Photographs of Fritz Lang always make me do a small mental vif. The films, with their guns and machinery, seem to stink of modernity and, even before he went there, America — or maybe Amerika, Kafka's dream version. Yet he looks so Alte Welt. (The monocle!)
Last Friday, at the British Museum, I heard Michael Wood lecture on "Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime"; I shan't say much about that — I'd probably get it wrong, and the text will be published in the London Review of Books a week or two from now. But it helped me to shape some recent thoughts — specifically, about the possible theological, eschatological dimensions of Lang.
A starting-point is this interview with Alexander Walker in 1967, which John L. Walters told me about:
Monocle and eye patch.
Violence has become, in my opinion, a definite point in a script, it has a dramaturgical reason to be there. You see, I don’t think that people believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail, and therefore they don't believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was, for me, what are people — 'what believe people?', or 'what are people fearing?' is better. And that is physical pain. And physical pain come from violence. And that I think today is the only fact that people really fear, and therefore it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts.
You can see this thinking at work in Ministry of Fear (1945) and The Big Heat (1953) — both films taken from novels with religious undertones.
The Ministry of Fear (1943) is a Graham Greene novel, which may be all the information you need. The protagonist, Arthur Rowe, has murdered his wife — a mercy killing, but of course that isn't an excuse in Greeneland, and the action takes place in a suffocating atmosphere of guilt. (When I was in my teens, full of non-specific guilt, that was one of the things I liked about the book.) The film, screenplay by Seton I. Miller, simplifies the moral difficulties — Stephen Neale (I guess Arthur isn't a very Hollywood name) has sort of helped his wife to kill herself — and leeches away the atmosphere. Moreover, an attempted poisoning and a stabbing are transmuted into shootings; violence on screen must involve noise and suddenness.
It's a while since I read William P. McGivern's novel The Big Heat (1953), but I recall episodes of rather ponderous moral cogitation — Dave Bannion, the cop out for revenge, likes to read philosophy and talk about it with his local priest. The only trace of this character left in Sydney Boehm's screenplay is a mention by fellow cop, pained by Bannion's anger: "Dave, I wish you'd see Father Masterson … No man's an island, Dave. You can't set yourself against the world and get away with it." God has been slashed back, but Lang has a generous budget of violence and physical pain: Bannion (Glenn Ford) bursting through a door and hitting a crook so hard that he careers back across the room, slams into the wall and collapses, bewildered and helpless (this is, I think, what violence is really like — momentum and anatomy conspiring to leave us flummoxed: not like the fantastical "violence" common in modern movies); Lee Marvin's hoodlum screwing a lit cigarette into a girl's hand and throwing scalding coffee into Gloria Grahame's face; Grahame paying him back: "It'll burn for a long time, Vince," she tells him as he writhes and whimpers. That, and the title, may hint that we should be connecting the justice and retribution meted out on screen and in the world with the other kind, the kind that lasts for eternity. When you're in hell, maybe the faces you see will look something like this:
That's Debby (Grahame) showing Vince Stone (Marvin) what he did to her, what she's now done to him. I love the Manichaean make-up and lighting.
Lang says that violence replaces the devil, but perhaps he has also found something to replace God. He seems to have liked seemingly all-powerful, all-knowing conspiracies, which move in mysterious ways to control events. At the start of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), we see one of Mabuse's perfectly conceived criminal plots in action: in a railway carriage, a somnolent passenger yawns, stretches and sneaks a look at his watch; in the woods, a man sitting on the running board of a parked car consults his watch. He cranks the car's starting-handle and drives away. The passenger stands, begins to stretch, then throws himself at the man seated opposite in the train compartment, knocking him out and seizing his briefcase. The open-topped car speeds along a track, passing under the railway line at precisely the moment the train roars overhead; the man on the train leans out of the window and throws the briefcase clear; he barely looks down, the car never slows, but the case lands on the back seat. Meanwhile, the mastermind sits in his shirt sleeves, shuffling cards and checking his watch: all unfolds precisely as he has foreseen. Mabuse's in his heaven, all's right with the world — or, if not right, predictable, controllable, ordered.
Omniscience and omnipotence seem to be attributes, too, of the secret society run by Haghi in Spione (1927 — I can't recommend too highly the Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu-ray, with its astonishingly slick, silvery surfaces, the sense they convey even 90 years later of modernity in full flood). In the second Mabuse film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), the mastermind is dead but others carry out his plots and use his name, and at one point his ghost appears. Hey, we know who else had testaments and lived on after his death, right?
Perhaps that's taking it too far: these masterminds and conspiracies don't represent God; they are functional replacements, if anything (or part replacements: of course, a lot of His work is taken over by the film director). Conspiracies remove an element of arbitrariness from plots, and from the world: like God, they help us to make sense of things. The obsession with conspiracies isn't unique to Lang, by the way: European fiction seemed obsessed with masterminds and conspiracies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — before Mabuse came Fantômas, Fu Manchu and the quasi-heroic Judex; and they all owe something to Professor Moriarty and Captain Nemo. In Britain, would-be Mabuses found their subtlety no match for the courage and common sense of Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay. God isn't necessary to appreciating any of these fictions; it might make as much sense to say that these proto-supervillains stand in for social forces, allowing writers and their readers to tame them: you can't defeat the international proletariat, but you can defeat a villain. Lang may have seen things in those terms: Brecht's influence is blatant in Spione and, particularly, M, and Lang acknowledged it; their one collaboration was fraught, though.
What all this reminds me of is The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton's novel in which all-encompassing conspiracy turns out to be God. I don't suppose Lang ever read it, but I wish he had filmed it.