Fritz Lang created some of the most indelible images in cinema. Most come from his German films: the rotund spacecraft from Woman in the Moon (1929), Peter Lorre’s panicking child-killer branded with a bright ‘M’ on his shoulder (from the film of the same name), and, of course, the birth of the iconic robot Maria in his sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927). In contrast, his great contemporaries Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder are remembered chiefly as two of the great auteurs of classic Hollywood. They were successful there – geniuses, even.

This notion of flourishing brilliance in the studio system betrays the haunting displacement that caused them to leave Germany. After the Nazi party’s rise to power in 1933, these men, both Jewish, faced immediate persecution in the reign of antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust – no wonder even their comedies contained within them some of the bleakest truths of human life. Lang’s story was different, and told proudly by himself, has passed into the realm of legend.

Metropolis, courtesy of: Eureka Entertainment

The story goes that in that year of Nazi takeover, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels offered Lang the keys to the German film industry (which would become a powerful tool for disseminating anti-Jewish stereotypes and celebrations of fascism). Fearful for what future lay ahead under this rule of hatred and highly suppressed creativity, this famous and imposing director agreed to Goebbels’s offer, but then escaped the country the same night, without even retrieving his money or possessions.

The reasons for Lang’s departure are manifold. Firstly, he was deeply ideologically opposed to fascism and had already been drifting away from his wife and frequent collaborator Thea von Harbou, who later became a Nazi. Also, censors under this new regime had already banned one of his films that seemed a little too allegorical of totalitarianism, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).

Courtesy of: The Cinema Archives

The most obvious however is the risk of persecution for his Jewish heritage. While, especially with the Goebbels encounter, he would perhaps not be targeted as horrifically as other directors who managed to emigrate, he would have likely been classed as a ‘Mischling’, a separate legal status for those deemed to have both Jewish and Aryan ancestry. This inflamed knowledge of violent persecution as well as the clash between the individual and society were things that he carried with him to his new country, becoming one of Hollywood’s most cynical and ironic voices.

His first feature in this moviemaking capital came at the behest of David O. Selznick at MGM, though it seemed to fit right in with Warner Brothers’ dimly lit and taut social problem movies, which depicted with a depression-era sobriety the deep failures of America. In Fury (1936), Spencer Tracy’s innocent and kind-hearted protagonist is arrested for a crime that he didn’t commit. While in jail, rumours of his crime escalate until a lynch mob almost burn him to death. Apparently Lang wasn’t too pleased with the happy ending of the final film, but this version is still permeated by a deep and lurid sense of entrapment.

Fury, courtesy of: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

He manages also to take hefty stabs at American exceptionalism, represented here by the masses who dismiss legal experts and claim that ‘in this country, people don’t land in jail unless they’re guilty.’ Clearly employing the more symbolistic images of his earlier works, he juxtaposes these gossiping people with flocks of geese. It’s unsubtle, obviously – but why be subtle when you’ve got something to say? The rest of the film’s signature style seems like a cliché at this point: low-key lighting, deep shadows, distorted reflections, and highly exaggerative angles. Alongside providing an entertaining and incisive critique of mob justice, Lang sows the seeds for what will eventually be known as film noir.

Of course, other pioneering emigres such as Robert Siodmak and Michael Curtiz also brought these innovations to Hollywood, but Lang’s bold experiments with cinematic expressionism provide early and still resonant examples of the genre’s iconic visual style. Fury and his incredible next feature You Only Live Once (1937) are also excellent illustrations of its thematic concerns. Quintessentially male melodramas, most of his American films deal with men crushed by the incompetency or the ruthlessness of society, finding themselves bounding dangerously between tenderness and brutality until they lose everything they ever had.

You Only Live Once, courtesy of: United Artists

Key examples of this surprisingly bountiful bunch include Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), all remarkable in their agile, ironic gaze and compelling cynicism. It’s not just a man’s world, though, and underrated titles such as Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and The Blue Gardenia (1953) suggest that Lang’s cycle of noirs often had a diversity of perspective and tone that belie a base conception of his work. Indeed, if its stylistic foregrounding of the subconscious made noir seem quite superficial, Lang almost always provided some strange inversion that would intensify and complicate this model.

Scarlet Street for instance includes scenes of the femme fatale’s plans, ironising Edward G. Robinson’s advances on her, which themselves are presented in a typically romantic mode with a swooning score and delicate long takes. Additionally, the protagonist’s surreal paintings beautifully reinforce a similar fatalism that climaxes not with any material punishment, but with his own guilt permeating through the soundtrack and making his downfall haunting and infinite. Watch almost any of these noirs and you will likely find a similar interrogation of the form.

Scarlet Street, courtesy of: Universal Pictures

When we think of the man Fritz Lang, it seems inevitable that he would be the progenitor of these dark and foreboding thrillers. Partly indebted to stereotypes about forceful and loud German directors, and aided by his trademark eyepatch, Lang was known for his vigorous personality and instability in the Hollywood studio system. It is a testament to his unwillingness to compromise that his movies still manage to be so scathing of American culture, though he also made many that dramatised the horrors of Nazi Germany and of World War II.

There is, even after years of revisionism, an argument or at least a perception that his earlier, Weimar-era works are the most distinct of his filmography. They certainly feel, in their grandiosity and aesthetic opulence, like movies made during a period of artistic control and ambition. Alternately, and as with many of the great masters of American cinema, one of the great joys and arguably the catalyst of his movies is the fraught contradictions and tensions within the domineering studio system that bleed onto the screen.

Secret Beyond the Door, courtesy of: Arrow Academy

Sometimes Lang suffered from this pressure, but these instances are remarkably rare. For example, Western Union (1941), even with its charmingly camp melodrama, is hardly a classic. Yet, without the generic conventions established by Hollywood, we would not have the chaotic and subversive thrills of his Western-noir Rancho Notorious (1952). A common cliché is that directors had to hide things that would have been explicit in a less strict environment, resulting in subtly evocative choices that inversely proved the variety of the system and the things that it could express.

There is a horrific scene in The Big Heat where a character is attacked with a boiling pot of coffee, represented merely by a shot of the pot being grabbed. Her torturous screams are accompanied by an understated and discomforting shot of the empty table. This leans into the cliché but is also highly suggestive of how Lang worked, especially in terms of noir. Violence was always an undercurrent rather than something explicit. It was a state that people slipped into, or, by following impossible dreams and desires, became the victim of.

The Big Heat, courtesy of: Powerhouse Films

Speaking of his post-German career, Lang stated: ‘I got sick and tired of these big films which I made and I became much more interested in the human being, itself, you know.’ Despite the move to relatively smaller budgets and stories, his concerns with injustice, corruption, and individual paranoia were perennial. Escaping one of the cruelest regimes in human history did not temper the unmatched sharpness of his investigation into the horrors of society. Upon moving to Hollywood, Fritz Lang found a place to reinvent as well as a place to uncover.