A Companion to Fritz Lang (Web Exclusive)
Edited by Joe McElhaney. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 607 pp., illus. Hardcover: $200.95.
Reviewed by Christopher Small
Though he has been dead for forty years, and made his last film sixteen years before that (and in self-imposed exile from Hollywood in the Federal Republic of Germany, no less), Fritz Lang continues to stand at the epicenter of a great many of the cinema’s enduring debates. One widely held view defines Lang as the apotheosis of the auteur in cinema; another, as a Brechtian subversive upending the conventions of whatever studio system in which he was working. Whatever the theory, it is typically predicated on the assumption that the Langian universe—the films themselves as well as their production histories—is one of complete domination by a single authorial figure. Part of the enduring interest in his work, scholarly and otherwise, is the refusal of the films to entirely measure up to these shivers of an omnipresent, authoritarian presence.
The immediate sense one gets after watching two or three Fritz Lang films is an awareness of complete sensitivity and symmetry of design, the reiteration of a handful of pet tropes and impossibly convoluted plot devices, and a powerful, allegorical vision that stands for the cinema itself. And yet, there is as much mystery and fragmentation in their design as there is clarity and contiguity; the theories break down in the face of the sheer complexity of the structures Lang places before our eyes. The initial feeling of awe at the seemingly limitless boundaries of control is undercut by the sense that the films only hint at their true subjects, that the last-minute reversals of fortune that characterize the plot devices of many of the late films betray an even greater ambiguity, a hidden ur-movie buried underneath the one we are so sure we see in all its clarity.
Lang scholarship, then, should attempt to explicate this panoramic view of Fritz Lang while providing a credible account of his films’ many unknowable qualities. Any work on Lang should refuse the invitation of the films themselves, and of the director’s proclamations, to read the work through a single lens—this or that thematic or structural focus, this or that biographical detail, this or that historical signifier. This is the mantle taken up by Joe McElhaney’s A Companion to Fritz Lang, a 607-page anthology, the first collection on Lang in decades; it is one McElhaney and his writers mostly take seriously. Where to start with Fritz Lang? Each essay dreams up an answer, and it’s their plurality (as well as quantity) that gives the book its sheer force of scholarship.
But there is an idea, touched upon by Adrian Martin in his essay on House by the River (1950), that presents some problems for the writers in A Companion to Fritz Lang. Toward the end of his essay, Carlos Losilla admits to the ultimate failure of his powers of analysis, a curious feature of Lang-watching. Martin, in the next chapter, quotes Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s comments that “it is almost impossible to explain why Lang’s masterpieces are masterpieces.” The finest essays in the book deal in images, the foremost domain of Lang’s world and, it seems, the best way to penetrate their mysteries. In a provocative statement of intention that mirrors the first-frame suicide that opens The Big Heat (1953), Vinzenz Hediger’s essay on Lang’s “Art of Omission” begins with the question, “Did Fritz Lang kill his wife?” Like The Big Heat, it then takes steps to elaborate on this provocation, drawing on Proust to answer the question of the unaccountable influence of real-world knowledge on the study of films, Lang’s in particular. Later, he comments on Lang’s (also self-imposed) exile as a character in another film, Godard’s Contempt (1963), as if the director himself were a Mabuse-like figure ultimately banishing his own image to the realm of the cinema itself: “As we progress towards a stage in which Lang the man mostly survives as a character in a Godard movie, rather than as a source material for films...”
Similarly, Losilla’s essay on the five films at the end of Lang’s career conjures up Langian imagery as a way to associate his text with the particular ambiance of Lang’s films; Losilla’s sustained images of birth and growth reflect the rise of modernism and the end of Lang. He writes of being “suspended in amniotic fluid” in the womb while Lang filmed the last scene of his final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), in which a car plummets off a bridge and sinks sinisterly into the water, a reversal of the final shot in Hitchcock’s Psycho from the same year. In what comes to represent the best writing in this volume, Losilla, thinking, like Lang, in images, links Stewart Granger’s unknown father figure perishing on a lonely rowboat at sea at the end of Moonfleet (1955) to the death of classicism in cinema that Lang’s work in this period evokes.
