essence in every bloated scene. The Indian Epic is a greatest hits album that finds Lang giving viewers pleasure even while the eye-popping colours and classical staging reveals some of his biggest political problems.
By the late 1950s it was clear that Lang could only be rejuvenated by leaving the American cinema behind him. Throughout the decade, the psychological realism of his Hollywood films had reached new heights. His Emile Zola adaptation Human Desire (1954) was a zenith of sorts, mapping as it does the eventually murderous sexual desires of a working-class couple (wearisome railyard operator Broderick Crawford and his horny housewife Gloria Grahame) onto the urban web of the train track. Yet, the dominant understanding of Lang as a cold inhumane filmmaker who cares about structure and not individuals holds no water considering his ability to connect directly with unspeakable feelings. Lang had found a way to turn his trademark – a character’s glare of horror straight down the camera lens – into a mood across a whole feature. And that camera angle travels to Demme (You Only Live Once and Something Wild are similar, after all) and Barry Jenkins (whose upcoming Colson Whitehead adaptation The Underground Railroad concerns train tracks linking a secret nationwide network).
Human Desire aside, Lang’s American films had also begun to grow repetitive, with tales of femme fatales and wrong men shrinking in scale, ambition and budget from the man who made Metropolis. His While The City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956) were the kind of bleak, schematic noirs that detractors (according to Jaques Rivette) tar his whole career with. By Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, in which a newspaperman asks himself a legal question about circumstantial evidence that ends up swallowing Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in a statutory trap, Lang’s vision of the urban environment as a playground for manipulation, conspiracy and thwarted romance had swallowed him into academic parlour games. So Lang went to India to complete a project decades in the making.
Das indische Grabmal (1918) was Thea von Harbou’s epic novel, where the writer morphed her enthusiasm/fetishism of Indian culture into a ripping yarn about a German architect enlisted by the Maharaja Chandra of Eschnapur into building a gigantic tomb, only to discover that it is a monument intended to punish Chandra’s lover, Seetha, for her infidelity. Adapting it for the screen, von Harbou had partnered with Lang, who had intended to direct the film before being brushed aside for Joe May. The 1921 version is an artifact of Weimar production that displays a bizarre colonialist desire from a nation that had no colonies of its own, particularly after The Great War and the Treaty of Versailles.
Evidently Lang, who split from the Nazi-sympathising von Harbou in 1933, eventually felt he could have done it better. Lured back to Germany by Artur Brauner (who was attempting to rescue a flailing German Film Industry by offering appealing budgets and production oversight to those German filmmakers who had naturalised themselves in Hollywood – including Robert Sidiomak and Gottfried Reinhardt), Lang returned to the epic scale and length of his silent heyday with his two part reinvention of the von Harbou novel: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (both 1959). A sweeping 3 ½ hour adventure shot on location in India (with interiors in West Berlin’s Spandau Studios), The Indian Epic, as the films came to be known, would appear to present a departure from Lang’s dissection of the angular nerve centres that make up the urban cityscape. DOP Richard Angst shoots in fauvist technicolor that gives each section of the frame a dramatically different palette through colored lenses. Ever the conspiracist, however, Lang cannot help but make the romantic triangle of his story the epicentre for vast intrigue that travels the entire subcontinent.
Despite location shooting, the entire cast is made up of German and American actors in brownface. While this is enough to make the modern viewer gulp, one cannot help but admire the sheer lengths and expense the crew would have gone through to make sure nobody on the Indian set was Indian. Even when making a story ostensibly about another, Lang cannot help but project the German vision of the place. The Tiger of Eschnapur opens with signs of life, a staged ethnography of camels, smiling under-nourished children, and desert-exotic vistas through which tradesmen travel. Brownface Indians catcall a woman in German, to which our architect hero Harold (Paul Hubschmid, like if Gregory Peck’s Mengele in The Boys From Brazil succeeded) responds by lifting the pair up and conking together their heads.
