Fritz Lang | Critical Essay by Ann Kaplan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Fritz Lang.
This section contains 3,813 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Ann Kaplan

SOURCE: "Patterns of Violence Toward Women in Fritz Lang's White the City Sleeps," in Wide Angle, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1980, pp. 55-9.

In the following essay, Kaplan asserts that while Lang correctly assessed the decline in male authority in the public and private spheres, he puts forth only one solution: a return to the old-style patriarchal authority, instead of a move toward something new and positive.

Several feminist theorists have recently argued that, viewed historically, violence against women changes according to transformations in the traditional bourgeois family. Oppressive as it was, the cult of womanhood, entailing the protection of bourgeois women by their husbands, circumscribed violence against this female group. Poor, lower-class women and children have always been subject to violence (viz Jack the Ripper) and abuse by all kinds of masters, but in the modern period (particularly after the two World Wars) more classes of women became vulnerable as they adopted independent lives and began to exist without the protection of men.

The extension of violence toward women upward through the classes is reflected in representations of women in film. As early as 1919, Griffith dealt with child abuse in his startling Broken Blossoms, but significantly his little girls are always poor, orphaned and outcast. In the post World War II era, men's fear of women, and the violent impulses toward them that result from this fear, is expressed in the sinister film noir heroines who, frigid and castrating, obstruct the male hero on his quest until exposed and violently murdered.

In the Fifties, representations of violence become more complicated because of a shift in the image of men. In noir films, the investigator was still tough, virile and traditionally masculine, but increasingly in the Fifties images of weak, feminized men appear. The representations no longer carry the attributes that signify masculinity, but instead the gestures, stance, voice and values of male characters carry significations usually assigned to women. Film narratives often expose the consequences of feminized men in the domestic sphere, relying on Oedipal formulations (e.g. Rebel Without A Cause), but attention is rarely paid to the effect of declining male authority on public institutions.

Fritz Lang is particularly interesting because of his concern with the problem of male authority in both the public and private spheres. As early as the Mabuse films, and then more clearly in M, Lang had shown the increase of violence toward women and children as patriarchal structures weakened and as male authority in the public realm waned. Inherently conservative as is Lang's vision from a feminist point of view, his work is nevertheless fascinating in its presentation of an imaginative realm where women's worst fears are enacted. Always sensing intuitively subtle changes in the tenor of his times and tuned in to future developments, Lang's representations tap aspects of human behavior centered around violence because of its personal interest for him. In the films made between 1922 and 1932, Lang's main theme is the link between the decline in morality and the technological advances in capitalism. His Mabuse films show the corruption and decadence that emerge inevitably from advanced capitalism; Metropolis, a negative vision of the future, shows technology used to oppress, not liberate, the masses, while in Frau Im Mond we see disinterested scientific advances co-opted and ruined by greedy capitalists.

But M, which looks directly toward While the City Sleeps in its concerns, exposes the psychosis that modern civilization has spawned and which has become an increasingly frightening aspect of our lives today. The world of this film, as we've seen already, suggests a link between the breakdown of the family and violence. Beckert, the sick hero of the film, lonely and alienated, clearly represents the "feminized" male in his stance and appearance, although there is no explicit analysis of this in M. He has a soft, round face, large sensitive eyes and a high whining voice. His tentative, halting manner betrays his lostness, and we later realize that he is trapped by impulses, buried deep in his unconscious, that he cannot control. The violence against the little girls who are Beckett's powerless victims is peripherally linked to the absence of men in that Frau Beckmann's husband is dead and she lives alone with Elsie, bowed down by hard work. But in this film Lang is more concerned with showing that male authority has degenerated to the point that society is no longer efficiently run. Only in the underground can one find the old style patriarch, Schränker, who can control his men and establish an effective, if undesirable, organization.

Lang shows the inadequacy of modern society to deal with a certain kind of psychosis—there are no legal structures capable of containing Beckert's violence and no moral frameworks within which it can be explained. Lang shows the complex situation of his psychotic "feminized" hero, driven to assert his masculinity through raping and killing young girls, paralyzing his community through his attacks, but as much a victim as victimizer. Lang offers no insight into his condition—the level of the unconscious is repressed in the film in order to allow the social issues, which concerned Lang more at the time, to surface fully.

The result of this is an unnatural split in the film: on the one hand there are the extraordinarily powerful, often haunting, scenes with the murderer which draw our sympathies to him (a sympathy, of course, increased through Loire's sensitive performance) and on the other, the scenes of rather easy social satire that the critique of authority assumes. Lang establishes no link between these two levels of the film other than that authority is too inept to track down and capture Beckert without the help of criminals. There is no larger analysis that accounts for Beckert's behavior as part of the breakdown of social institutions and traditional codes. Alternately appalled by and attracted to Beckert, we are given no insight into what underlies his violent impulses against girls.