But while these essays are thorough, they respect a certain mystery at the heart of Lang’s films, a shifting inner film that is hard to eke out through simple formal analysis. Of course, it is indisputable that Lang encourages close reading: his style is precise in the extreme, and a shot-by-shot analysis always produces interesting results, often overlapping with intentions publicly stated elsewhere by the director. But as Tom Gunning has noted, Lang’s films almost always invite allegorical readings that cannot be entirely mapped out by tracing the contours of the mise en scène—an idea which itself, as Joe McElhaney notes in his excellent study of Clash by Night (1952), is also only one way of viewing the complex inter-text of the director’s movies. (And which Frances Guerin, also in this volume, complicates even further.) As a result, parts of the book—like the essays on Der müde Tod (Destiny, 1921) and Rancho Notorious (1952)—become mired in an analysis of stylistic minutiae. A few of the essays, such as Tom Conley’s piece on Rancho Notorious, which explores little of the film’s perspectival and political density, drily describe scenes in stultifying detail for large sections, interpreting freely and superficially as they go (“...what a Freudian allegorist might wish to call the ‘blade of castration’”), as if the mere beat-by-beat readings and tea-leaf interpretations were enough.
David Phelps’s essay on the endlessly fractured hall of mirrors that is The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse attempts to reanimate images from the movies through juxtaposition; he dazzlingly counters images from Spies (1928) with Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1928), as well as rhyming images from The Thousand Eyes. But the book, considering its price, has few illustrations; what few images it does contain are foggy black-and-white stills from the movies arranged almost ornamentally in relation to the text, and Phelps’s essay is largely the exception. I have no doubt that elsewhere images from the scenes in question would clarify a great deal more than the reams of text that try to delineate scenes and characters in these (often obscure) movies that the reader likely has not seen in some time, if at all.
McElhaney mobilizes an impressive international cadre of writers, who, as an aggregate, provide a thousand new perspectives on the director’s work. The book blends styles—historical, aesthetic, academic—with considerable ease. It is a testament to the book’s breadth that auteurist essays and studies of Lang and historicism sit side by side in McElhaney’s design. Chapters like Doug Dibbern’s study of Cloak and Dagger (1946), at the intersection of both traditions, provide an unlikely but welcome point of departure for a political reading of Lang. For Dibbern, this bitter resistance thriller, one that comes just after the overtly political period that spanned the director’s arrival in Hollywood in the mid-Thirties through the Second World War, seems to propose a vision for a future reaffirming of the wartime Popular Front between leftists and liberals. By focusing on this metaphorical level of the film, wherein two representatives of either side (Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer) fall in love and, through their union, become radicalized in the face of a looming reactionary threat, Dibbern shows the way Lang revitalizes and even subverts conventional forms by staging them as stand-ins for the larger ideas of the films, an idea also touched upon by Chris Fujiwara in his chapter on the generic reversals of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).
Both Fujiwara and Dibbern, like the best writers in this volume, contend with Lang’s metaphorical dimension with ease; Fujiwara links the director’s exacerbation of conventional forms to a structuring device from Hölderlin, Dibbern to the material conditions behind his work in Hollywood that provide the bedrock from which Lang could experiment with metaphor. But no matter the brilliance of the image or metaphor, the core of Lang’s work will perhaps always be elusively just out of grasp. As Lang engaged every level of his films—“the dynamic, vital, and analytical movement given to the narrative as a whole,” to quote again Coursodon and Tavernier—there will always be at least a fragment of Lang’s work neglected from every study, no matter how exhaustive. But this Companion’s strength is perhaps in its acceptance of this fact, and in its pluralistic, democratic sprawl, the armory of images it draws on to mount an assault on the work of this titan of cinema.
Christopher Small, a writer and filmmaker based in the United Kingdom, writes regularly for Cinema Scope, IndieWire, and MUBI Notebook.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2