Fritz Lang | Critical Essay by Raymond Bellour

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Fritz Lang.
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Critical Essay by Raymond Bellour

SOURCE: "On Fritz Lang," in Substance, No. 9, 1974, pp. 25-34.

In the following essay, Bellour provides an analysis of Lang's common cinematic techniques used throughout his career.

An amazing fate, Fritz Lang's, and fraught with paradox.

Like Stroheim, he was one of the foremost directors, yet not an actor embellished by the surprising prestige accorded every wretched performance; he was like Sternberg, yet without a woman like Marlene at his side; like Murnau, dying (forty years ago) a death wrapped in mystery; in a sense, Fritz Lang was the first in his day, solely for his work as a filmmaker, to have become cinematic legend. There is Welles, of course, again an actor, whose reputation (being at least mythic) rests upon having provoked America. And there is Hitchcock. But the myth here is concealed beneath a sociological facility, an imagery which hides the essential man. In a sense Lang alone incarnates, decisively yet abstractly, the concept of direction or mise-en-scène. Nor is his life foreign to this idea: his opposition to Goebbels, his flight from Germany and his disillusioned return after twenty years of exile in America; the way he visibly poses, from the filming of Siegfried, as scenarist of destiny—all this gives Lang a quality of violent compaction. This is the horizon which protects the pure and rigorous image of cinema par excellence.

From Les trois Lumières in 1922, each of Lang's films confirms his status as a great artist—the greatest, with Murnau, of the German filmmakers. Twelve years later he is in Hollywood enmeshed in the gears of the American machine, he produces twenty-three films: a little more than one per year. Even though he often turns down one project and chooses another, he films every possible Hollywood subject: psychological and social drama, detective and adventure stories, war films, Westerns; he does everything but American or musical comedy, and he touches on that in You and Me. Lang becomes a Hollywood director; the independent author of Métropolis reluctantly shoots a remake of La Bêté humaine. He is a great director, praised for his exceptional rigor and keenness. Nothing more. The grandeur of Hollywood amply rewards the absence of critical distance.

But when Lang leaves America in 1958, his reputation has already been forming in France. For Astruc, Rivette, Rohmer or Douchet, Lang is no longer just like other filmmakers. Not that he is the greatest; it's quite another matter: Lang embodies, in a sense, the very possibility of cinema—what is ambiguously called direction or mise-en-scène. In the double set of his American and German works, he shows a particular faithfulness, rather explicit, and more and more strict. The paradox of Lang's American films, set back to back as they are to their German counterparts, rests in this: they properly show how a vision of things takes form; what one might call ultimately, if vaguely, a vision of the world which Lang showed unequivocally in his earliest films. Thus Lang acknowledges, through his own singular method of comparison, a primacy of vision; it is not by chance from Fury on, both in the script and the picture, Lang implicitly stages the vision itself, using every possible technique, especially the presence of the inquisitor, the reporter, and the photographer—the man who sees the image and retains its appearance in the narrow rectangle of his movie camera. Every filmmaker, in a sense, defines the essence of his art; but is there a single one of them for whom, as for Lang, the film is the ultimate metaphor, stark and beyond all circuity? When a Sternberg film opens the possibility of vision, we are sent back, as soon as we look for a reference point, to Woman, the visible subject and object; with Hitchcock, we are sent beyond a moral system bound to appearances to a dizzying duplication of a symbolically doubled subject; in Eisenstein's work, to a theatrical and visual potential of the historical dialectic. But what can be said precisely for Lang: vision of vision? This has none of the ineffective redoubling which would deplete Lang's art, ensnaring it in its own myth; on the contrary, the horizon is enlarged at every point, corroborating Lang's reply to the question: "What is the most indispensable quality for a filmmaker?" "He must know life." By this we must understand: life as a place where vision is experienced. It remains to discover what lies beneath this word, "vision," how exactly Lang endows it with force; and, finally, in what form it shows or shows through.

