American Guerilla

© 2013 William Ahearn

Politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows and in the émigré community in Los Angeles in the postwar years bedfellows could get even stranger. Seymour Nebenzal whose Nero Films produced Fritz Lang’s “M” and “The Last Testament of Dr Mabuse” – among other Weimar-era classics – and who was one of the sources for the story of the Nazi banner flying from Fritz Lang’s apartment building – avoided Lang in Hollywood and instead of approaching the alleged Nazi sympathizer he saw in Lang, went instead to the former card-carrying Nazi, Thea von Harbou, to acquire the rights to remake “M.” Thea von Harbou – who Nebenzal considered a deluded nationalist, rather than a real Nazi – spent more time in Allied detention camps than Leni Riefenstahl and had been cleared of any connection to war crimes, anti-Semitism, or any racially motivated propaganda and was working – at that time – as a translator and subtitle writer – after years of collecting usable bricks in the ruins of Berlin – in the German film industry and it was her name that appeared on the film as the sole screenwriter.

Whether Nebenzal waited until Lang was out of the country filming “An American Guerilla in the Philippines” on-location or whether it was coincidental isn’t known. Lang claimed to be the producer as well as director of the original “M” and Nebenzal denied that saying Lang was only the director and that Thea von Harbou was the sole writer. What is interesting is Lang’s response. Lang showed up at a screening of the remade “M” and had a “shouting match with Seymour Nebenzal” according to Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. Lang’s explanation in Peter Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang In America borders on the bizarre and Lang states that he didn’t have the contracts because a “financier” had them and added “I had nothing, because Goebbels talked to me from one o’clock until three (the banks closed at two-thirty) and I left the country the same day without taking anything with me; and I never went back.” Lang may have spoken to Goebbels, but he didn’t leave that day and made numerous trips between France and Germany around that time. Lang would also tell Bogdanovich that his lawyer in Germany “became an ardent Nazi, and years later when I asked for the contracts [he said] ‘We were bombed out – I can’t remember anything.’” His Hollywood lawyer left him “in the lurch” and Lang doesn’t mention to Bogdanovich that Joseph Losey – who directed the remake of “M” – shared the same lawyer.

There were numerous tussles between Lang and Nebenzal prior to and after the filming of the “M” remake and although Losey believes it contains some of his best work, the film died at the box office and remains an oddity and a footnote to Lang’s career.

Even Lotte Eisner is hard pressed to find good things to say about “An American Guerilla in the Philippines.” “Admittedly,” Eisner wrote in Fritz Lang, “the film is not among his very best and most personal projects.” Eisner also quotes a similar response that Lang gave to Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America: “It was offered to me – and even a director has to make a living! Honestly, I needed some money. Directors are often blamed: ‘Why did you do this? And why did you do that?’ But nobody ever says ‘Even a director has to eat’ Anyway, we shot it all in the Philippines – the interiors too.”

Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang noted, “in the last eight years of his American career . . . Lang showed a lack of critical judgment in the selection of stories and scripts.” What Ott seems to miss is that Lang rarely chose his own material and this film is the perfect example. Lang owed a film to 20th Century-Fox – from a previous contract – and Darryl Zanuck called Lang to do the film whose script had already been written and whose roles had already been cast. Lang would be paid $50,000, his typical fee, and only made more money directing for Diana Productions where he was paid $70,000 for “Scarlet Street” and $100,000 for “Secret Beyond The Door.” For most of Lang’s Hollywood career he was a second-tier, contract director who rarely had the input he craved or later claimed and rarely “chose” the scripts he directed.

During the same time frame – according to Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – “George Cukor was earning $4000 weekly – whether he was actually directing or not – directors Frank Capra, George Stevens, and William Wyler were guaranteed $3000 a week and up to $156,000 per picture . . . and Alfred Hitchcock, Lang’s bête noir, had just signed a four-picture deal with Warners promising him close to $250,000 a film.”

There is really nothing else to add except this review from the Daily News in Los Angeles:

“Though its story outline and setting are authentic, ‘An American Guerilla in the Philippines’ shapes up as something less than that on the screen. The finished film strangely lacks the impact and excitement to be expected of its subject.”

In his later years, Lang would have a far better grasp of his work than the admirers who surrounded him and revered him for all of his “auteur” films. When David Overbey told Lang that he didn’t like “An American Guerilla in the Philippines,” Lang responded “American Guerilla? I never made such a film! It would never fit into the Fritz Lang world view.” Sarcasm aside, Lang is right on the money and his films need to be reassessed without all the nonsense that’s been dumped on them for the last half century. If you consider Lang a “German expressionist” – which he clearly wasn’t – and the author of numerous “film noirs” then his Westerns, “Moonfleet” and “An American Guerilla in the Philippines” – as well as “Harikari,” among others – become Lang’s “conformist” films and every other film his “real” work even though most of his so-called “film noirs” are as conformist as a Hollywood film can get.

Rancho Notorious