Langs humanism extends to other cultures, but only insofar as they are sexy. Lang casts American Debra Paget as Seetha, the temple dancer torn between her betrothal to Chandha and attraction to Harold, who fights a tiger and wins twice in the first 90 minutes. Her risque snake dance is probably The Indian Tomb’s most iconic image. Charming a snake (yep), she whips off a hood to reveal that just a few jewels cover her modesty, delivering an extended and distinctly European style dance that continues for several minutes before a hilarious cut to Chandra’s face, ogling. In the interests of not suggesting that an Indian woman would be the object of a proud German’s desire, Lang reveals Seetha to be Irish-Indian when she strums the folk song “The Night Paddy Murphy Died” on a banjira. With the small crumbs of personality afforded her, Paget actually does a decent job of communicating Seetha’s inner desires through glances and smaller gestures. Harold immediately attempts to save her from the fate of marriage to Chandra, offering to take her back to Germany, in an echo of Lang’s foray into Japanese culture, Harakiri (1919). But Sheetha feels connected to India and religion through her continued prayer to the statue of a busty, unnamed Godess (although she subconsciously links her prayer to Harold, by having him communicate to her through a platform in the temple visible if one looks up at the statue).
Lang connects his threads using talismanic objects. In House By A River, Lang’s effort at the Southern Gothic, villainous Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) embraces his wife and sees the hairbrush used by the maid he killed. Lang overlays a shot of a fish jumping from water over that brush, as though sparks have flown out from the object. Byrne jumps out of his skin. Lang’s humanism, seen by the tender embrace, is broken by the phantasmagoric properties of an object from the past. Like an inverse Proustian madeleine, it sends Byrne back to the darkest moment of his life, a moment he is trying to subjugate. Try as he might, his impulses emerge in the form of a story he writes, and in his bitter end, seeing the dead maid float on a curtain that billows in the wind. It strangles him.
In The Indian Tomb, one gloriously Langian moment finds Harold and Seetha on the lam and literally hidden from capture by a spider’s web, making her pray to a nearby statue of the buxom goddess. As ever, he asks who is watching over us? Lang’s engagement with spirituality in The Indian Epic gives his association of the souls of people with objects and animals a new clarity. When Harold and Seetha sit by a pond filled with lily pads, looking at their reflections in the water while considering their origins, one cannot help but remember the scene in You Only Live Once when Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney’s outlaw couple do much the same, even casting themselves as a pair of frogs. In The Tiger Of Eschnapur, those objects have a religious element which begs the question of who or what is controlling the strings up there. Labelling Harold a tiger, Seetha says ‘the other tiger is the other India.’ Harold clearly stands in for a globalised, colonial vision of the nation as a place you don’t even need to be from as long as you understand it. But Lang doesn’t define that which must be understood. Chandra sets up the film’s central conflict by countering, ‘Your people say make yourself at home. I doubt you could here, you’d need an Indian soul.’
Lang asks questions of representation that effectively exposes his ignorance, befitting of all that brown paint. Treacherous Chandra has invited Harold to design and build his tomb, ‘Made from the purest marble, the most precious jewels… jade, alabaster, turquoise, coral, emeralds and rubies. It will be the tomb of my beloved.’ In a meta-twist, Chandra has effectively ceded control of the nation’s image to an outsider. And Lang does impose his image. Harold is first tasked with charting the underground tunnels that connect Eschnapur, which Lang uses as an opportunity for him to come across sick lepers kept in a pit underground. The darkest elements of society kept beneath us by a malevolent leader. You know what they say, you can take the Lang out of the Mabuse etc.
Regardless, Lang’s filmmaking continues to connect animals, people, and buildings. The open question, ‘Where do birds fly? Where does the wind blow?’ is matched by Lang with a dissolve to the Palace and then to a statue of a peacock. Clearly birds (Seetha) fly home (to the palace/Indian excellence), the blowing winds being Lang’s camera and the audience POV as we move throughout his map. Lang gifts India, or at least, a cultural comprehension of India, to his audience. This is particularly clear at Harold’s reunion with Seetha, which has him search through the city streets for her (in the only scene that I observed containing actual Indian people, as extras wandering through a market), maneuvering the architecture. He becomes one with the space, and thus is led back to Seetha by her sister Bharani, both of them welcoming him as Indian.
Lang may have dressed his set up to look like India, but it’s sheer aesthetic. It is no more authentic than The Beatles’ own yogic ramblings. The Indian Epic is set out of time or space. It is a swashbuckling adventure, but where comparable epics like those of David Lean had some historical basis, von Harbau’s fiction is a mere imposition of her own impressions of a country she hadn’t visited. By The Indian Tomb’s climactic showdown between Harold and Chandra, Lang seems tired of the pretense. Their shirtless bodies are the same colour, Harold sweaty and tanned from the location shoot, Chandra’s brown makeup seeming to melt off. They look the same. For all of the film’s talky machinations, in its emotional climax Lang returns to his essence. Chandra stares at Seetha, and through her into the camera: spectacle achieved through silence.