Although While the City Sleeps lacks, as a work of art, the haunting power of M (this for reasons too complex to go into here but having at least in part to do with Hollywood as an institution), Lang does return at the end of his American career to the themes of M, made twenty-six years earlier. Significantly, Lang now links the theme of the decline in male authority to that of violence against women in a chilling representation of the results of transformations in the nuclear family in advanced capitalism. But this liberal-humanist position is undercut by Lang's own participation in the violence against women in the way he uses his camera in the film and in his relianceon the film noir conventions that present women as faithless, manipulating and corrupt. There is no female discourse undercutting or exposing the dominant male one as there was, for instance, in The Blue Gardenia. This is a role that Nancy Leggett, Mobley's girlfriend, could conceivably have played, representing, as she does, the only innocence (good) in the film; but Lang is evidently too embittered at this point to give credence to her alternate discourse and present it as a value against the clearly bankrupt male one. The "revolutionary" aspects of the film, then, lie in the exposure of the bankruptcy of established male values in capitalism; but while he exposes abuse of women once they are no longer protected by the bourgeois family, Lang does not allow women to speak for themselves or to assert a discourse in the face of the repressive and corrupt male one; nor does he seek viable alternatives to the decline of the family, suggesting rather that modern society's ills stem from the decline of patriarchal authority.

Let me deal first with Lang's demonstration in While the City Sleeps that violence against women is integrally linked to the decline in patriarchal authority. This theme emerges clearly first in the figure of the young murderer, Manners, played by John Barrymore, Jr. The film opens with Manners' brutal and unmotivated murder of a young career woman living alone in an apartment house. The words "Ask Mother" scrawled in blood on the mirror take on meaning, after Manners has murdered a second young professional woman, when we learn that Manners is the adopted son of an over-protective mother who had wanted a female child and had often treated Manners like a girl. The father is weak and absent in this family, leaving Manners in the hands of his mother. At one point in the film, Mobley actually presents this psychological profile of the boy on his television show, suggesting that Manners, a "mommy's boy," came to displace his hatred of his mother onto all women and is driven to murder them. Like Beckert, Manners' behavior and the words he leaves suggest that he is asking for help but is powerless to prevent the acting out of his strong inner compulsions. In this case, however, Lang gives a psychoanalytic interpretation of Manners' impulses in revealing the boy's over-identification with his mother and his lack of the solid, masculine identity that, Lang suggests, can only come from a strong father.

A similar psychological profile is presented for Walter Kyne who, while not himself a murderer, is linked to Manners by analogy. Here again the son has turned out weak and effeminate, this time because of an indulgent father. But now Lang deals with this as it effects leadership in the public world. While Manners reflects the violence toward women that emerges from a weak, absent father, Walter Kyne shows the projection of this violence on to the people he has to deal with in the Kyne firm, once he becomes the new leader.

Walter's father, Amos, represented the old-style patriarch who built a flourishing newspaper business from scratch, who had strong moral and liberal sentiments and who was passionate, energetic and socially involved. His death at the start of the film symbolizes the end of an era, since we soon learn that none of the younger men shares Amos Kyne's commitment and integrity. The old-style authoritarian leader, who had a humane side, is replaced by young men who are cynical, disillusioned and out only for themselves. No longer believing in social responsibility, they seek only to outwit others on the way to success.

Walter typifies the new kind of leader. Not having built the business himself, he is uninterested in maintaining what it stands for. He is mainly concerned with obtaining revenge for his father's refusal to bring him into the business earlier, and he particularly dislikes Mobley, senior journalist, since Amos had favored him.

Immature, childish and vain ("feminine" significations), Walter is further "feminized" by his high, whining voice and his loose, drooping stance. He plays a stereotypically female game with his staff, gaining control by making them compete for a newly established post of executive director, suggesting that the one who gets the first story about the murder will have the job.

The weak father is thus seen by Lang to produce disastrous results in both the private and public worlds. But the "fall" of men is equally clear in the depiction of Ed Mobley, the investigator figure who in traditional noir films is the one we identify with as capable of unravelling the mystery and restoring order. Usually tough, virile and relentless in his pursuit of the criminal, the investigator manages to turn aside the women who seek to obstruct his quest, triumphing over them in the end. Mobley is far from this ambitious, aggressive heroic figure. He rather recalls both Eddie from You Only Live Once and Svoboda from Hangmen Also Die in his moral ambiguity. On the surface he seems the most trustworthy figure in the newspaper office, particularly since we learn at the start that he had won Amos Kyne's respect. His link with Nancy also makes us think well of him, as does his refusal to become involved in the scramble for the executive position.