This is what explains the passion, which some find peculiar, of certain of Lang's admirers for his last three films. Made in Germany by a man whom the American experience made master of all the artifices of fiction (with one theme and subjects from his first period), Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, Der Tiger von Eschnapur, and Das indische Grabmal offer this paradox: they are at once surprisingly disguised and misleadingly frank. Naive and almost puerile on the surface, they are not unlike the Hindu doublet; for beneath the conventionality and graruitousness of the serial, the last Mabuse reveals a particularly urgent gravity of theme. These extremely theoretical films reject the reassuring alibi of Lang's American work while transposing its basic facticity into a Germany where nothing has survived; they disavow the certainty of the myths which subtend the German period and thus bring them to the level of a double adventure, individual and collective, of film and historical conscience. Lang's destructive-reflective irony belies utmost integrity: he makes a game of the hackneyed subjects he is offered, as if through a derisory faithfulness to himself, but in his third Mabuse he foils the ultimate games of vision and life, precipitating the myth into a reflection which guides it towards its ultimate reality: the cinema as possible. The metaphor for this is evident not only in the symbolic title Die tausend Augen ("The Thousand Eyes"), but in the dazzling visual multiplication of television screens which Louxor Mabuse, reincarnated in his son, places in the hotel lounge—as if to imply (it has often been noted)—thedirectorhimself. As for the two Indian films: they are precarious, penetrated by blinding moments; they speak only of a beautiful and just stubbornness where despair blossoms; where the mise-en-scène and even its idea (as Blanchot said of writing) seems, in the silence which encloses it, a dissociation of its components, an inability to lie which reaches the tragic.

It is therefore not surprising that these films—the last of perhaps the only oeuvre which covers nearly fifty years of filmmaking—constitute the vital matter by comparison with the myth. For in France today, where Fritz Lang is becoming legend (far from America which was not able to recognize him, and his native Germany which didn't know how to rediscover him), those who flock to the Cinémathèque come more or less consciously to admire the man who in his work saw film as the ultimate metaphor, and whom Godard, by a happy decision, has precipitated in the double game of Le Mépris. Lang's only trump cards are the statues colored violently with Greek legend, just as in Le Tombeau hindou his trumps are the gardens, the palaces, and the actors placed there like huge marionettes around whom beauty has been suddenly born. Despised by the producer who pays him, despising everything which is not life or the power to tell the life which vision masks, Lang—alone, disillusioned, but always anxious to retain truth within and around himself—does not finish shooting The Odyssey, does not finish relating the life which is already woven into the threads of his own fiction.

Lang plays, then, a refined and skillful game with his stories and with each element of his material: varied, assertive, and more or less disguised, a game which it would be fitting to formulate visibly through his forty films. He himself, as one might expect, offers little help. In the handsome documentary book put together by Alfred Eibel, Lang contradicts himself, jokes, limits his discussion to questions of ideas and story, to thematic, political and social aspects of each of his films, or confines himself, with seeming irony, to remarks about technique. But the testimony of his many collaborators invites us to ask, if indirectly, the question of form about which Lang always claims ignorance. For all of them—actors, scriptwriters, cameramen, set designers—describe an extraordinarily attentive man, concerned with the smallest gesture, demanding from each frame of film a rigorous life which quite often defies the illusory banality of his tale. From his book (sparsely written in impassioned episodes which trace Lang's steps—illuminating him and making him more accessible), the certainty is born that the more Lang insists on the apparent meaning of his films, the more the enigma of that meaning must be determined through a systematic exploration of the form through which multiple correspondences are presented and which alone illuminates the irreducible feeling of totality.

It is surprising, then, that no text has yet thrown full light on an author so intimately bound to the essence of his art—as Claude Oilier has done, for example, in his very beautiful study (if only on a single film) of Josef von Sternberg; and, considering the infinite diversity and rigor of Lang's films, that no one has sought to define the paradoxes and the strange, broken unity which show through both the entire documentary book devoted to him and his recent confession which he entitles "La nuit viennoise" in memory of his birthplace; a statement so admirable in tone, in details, ambiguities and challenge.

I intend here only to bring together haphazardly some of the very numerous elements which, when described, analyzed in detail, and arranged according to the series of connections which they demarcate, would be the basis for a systematic approach to the Langian universe. Notes, of a sort, for a "cinemanalaysis."

1. The position of an author is defined by the relationship which he maintains with his characters. In the film, one form of this relationship rests on the systems of vision which the pictures reveal: how the author fragmentarily indicates and encloses the viewpoint of his characters within the continuity of his own viewpoint constitutes the viewpoint of the film. Minnelli, for example, generally remains external to what he shows; Hitchcock, inversely, makes the clearly defined vision of his characters a part of the system of his own vision. In this regard Lang himself shows a weighty and decisive ambiguity.

There is one strictly univocal manner of framing a character's vision: to enclose the shot of the seen object between two identical shots of the seeing subject. Lang seldom does more than indicate the possibility of such certitude, and then only to challenge it immediately and to plunge it into an equivocality. This occurs with the three looks of the assassin in While the City Sleeps.

