Madame Butterfly (1919) Harakiri
© 2012 William Ahearn
Considered a lost film for decades and rediscovered in the mid-1980s in the Netherlands Film Museum, “Harakiri” is one of several of Fritz Lang’s films that rarely shows up in the literature about his career. Based loosely on the Madame Butterfly story — and released in the US under that title — “Harakiri,” is an adaptation by Max Jungk. The print that survives isn’t in the best of shape although the film is still viewable. Filmed after the first installment of “The Spiders,” it — once again — shows Fritz Lang’s attraction to the exotic and once again Lang would use the resources of the Ethnographical Museum for authentic touches.
In Fritz Lang (1976), Lotte Eisner mentions the film and quotes contemporary newspaper reviews. Eisner quotes Der Kinematograph, “Fritz Lang’s direction renders all the subtleties of the plot with loving attention and takes good care that taste is never offended, even in minor details.” From the Berliner Börsenzeitung, “The outdoor shots are quite splendid and very picturesque, particularly those of the Japanese festivities. One would not have thought the happy grounds of Woltersdorf could produce all this . . . a film product of the highest rank.”
In The Films of Fritz Lang (1979), Frederick Ott also cites contemporary newspaper reviews as well. Ott quotes the Berliner Börsenzeitung more extensively — and with a different translation — “It is a film that captivates by its realism the subtle portrayal of everyday life, fascinating from beginning to end, and the gruesome motive of the hara-kiri, the Japanese death of honor.” Lang would soon use a scene of hara-kiri in another film and suicides appear in much of his work. This is the first surviving example.
The reason for quoting the reviews is simple: Eisner and Ott never saw the film, as it was still lost when they wrote their manuscripts. Tom Gunning in The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, mentions “Harakiri” in passing noting its plot more than anything else and its place as a precursor to “The Spiders: The Diamond Ship.” In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan notes the use of interiors in “Harakiri” and states that “most interiors, in a Lang film, were likely to be suffocating enclosures” leading one to believe that McGilligan hasn’t seen the film either. None of the contemporary reviews made note of any such thing and the interiors can’t be described as “suffocating” in this film.
McGilligan’s assumption about “suffocating enclosures” is typical of film criticism of Fritz Lang’s films and “Harakiri” is significant for its utter lack of “Langian” flourishes. What's significant about this film — besides being an early example of Lang's direction — is that this film is the earliest example of Lang directing someone else’s script. In 1919, Fritz Lang wrote several films and directed four of them. This was the only one from another writer that Lang would direct until he left Germany.
What we don’t know about this film is how it came to be made. Whether Decla-Film producer Erich Pommer assigned the film to Lang or whether Lang brought the script to Pommer can’t — as far as I know — be determined. If destiny or fate is, in fact, the impetus of Lang’s films – as he has stated in numerous interviews – then this film is where it begins in the story of O-Take-San (Lil Dagover), an abandoned wife and the mother of a mixed race child of a US naval officer.
“Once one has started something,” Lang told Jean-Louis Noames in 1964, when asked about his characters being pursued by their destiny, “one cannot escape from it. But despite that, I have always wanted to show and define the attitude of struggle which people should adopt in the face of fatal events.” [Emphasis in original.]
Yet in “Harakiri” we have the destiny but not the struggle and the same – or similar – acts appear in this and later films and they too lack any “struggle” against the “face of fatal events.” The struggle against fatal events isn’t as clear as Lang likes to describe it and it certainly is an odd way to position the protagonist in a revenge story that makes up many of the stories Lang chose to film. The real life-and-death struggles occur in flooding rooms and fights between antagonists that one would expect in an action film or a sensation film and rarely does it involve any character in conflict with their souls about what course they chose in terms of their destiny.
The locals seemed to have gotten it right in 1919. The film is interesting because it is so atypical of Lang’s future work — although they didn’t know that then — and one can still use the term “delicate” to describe it. Steeped more in a realistic than fanciful style, the film seems to be more of an expression of Lang’s appreciation for paintings than for drama, as one critic of the time noted.
This film can be downloaded at the Internet Archive, here.
Produced by Erich Pommer. Directed by Fritz Lang. Screenplay by Max Jungk (adapted from the play “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long and David Belasco). Cinematography by Max Fassbender. Art Direction by Heinrich Umlauff. Starring Lil Dagover, Paul Biensfeldt, Georg Johnm Meinhart Maur, Rudolf Lettinger and Erner Huebsch.
Original running time: 80 minutes.
Starring Paul Biensfeldt, Lil Dagover, Geogr John, Meinhardt Maur and Rudolf Lettinger, among others.