Yet we soon learn that Ed is by no means the hero he appears to be. To begin with, Mobley's refusal to take on the responsibility for the firm makes us wonder about him: why would he not want to head the business? Is he lazy? Does he shun responsibility? Secondly there is something distasteful in his drunken attempts to force himself on Nancy at the start of the film and in his trick of fixing the door so that he can return to surprise her. He here links himself to Manners, whom we have just seen murder a woman, using the same trick with the door. If Kyne and Manners are linked by analogy, Ed and Manners come closer to the romantic Doppelgähger. While pretending disinterest in the murder, Ed in fact becomes very interested in it and apparently not out of ambition for the post or out of a moral responsibility like Amos Kyne. He rather seems to have a unique understanding of the murderer—an understanding that can only come from his sensing a similarity to himself. While most people, including the police, try to pin the murder on the janitor, Ed learns, with the help of his police friend, that there is little evidence on which to convict him; his friend talks about the effect of the mass media—television and comic books—on young impressionable minds, and Ed concludes that the murder must have been done by a psychopath calling for help, asking to be caught.

But the most dubious light is cast on Ed by his method of trapping the murderer which involves risking the life of his girlfriend, Nancy, whom he has just deeply offended by allowing himself to be seduced by Mildred. So not only is Ed unfaithful, but he is also willing to put his lover's life in jeopardy. His willingness to risk so much suggests that he needs to capture Manners because Manners represents a part of himself that he fears.

The link between Ed and Manners is suggested through the filming of the scene in which Ed appeals to the killer on his television show. The camera begins focusing on Ed within the television screen, although we do not know this yet, then pulls back gradually as Ed talks, analyzing Manners' psychology—his being a "mommy's boy" who hates his mother and her entire sex. Finally, the same shot brings us outside the screen and into a bedroom where we find Manners watching the program. Ed ends his show with the bait that is to catch Manners: he announces his engagementto Nancy, knowing that, angered by Ed's analysis of him, Manners will be seeking revenge and will most likely try to kill Nancy.

Manners does indeed fall for Ed's manipulation and begins to go after Nancy. Ed has given Nancy a bodyguard, but nevertheless Nancy would have been killed had she not been so mad at Ed that she refused to open the door to Manners when he feigned Ed's voice. Finally guessing that Manners is so desperate that he may try to kill Nancy even when she's protected, Ed rushes to Nancy's apartment, sees Manners running away and chases him. Manners goes down a subway and Ed follows in hot pursuit; the scene parallels that in Manhunt when Thorndike is chased by his double on the dark subway tracks. Ed forces Manners to leave by an exit and he falls into the hands of the police.

Ed only just manages to succeed in his quest as investigator, his moral ambiguity reflecting Lang's departure from the traditional noir hero. Lang is unable to believe anymore in the tough, virile, ambitious male representation. The conservative nostalgic longing for the patriarchal male figure is evident here as it is in his disillusionment in relation to women. This latter conservatism is clear in the treatment of the three main women in While the City Sleeps—Dorothy Kyne, Mildred and Nancy Leggett. Dorothy and Mildred are variations of the noir femme fatale, but even Nancy, the one supposedly "good" presence in the film, is viewed negatively. It is true that the depiction of Dorothy and Mildred is part of the larger cynical vision of the film, reflecting yet one more example of betrayal and the impossibility of trust between people, but these representations weaken Lang's other theme about women's sexual vulnerability. Lang links the moral degeneration of women to the decline in male authority as he had previously linked the decline in leadership to the "feminized" male.

In the case of Walter and Dorothy Kyne, Lang suggests that if men are no longer real men, taking charge of their wives sexually and demanding obedience, then women will no longer respect their husbands and will cheat on them. Walter, weak and effeminate, seems uninterested in his wife physically, although a dedicated husband on the surface. He is too preoccupied with his petty revenge to relate to Dorothy in any other than the most superficial way, so she is able to carry on an affair with one of Kyne's employees, Harry Kritzer, right under his nose.