—At the time of the first murder, he is framed from the waist up, in front of the door: one feels that the assassin is watching something in particular, but cannot say what; a very brief close-up of the door latch follows, but the shot which comes next is itself divergent in terms of the assassin's gaze.

—The assassin enters the studio of Dorothée Kyne: he sees her in a mirror smoothing her stocking with a long and very gentle movement; the close-up which follows, showing the assassin in the middle of the room, says nothing about his supposed point of view.

—Later he leaves the house and moves towards a low window which looks into the bar; he bends down, one sees a long shot of the barroom; we are assured the camera is outside the room by the deformation of the glass; everything clearly indicates that the shot reflects the assassin's exact view, but nothing proves it; for instead of reframing the assassin, Lang passes to something else.

In a different manner (using three methods of non-disclosure) Lang allows ambiguity to hover over the relationship which unites character and director in the vision. An attitude which one finds again and again in almost all his films, and which is completely manifest, for example, in the twice-repeated leper sequence of Le Tigre du Bengale and Le Tombeau hindou. And which Lang deliberately plays upon in The Blue Gardenia, where Norah's waking gives way to deformations in the substance of the frame, again leaving us faced with two possibilities: either Lang is showing that only an artifice can precisely situate a viewpoint—that vision of the real alone cannot; or he is deliberately moving to a symbolic level, making an assertion of this trick shot which, far from identifying the author with the characters even for a moment, distances him from them even more.

2. The author defines himself by his point of view towards the objects he unveils. This point of view is manifest in the first place by the distance at which the camera is held. The distance of the camera from its objects varies; this variation constitutes a first level of cinematographic reality (or unreality) and of all analysis. With Lang it seems to be either vivid or disguised in manner, keeping constant (by his multiple detours) the fascination and the difficulty one experiences in watching his films.

From a thousand possible examples, here is an almost theoretical one from The Blue Gardenia: Lang devotes three shots to evoke his three heroines in bed in their shared apartment:

—The camera frames a comic-book in close-up, then draws back, revealing Rose sprawled on her bed, seen in the light from the night lamp which she has not put out.

—With a wide still-shot, the camera frames Crystal who is murmuring her lover's name in her sleep.

—The camera frames in long-shot the corner of the room where Norah's bed is placed, and advances with a travelling-shot until she is isolated; thus only Norah is shown closely (for she is the main character); she is listening to the radio beneath her sheets.

The distance, the impression of distance, also depends essentially upon the interplay of forms within the picture. Hence, (a constant with Lang), the deepening of the vision through an unforeseen opening. In Mrs. Robby's office in the shadowy house of Le Secret derrière la Porte, an engraving with sharply defined and fleeting lines catches one's eyes, as if multiplying the view. Similarly, in Le Testament du docteur Mabuse, when Kent and his friend Lilli sit down in a café to confide their confusion to each other, the camera frames in the upper part of the shot a window which looks out on a long, white, almost unreal avenue whose dizzying depths are made more vividly manifest when a passer-by (only his head is visible) appears and crosses the frame. I shall note another such shot in La Mort de Siegfried, drowned almost totally in white; young newlyweds are conversing charmingly near a bench which is placed against a background of foliage; but above the trees, five wide arches caught in shadow appear to tear the frame; this contrast leaves a feeling of distance which unbalances the vision and secretly announces the fatal outcome of the plot.

Let us also note the interplay of distance which hinges not on the distribution of fixed masses but on movements within the frame. Thus, almost thematized—so often do they lend support to the story—are the opening and closing doors. They constantly vary spatial relationships as they reveal more or less hidden depths—according to the light and the terrain. Such are the doors which one encounters in each of Lang's films, most particularly in the Chinese quarter in Les Araignées, the cemetery in Les Trois Lumières, in Le Tigre du Bengale and Le Tombeau hindou—everywhere, with a violence that multiplies when Henri Mercier, going down the corridors as the doors are closing ends up in the tigers' pit.

Similarly, the queen's cloaks in La Vengeance de Krimhilde (cloaks with wide skirts) billow and fall endlessly, sometimes radically modifying the distribution of forms in the shot: Krimhilde (addressing the horde of Huns from the top of a staircase) with her cloak—black and dull on the inside, brilliant and adorned on the other—subjectsthe frame to a strange play of shadows and surfaces as she raises or lowers her arms against her body. A configuration which Lang will remember, and which will occur again (though less theatrically and more closely bound to the narrative adventure of the picture) in Die Spione, where the beautiful Sojia unfurls her immense black and silver lamé cape around Haighi in the same game of oppositions.

