Lang also asserted that Nazis harassed the production of “M” reinforcing the notion that Lang was once again the victim of the Nazis. The gist of this complaint is that Lang had a newspaper article mention that his next film would be titled “Murders Among Us” and that the Nazis believed the film would about them and refused Lang the use of a motion picture studio. After Lang explained that the film would be about a child killer, the Nazis relented. There is no independent corroboration that “M” was ever titled anything else.
This story is also dubious in the extreme and it gets repeated and repeated in the lore of Lang. The result of this experience supposedly explains how Lang anticipated the Nazis in his film “M.” That Thea von Harbou was the single author of “M” – no matter what Lang said later – there isn’t a single image or bit of dialog that substantiates the notion that Lang “anticipated” the Nazis in “M” or “The Last Testament of Dr Mabuse.” The films don’t lie and yet many believe the images are there based on no more than Lang’s revisionist assessment of his own work.
Based on this invented information, The Daily Worker – in an interview with Lang – wrote “[Lang] was a keen student of social affairs with a liberal, international outlook on life and was of course anti-Prussian and anti-Hitler long before Hitler smashed the Weimar Republic, which explains the sociological character of some of his early German films.” This sort of mythmaking is typical of how Lang’s films are viewed to this day and if Lang’s twisting his films isn’t enough, the “film noirs” he supposedly made have twisted his films even farther from reality.
The notion that Lang was aware of and anticipated the Nazis in his German films is absolute nonsense. At best – according to members of the émigré community – Lang was either apathetic or apolitical when it came to the Nazis and at worst was either a suck-up to Goebbels or a pandering sympathizer. Was Thea von Harbou – an about-to-be Nazi party member – oblivious to the supposed anti-Nazi material? That it strains credulity is one thing; the real downside to Lang’s publicity stunt is that it has skewered his own films with an interpretation that is still bandied about and still erroneous.
In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du cinema, Lang told Gretchen Berg, “When [the Nazis] found out that the film was based on Peter Kürten, the killer of Düsseldorf (whom I knew personally), they consented to let me make the film.” This is the only statement I can find where Fritz Lang claims to have “personally” known Peter Kürten and it is as fanciful as the stories of Nazi harassment. That none of his biographers followed up on this statement is unfortunate.
“In none of these accounts, tellingly,” McGilligan writes in the biography, “did Lang make any mention of his own Jewish heritage.” Lang helped prepare his entry in Current Biography published in 1943, according to McGilligan, and it reads: “While many famous Jewish directors had to flee Germany because of the ‘Aryan’ work decrees, Lang, a Christian, fled only because he is a believer in democratic government.”
Why Lang left Germany is always going to have an air of mystery about it until the nonsense is swept away and new information surfaces. That Lang denied his heritage and completely distorted his last German films – one of which is supposedly his favorite – is more than bothersome.
“Hangman Also Die” is billed as being based on an original story by Fritz Lang and Bertold Brecht. In fact, producer Arnold Pressburger suggested the original idea for the film and Lang – who had helped Brecht reach America – asked Brecht to co-write the script while the two were sunbathing on a California beach.
Lang and Brecht wrote the outline to the story and then Brecht worked with John Wexley on the script. Wexley was fluent in German and he and Brecht worked together. Wexley – or so the story goes – only put his name on the typed manuscript pages and in the end claimed sole authorship for the script. Brecht appealed to the Writers Guild and Lang and composer Hanns Eisler (who was present for much of the writing) testified on Brecht’s behalf. The guild decided that since Brecht had said he would return to Germany after the war, he didn’t need the credit and Wexley, who would stay in Hollywood, did. Wexley got the credit and then he was later blacklisted because he – unlike Brecht – had joined the communist party.
The script was too long and Lang cut scenes working with Milton Gunzburg without Brecht’s input when – according to Lotte Eisner – production was moved up by three weeks. The script went from 280 pages to 192 and Brecht was incensed. While Kurt Weill disliked Lang almost on sight, it took Brecht a while to despise Lang.