Lang's representation of Dorothy renders her a disturbing, unpleasant presence in the film; seductive, often lustful, she flaunts her sexuality in her husband's and lover's faces. Conventionally attractive in the terms of the period (Dorothy has blonde curls, pert nose, full mouth and shapely figure), she is seen constantly making up her face, peering at her image in the mirror, cool and confident of her effect on men. She is particularly unpleasant in three scenes: that where her lover, Kritzer, comes to dinner at the Kyne house—she and Harry, hungry for each other, can hardly wait for Walter to leave the room to embrace; that where she and Walter are exercising in their home and Kritzer calls—here we see Dorothy coolly act as though she is talking to a girlfriend and then lie to Walter about going shopping when in fact she goes to meet Kritzer; and finally that where Dorothy and Harry are seen love-making and then bickering in Harry's apartment. Lang's sympathies are clearly with the men, and this undercuts the effectiveness of our horror at Manners' near assault on Dorothy.

Mildred is an example of the scheming, seductive, single woman. Brilliantly played by Ida Lupino, this representation suggests that a career woman, if not monogamously attached to a man, becomes promiscuous, manipulative and scheming. Not actually working in the office when the film opens, Mildred flounces in to meet Mark Loving, whom she is helping win the post of executive director. She stops by Ed Mobley's desk to flirt with him, while Mobley's "steady" girlfriend, Nancy, looks on disapprovingly from the glass-walled office where she is taking dictation. The tension between the women surfaces later when Mildred meets Ed and Nancy in the local bar; the sniping shows their dislike of one another—a dislike occasioned at least in part by jealousy for what the other has chosen. Underlying Mildred's scorn of the "straight," girl-like Nancy, is her envy of Nancy's apparently solid relationship with Mobley; while Nancy is clearly threatened by Mildred's overt sexuality.

Mildred's lover, Mark, is as cynical and manipulating as she is, and he ultimately sends the willing Mildred off to seduce Ed in the hopes of winning Ed's support for Mark as executive director. Mildred finds Ed forlorn in the pub because Nancy is, significantly, at a Red Cross meeting, being a "good" girl. Mildred likes being "bad" and seizes the opportunity to get Ed drunk and in bed with her. Mildred's general deception and manipulation is nicely highlighted when she teases Ed with a slide viewer, pretending to be looking at nude women when in fact the pictures are only of babies.

By the end of the film, Mildred has managed to reinstate herself on the newspaper staff, seen to it that Kritzer was fired (she happened to find Kritzer and Dorothy Kyne together one night) and that Mobley has been promoted. Although married, presumably Ed will still be fair game.

If Dorothy and Mildred are variations on the noir femme fatale, Nancy is presented far more negatively than the "good" girls usually are in the genre. We expect the sexual women to have a compelling presence; the good girl is usually warm, soft and humorous. But everything about Nancy is hard, tight, clipped, prissy. She has cropped hair, wears tight dresses up to her neck and walks with short, jerky steps. She is clearly no match for the sexual women, and seems rather ridiculous when one night she refuses to sleep with Ed on their return to her apartment. Her hurt reaction to Ed's flirtation with Mildred also seems misplaced in the world she moves in, a pathetic stance against moral corruption.

Lang's treatment of both Nancy and Ed reflects his concern about social changes in both the private and public spheres. The traditionally positive characters—the male investigator and the "good" woman who usually helps him—are now seen ambiguously because of the more general disturbance which is the decline in male authority. The dual movement—the possibility of a woman living independently and of the new "feminized" male—has shaken the balance that preserved a certain order. While apparently in favor of women's participation in the social sphere (as we can see from his attitude to Manners in the film), Lang is aware of its consequences in the potential unleashing of hitherto restrained violence toward women.

But Lang's representations do not imply any simplistic, psychoanalytic correlation between the decline in male authority and women leaving the home. While he presents certain male fears about and hatred of women, he also gives us images showing changes in the public realm resulting from the decline of the dynastic family. The success of family businesses was premised on fathers molding sons in their patriarchal image, but as this no longer happens the businesses falter. A larger structural change is of course behind all this, and it is felt if not explored in the film—namely, that of the new corporate society with its needs for a different male type: the manager as opposed to the patriarchal owner and president.

Lang's representations have some validity, given changes occurring in the nuclear family and business institutions; he correctly represents the decline in male authority and its dangerous results (a decline that had, of course, been going on ever since the two World Wars). What he does not do is expose the undesirable aspects of what had been destroyed or consider viable alternatives. While women may be more vulnerable without the protection of men and the cult of womanhood, this does not necessitate a return to dependency on men and to the old-style patriarchal authority. How do we know that the "feminization" of men may not be healthy and have entirely different, possibly beneficial results in non-capitalist social structures? This is a question that Lang never asks. But his films are useful in helping us see the complexity of the problems and the transitions taking place, even when all that Lang offers is a return to a past we have long abandoned.

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