3. There are innumerable formal and thematic references, configurations which come into play from film to film and organize the enigmatic web of Langian knotwork. Hence the sign, the token, around which the narration is organized, the significant object Lang always indicates with a close-up which is the first easily located link between the chain of shots and the thematic chain. From the seal affixed to the fateful act in Les Trois Lumières to the grease pencil mark on Mercier's shirt in Le Tombeau hindou, there is a lengthy inventory of maps, plans, letters, photographs—multiple references which stake out Lang's forty films. These establish a definable series throughout the script; what might be called a series of events of the script which are manifested in one or several formal series in the picture: the close-up is followed almost invariably in this situation (for example, in the talking films and especially the American ones) by a movement of back-travelling starting with the brusquely introduced object. This short, precise movement, which reveals the object in its surroundings, breaks and demarcates the sudden fascination of the close-up.

I shall cite only three examples of this, all taken from the same film, Scarlet Street. The sequence begins with a close-up of a flower; the movement reveals Christopher lovingly painting the flower offered by Kitty. Later, a letter rests on a table among other objects: the movement which reveals Kitty's studio for the first time accurately defines the relationship between the young woman and Christopher—one immediately understands it is a letter from him. The travelling shot which brings to light Johnny's hat, hidden in Kitty's new apartment, states with ironic insistence and without the aid of a single word, the respective situations of the three characters in this harsh and cruel remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne.

4. The generally intensified partialization of space which disrupts the viewpoint in order to lead it to its more rightful place which carries to an extreme, in cinematographic space, a dialectic of subject and object finding its origin in the German cultural tradition and its achievement in the fundamental materialism of industrial civilization. If the object possesses a particular importance in the unfolding of the action, it seems to recapture in the intensity of the film something of the symbolic life of the bewitched objects of Hoffmann or Arnim. The subject is often a vagrant body, only one object among other objects. One finds a particularly striking inversion of this order in the flight sequence of La Femme sur la Lune, between the rocket (which seems to be the only actor) and its interpreters (its accessories) and, in Human Desire between Jeff Warren and the locomotive, when he drives it down the track into the depot.

This subject-object game, when divided, provokes the eye, making an incredible fissure in Fritz Lang's films which is balanced with a type of shot that is particularly frequent and meaningful, multiplying the dialectic of continuity/discontinuity proper to the system of the Langian vision: the fragmented body of the subject and object, united as two mechanisms in a single frame, offers a perfect example of partialization of space. Thus, in Man Hunt, the hero's hand which hesitates again and again on the trigger of the rifle, is shot in extreme close-up. And in Les Espions are shown two forearms and the heavy, round handle of a chest which the hands want to turn; the muted light of the black leather raincoat answers the clearer steel one, and both of these reply to the whiteness of the hands: from the beginning of this film (this is the first shot) Lang places it beneath the sign of the enigmatic division of space.

5. Lang, like every filmmaker (but more precisely and more insidiously than others) bases the possibility of his narrative on the richness and the perversity of oppositions in the series of identical configurations.

From film to film one can follow the marks of a perpetual game of similar questions and different replies; one can evoke their rigorous nature extracting the types of opposition which are simultaneously arranged in the picture, the sound, the interpretation and the narrative, sufficient material for an unprecedented inventory whose very limits and meaning are difficult to define. But this game is the logical outcome of the writing and the vision. Here are two examples briefly summarized from a single story, While the City Sleeps.

—Walter Kyne, Jr., and Edward Mobley are conversing in the manager's office. In a fixed long shot, appearing from left to right, are: Kyne, Jr., standing, dressed in black; higher, against the wall, the portrait of his father, Walter Kyne, also dressed in black; then, through the window, the city, with its sharp and regular gray masses; finally, Mobley, seated, dressed in gray. Each of the four principal elements of the shot is placed at a different distance from the camera; the colors are distributed two by two. Some moments later, after brief detail shots of the various protagonists, Lang returns to the same long shot, from a slightly different angle. But the elements have changed. From left to right: Kyne, Jr., Mobley, the portrait, the city. The distances have changed. Mobley gets up; the camera follows his movement. A triple opposition is at work in two shots which are formally identical: an opposition between the distribution of the actors, between tonality and distance (each element sustains the two others) setting up the third opposition (immobility/movement), effecting the forward movement of the narrative.

