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PFA readies for finale of Land retrospective

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 19, 2001

For the past four months the Pacific Film Archive has been showcasing the work of film director Fritz Lang, a giant of cinema whose career spans from silent films in 1920s Germany to Hollywood studio product of the ‘40s, and even an homage in Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague classic, “Contempt.” 

This massive retrospective of Lang’s oeuvre is soon coming to a close – just two more weekends remaining – and the enthusiastic filmgoers who have been flocking to the PFA will be given a chance to reflect on the man and his work.  

On Saturday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. in the PFA theater, there will be a free open discussion about Lang with guest speaker, UC Berkeley professor Anton Kaes, fielding audience questions about the man. 

Following the discussion will be a screening of “Die Nibelungen,” Lang’s 1924 film based on the medieval legend of Seigfried – a hero who learns to make himself invulnerable to harm by bathing in the blood of a dragon. The Teutonic myth is a mainstay of German culture (Richard Wagner wrote an opera about it) and appealed to the Vienna-born Lang as a means to assimilate himself in his adopted country. 

“Die Nibelungen” can be seen as part of a triad of film projects, which became the cornerstones of German film culture. Completing the package are “Metropolis” – a science fiction spectacle of a technological future society tainted with black magic – and his “Dr. Mabuse” – a genius super-criminal masterminding a complex contemporary underworld. 

Fritz Lang is among the rare luminaries whose name has become a description. His name can easily be transformed into an adjective. (You’ll never hear anyone speak the word “Murnau-ian,” as in the director of “Nosferatu” and one of Lang’s professional rivals in Germany, F.W. Murnau.)  

“Langian,” a slippery term, can refer to the enormous scale of his modernist productions – both epic and architectural – or the maniacal tyranny he exercised while making his films. His behavior and his signature eyepiece earned him the tagline: “The monster with a monocle.” 

In Saturday’s discussion with Kaes, filmgoers who have been watching Lang’s wide spectrum of work will have a chance to clarify his contribution to world cinema and coax out the man behind the films. But professor Tom Gunning, who gave a lecture on Lang at the PFA on Sept. 21, said looking for an artist in the art is a tricky business, particularly with Lang. 

“Although there are many reasons to question the link between a person and a work, I think pure self-expression is an impoverished idea,” said Gunning the day after his lecture.  

He added that the tendency to search the films for the psychological underpinnings of the artist is perhaps not the most rewarding mode of analysis. 

Lang made films under a variety of conditions. In the early German film industry he enjoyed nearly unbounded creative freedom until Nazism drove him to Hollywood. There, the powerful studio system forced him to button-up his omnipotent tendencies. (Much of his professional maneuverings were means to exploit the industry.) 

“One thing about Lang is that he’s not just some Romantic artist who has this terrible time adjusting to this industrial, commercial process,” said Gunning, “rather his artistry consists of the way he interacts with it. He usually interacts with it as conflict.” 

Because cinema is such a collaborative art form, searching for the delicate signal of an artist’s own personality might be futile. 

“I think that’s a prejudice we have toward the novel and psychology and interiority,” said Gunning. “I think there’s a good argument that cinema is better dealing with things like exteriority, action, space. And in all those areas Lang is a master.… I think this exteriority is a profound modern vision.” 

Lang often lied about his own life. His carefully-wrought biography neatly wrapped up such shady periods as the death of his first wife and his “escape” from Nazi Germany. Some truths we may never know for certain, but his claim of being trained as an architect is at least partially true. Much of the energy in his films comes from characters’ reactions to their environments. This weekend’s screening of “Die Nibelungen,” the glaring artificiality in its fantasy sets, will showcase Lang’s artistry of space and design. 

“In Lang’s forest for “Die Nibelungen” there are these concrete trees, they are monumental and you never get a sense there is a leaf stirring,” said Gunning. “Lang is diagrammatic, an architectural quality. The environment is something he controls, and that’s what you see on the screen.”