In an interview with Dialogue on Film, Lang explained the casting of “Hangmen Also Die.” “I wanted to explain,” Lang said, “to an American audience what it means if a country is overrun by foreign soldiers, by foreign governments, by foreign powers, with absolutely other ideals as political ideals. Therefore, as it plays in Czechoslovakia, I made all the Czechs Americans and all the Germans German.” Lang stated that Brecht never understood the concept.
In his journal in November 1942, Brecht wrote “the first scene Lang shot was one Wexley and I had cut; the heroine is arguing with her aunt about her wedding dress – she wants a deeper décolleté, The heroine is cast with a fifth-rate English actress” and “Wexley has torn down what it took ten months to build. I had almost managed to eliminate the main idiocies and now they are all back.”
The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Lang’s film bears no real resemblance to actual facts, many of which weren’t available until well after the war was over. The killing of Heydrich was orchestrated not in Czechoslovakia, but in London by the British Special Operations Executive and the Czech government-in-exile and one of the many reasons for killing Heydrich was that the Czechs were viewed as not as resistant to the Nazis as the French or the Poles. What scriptwriter John Wexley and Bertold Brecht fashioned was a propaganda piece full of caricatures that film critic James Agee described as “appalling.” Lang Americanized the main non-Nazi parts and the studio back lots never became a convincing European city.
The reviews were glowing and Variety noted, “From a directorial standpoint this is a triumph for Fritz Lang, who succeeds with singular success in capturing the spirit of the Czech people in the face of the Nazi reign of terror.”
In The New York Times, TS wrote, “In ‘Hangmen Also Die,’ Fritz Lang has returned to the starkly melodramatic style that marked his finest films. If his new effort, now at the Capitol, fails to stand among his best it is not for lack of a meticulous and often uncanny talent for accenting a frightful tale.”
Not everyone was so ecstatic. “They have chosen to use brutality,” James Agee wrote in The Nation, “American gangster idiom, and middle high German cinematic style to get it across, and it is rich with clever melodrama . . . It is most interesting as a memory album. There’s a heroine straight out of the Berlin of the middle twenties, and the Nazis are also archaic, nicely presented types: the swaggering homosexual, the cannonball-headed plainclothesman, the tittering, torturing androgyne. They are all conceivable as Nazis; but they are old-fashioned.”
In “Hangmen Also Die” Fritz Lang – and cinematographer James Wong Howe – have succeeded in creating a script-proof film. The story is naïve and the characterizations are, indeed, “appalling,” as James Agee noted, and the tension and drive of the film are sustained visually, rather than by the actors or the dialog. On the surface, the film appears “Langian” – yet the hero of the piece, Dr. Franticek Svoboda is utterly uninteresting and with a complete lack of nuance and played as pure Wonder bread by Brian Donlevy. It is a film of circumstances rather than personalities and the actors appear merely as icing on a cake consisting of visuals and the music by Hanns Eisler.
Lang was up to his usual tricks of finding a scapegoat actor and making life miserable for them. In this case it was Anna Lee who, in a post-release interview with Look magazine, Lang described as “wooden.” Lang told film editor Gene Fowler Jr that Lee was “one of the worst actresses in the world.” One day during production Lang was berating a group of extras and one of them had a fight with Lang and the extra knocked Lang to the floor. “Not one of the crew,” Anna Lee recalled, “came forward to pick him up. They all just sat there. Nobody picked him up.”
© 2013 William Ahearn
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan states “[Fritz] Lang would exploit the war for publicity and career advantage.” That assessment may seem harsh at first glance, yet Lang’s self-mythologizing that created an anti-Nazi background to his personal history not only distorts the intent of his German films, it also positions him as a “victim” of the Nazis and as a result, one with the moral authority to criticize them on a first-hand basis.
It is in the publicity for “Hangmen Also Die” that Lang first mentions the fateful – if extremely doubtful – meeting with Goebbels and that “The Last Testament of Dr Mabuse” was banned because of anti-Nazi content. Lang had been in Hollywood for over a decade and it was only after the US entered the war that this story surfaced. Even at the time, Lang’s assertion about the Dr Mabuse film was strongly doubted. For more, go here.