Fritz Lang is best known today for Metropolis, the 1927 science fiction classic that recently screened at Pacific Film Archive. The film has been tremendously popular throughout the decades, and the fact that much of the film has been lost, cut by censors and misguided studios, has only added to its allure.
But the unfortunate result is that a misconception has developed over the years, leaving many modern viewers with the notion that Metropolis represents not only the best of Lang, but the best of silent cinema.
As fine an achievement as Metropolis is, it is by no means the best film of its time. Not even close. Influential, yes. Enjoyable, yes. Well made, yes. But for the most part it is influential primarily in its own genre.
Lang was hardly devoted to science fiction. In fact, he was primarily interested in realism; he wanted to tell stories rooted in the realities of Germany life. But Metropolis does contain many typical Lang characteristics: It is full of the sort of grand production values and plots that Lang could indulge in when backed by Ufa, the powerful and financially flush German studio that produced most of Lang’s early films.
Lang made several long, somewhat overblown films for Ufa in the 1920s, including Die Nibelungen (1924), Spies (1928) and Woman in the Moon (1929), all of which have been previously released on DVD by Kino in excellent editions based on restored prints. But the best film he made in the silent era precedes all of these.
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) catches Lang before his visions became quite so grandiose. It is pure Lang in so many ways: a pulpy, somewhat lowbrow story; a lengthy running time; an obsession with grand, symmetric imagery. Kino has just released the film in a newly restored version on DVD, tracking down more previously missing footage to make this the most complete version yet. The visual quality is spectacular, and the scoring is also excellent. And Kino has placed the two parts on two separate discs, reinforcing a detail that has been glossed over in some presentations: Dr. Mabuse is actually two films, released separately over a short period of time—the original Kill Bill.
The only drawback is that the set contains no extra features. The previous DVD incarnation, released by Image Entertainment, boasted an excellent commentary track with historical background and insightful criticism. For those interested in delving deeper into this classic, that edition is still indispensable.
The opening scenes of Mabuse quickly and brilliantly set the tone, establishing Mabuse’s master-of-disguise persona before diving immediately into intrigue with a sequence in which a government document is stolen and used by Mabuse to manipulate the stock market. It is a complex bit of choreography that features great use of Lang’s favored symmetric compositions, the most striking image being a trestle bridge that crosses the screen, framing beneath it a road on which a speeding automobile hurdles toward the camera, contrasting the horizontal rush of the train with the rapidly approaching vertical movement of the car.
The sequence ends with the final result of the theft: a decimated stock exchange, empty except for the ominous superimposed face of the supercriminal Mabuse.
Lang was bold and brash with his scope and subject matter—even more so with his own public persona—but despite these few examples, he was rarely daring in a technical sense. His camera rarely moves, his shots are rarely dynamic; indeed, they contain little of the style and flourish typical of German films of the period. Instead he holds the camera still, creating mostly static compositions, relying on character and context to hold the viewer’s attention. The idea was that surprising angles and compositions were too easily undermined by their overuse. Therefore a more restrained style would increase the impact of more experimental shots. However, when the actors are weak, the weakness of the technique reveals itself, especially when Lang chose to employ another of his vacuous paramours. But with Rudolf Klein-Rogge in the title role, Lang had found his true muse, an actor who could hold the camera’s attention.
Those static, symmetric shots have their own power, but Lang overuses them. In fact, it can come as something of a relief when he veers from them, for then the film develops a more dynamic energy. Shots of the Excelsior Hotel, for instance, are photographed dead-on from the outside, the revolving door and sign center screen. Likewise the Andalusian nightclub. Until, that is, the maitre d’ takes Inspector Van Wenk out the back door to lead him to the illicit gambling den. Here Lang, just for a moment, embraces the Expressionist aesthetic of the era with an excellent composition: straight ahead, a balcony runs across the top of the screen, with a dark, shadowy staircase running down the right side of the frame. In the foreground, a decaying archway and pillars with peeling paint frame the scene as the two men traverse the frame from left to right, through the archway, behind the pillar, up the stairs and through a doorway. It is simple but immensely effective, taking what could have been a perfunctory moment and transforming it into something much more dramatically compelling.
And this is where Lang truly excels: In taking relatively mundane, pulpish subject matter and elevating it to the point of artful melodrama. When he takes things too seriously he fails. Die Niebelungen collapses under the weight of its own gravity; Metropolis, which for the most part consists of fun, melodramatic silliness, is diminished by its trite, tacked-on message (“The mediator between Head and Hands must be the HEART!”). With Spies, Lang returned to the Mabuse mold, with Klein-Rogge again playing a criminal mastermind, but the film is somewhat less successful than the Mabuse films.
Mabuse is pure schlock, but it is schlock of a high order. It was meant to reflect the tawdry side of the waning days of the Weimar Republic, but that intellectual aspect is hardly necessary to enjoy the movie. Indeed, it seems more like an after-the-fact rationalization for a wild, silly tale. In fact, the film really has more of the feel of a serial, and this may in fact be the best way to enjoy it, watching just a couple of acts at a time, as each act without fail ends with a cliffhanger.
Eventually Lang would find himself on a tighter leash. Without Ufa’s backing—lost in part due to Metropolis’ extravagant budget—Lang was no longer able to indulge his every whim. The result were films in which he displayed remarkable economy and ingenuity, overcoming small budgets and limited resources with innovation and improvisation. The first of these, M (1931), Lang’s first sound film, is his best work. And this was followed by another Mabuse film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Both films catch Lang at his peak, with taught, economical visual storytelling combined with innovative use of sound. Lang counterpointed his sound effects with sequences of absolute silence, evincing a confidence and sophistication rare in the early sound era. These two films have none of Lang’s heavy-handed, plodding story development and few of his mind-numbing symmetric compositions, but instead transform their minimal resources into movies of maximum effect. Both have been previously released in excellent DVD editions by the Criterion Collection.