—The bar where the New York Sentinel journalists gather. Again, a fixed long shot. We see Mobley sitting at the counter and the bartender standing; in the back of the room is a barely perceptible staircase, going up to the left. We wait; Lang prolongs the silent irritation of the shot, until Mildred appears on the staircase, with the intention of making advances to Mobley. Why does he hold such a simple shot for so long? Because Lang, some sequences earlier, had already filmed exactly the same space, in the same manner; because he had already lingered there in an almost casual way, and because no one had then appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

6. Lang thus keeps the point of view in perpetual hesitation; for the event, whether it is foreshadowed or has already occurred, always seems linked to something else whose force is arresting even though one does not know how to delimit it but which could not be sustained alone. The film plays subtly on an incessant disequilibrium by means of this dyssymetrical expectancy. This flagrant and deliberately abstract waiting in a shot (a visual and narrative sign) marks all of Lang's work. Its principle is simple. It is a matter of a fixed long shot with three terms: two actions which separate a dead time. A character goes out of the shooting angle; the camera remains facing the set; a second character enters the shooting angle by another entrance (this could be—though it rarely is—the same character who returns, and by the same entrance). The set, at this moment, is always particularly beautiful and heavy with meaning and possibilities: the commissary office in the first Mabuse, the corridor outside the doctor's office in the second, the staircase landing leading to the apartments of the two young women in While the City Sleeps, caverns beneath the castle in Le Tigre du Bengale and Le Tombeau hindou. The characters are bound by the imminent event: this shot almost always intervenes in the moments of greatest dramatic intensity. Thus in his own way Lang breaks the ideal hurried flow of the action, wounding his story and distorting time apparently for the benefit of a visual purity; thereby imparting a strangeness to the action (as if spreading it out) and likewise to the vision which becomes suddenly too heavy and insistent. Then he recaptures or almost recaptures what he is doing for a single vision, in a much briefer and tighter shot, when he assembles the elements in such a way that the viewpoint always seems badly placed—either too close or too far away. Thus in La Mori de Siegfried: three warriors occupy the near totality of the screen's surface; they are so close that one cannot see them in their entirety; between them are some blank spaces and a bare wall in the background. The frame is perfectly flat; one would believe the soldiers cut out of cardboard. When Krimhilde passes behind them, followed by her women, the perspective is brutally reborn—so vividly that one feels it too deeply, and it seems to be another illusion.

7. For Lang plays the most perverse of games. It is by means of the fissures—by means of the gaps which he sets up—that he can be understood. That is what must be deciphered, and at each of its levels. Thus Lang, more than anyone else, works with counter-shots. Here begins the quest which reveals that at the other extremity of his films, Lang also manifests this "counter" game—this time of the counter-script. As he strains the shot and unbalances it, he loses sight of his narrative, obscuring his characters. And thus he works (as Luc Moullet has clearly seen) in counter-genre; even in America, he simultaneously espouses and insidiously transgresses the laws of the most traditional art. He incorporates the principle and destroys it. Indeed, what are Frau im Mond, Rancho Notorious, Moonfleet, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal to the science-fiction film, the Western, the adventure film, the police story and the exotic film, if not enterprises of violent perversion?

It remains for us to understand why Lang persists in this disjunction. Persists in often leaving in his films the mark of a subtle defeat which is revealed by the impossibility of a closed system, actually closed upon itself. Lang's films are so dense that they seem to have cracked, as if the author always wanted to leave a tenuous reality visible and evident, and to show the illusory nature of the idea of a harmony through an entire autonomy of representation. From shot to shot, from one end of the film to the other, a writing unfolds that is strictly defined, divided, always anxious to maintain, in each constituent operation, the effort which constitutes that operation; to mark the permanent turning of creation upon itself with the density of its material; and to do this with all the more rigor, as cinema conquers, with its technical mastery, new possibilities of expression. The camera possesses that magical ability which makes it so difficult for us to follow it: to be "an actor full of importance, mobile, alive," on the surface of life to which it always weds itself in order to capture life. Thus, with Lang, in a sense, the film always seems to be in the process of creating itself. One feels effort, the temptation of the possible, the distance between desire and its object, something like the typical experience of a book assured of its strength, but always a little defeated and wearied as well. Hence the fascination and the impression of distancing which his films—so beautiful—always leave. And the feeling that, for Lang, the mise-en-scène alone, attains the mythic.

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