Fritz Lang on the left rocks out.
Fritz Lang with pipe and mood lighting.
Fritz Lang with snazzy hat, snazzy monocle, and natty scarf.
Liliom, Boyer cops a feel from Madeleine Ozeray (1934).
Fritz Lang (b. Dec. 5, 1890 in Vienna, d. Aug. 2 1976 in Hollywood) is having a good year. His masterpiece Metropolis (1927) has grown by nearly 25 minutes with recently added missing footage that had turned up in Argentina. The new version of Metropolis was shown earlier this year in New York at the Film Forum and again on TCM (which is showing Lang’s underrated Ministry of Fear tonight at 8 PM EST as part of a Graham Greene inspired double feature along with Carol Reed’s Fallen Idol, look for Abbott & Cosetello’s Hilary Brooke and all time great Dan Duryea in small but important roles). Having just returned from France, my mind keeps returning to a film I saw a year or so ago (and luckily saved on my cable company’s version of Tivo which they call DVR), one of the strangest and rarest flicks in the Fritz Lang canon, Liliom, a French remake of a 1930 Hollywood film that Lang made in between fleeing the Nazis back in Germany and his Hollywood debut Fury two years later. Liliom is a film that is somewhat whimsical and evidently personal, two words you wouldn’t normally associate with Lang. Lang’s sense of humor, missing from nearly all his other films (except maybe Scarlet Street) is quite prominent in Liliom, especially in the scenes where Boyer finds out heaven has as many rules and regulations as earth. Liliom was a film Lang felt strongly about, and towards the end of his life often called it his favorite. A bit of background.
Paris was the first stopping place for the mighty German film industry which fled the Nazis en masse in the early 30’s, but unlike fellow refugees like Robert Siodmak, Robert Wiene, Douglas Sirk, G.W. Pabst, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, and others who arrived in Paris penniless, Lang, who stayed in Germany long enough to field an offer from Goebbels to head the Nazi film biz, arrived in style, living in a luxury suite at the George V hotel off the Champ Elsees with a retinue of servants (but without his second wife and greatest collaborator Thea von Harbou who stayed behind). Such excess didn’t exactly make him popular amongst his compatriots (nor did the review of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse that ran in the New York Times on April 29, 1933 which claimed “Lang is a Nazi”). It’s unlikely Lang cared what anyone thought of him at that point, he’s already directed what are still some of the greatest movies ever made, and had a rather high opinion of his talents. Liliom was a big budget, first class production, produced by Erich Pommer, with contributions from Franz Waxman (his first score, he’d later win two Oscars) and Robert Liebman (who’d written The Blue Angel and would die in a Nazi death camp).
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play, Liliom was later remade as the musical Carousel, which I’ve never seen and could care less about, although Danny Fields, the final word on all things musical theater assures me is fabulous, Liliom is the story of a lowlife Paris carny barker, played by a young Charles Boyer, in his best roll, and his ill fated romance with the long suffering street urchin (and photographers assistant) as portrayed by Madeleine Ozeray. Boyer’s charachter gets himself killed in a botched robbery and spends the rest of the film going back and forth between heaven and earth where he tries to make life better for his widow and child. It’s a lot more light hearted than your usual Lang fare, while still visually stunning and totally unique. It’s well worth searching out. In an amazing cameo Antonin Artaud appears as “le remouleur” (the grinder), a different role than he’d played in 1923 when he appeared in the stage production of Liliom as a cop. Lang’s Liliom was a flop in France when released, having been denounced by the Catholic church, and was never released at all in the US, in fact it was nearly impossible to see for many years, now of course you can find the DVD, although the surviving print isn’t great, Lang fans are used to scratchy negatives. Lang would never make another film in France, something of a shame since the one he made there is so interesting. Soon after its failure it was off to Hollywood for Lang where he’d make modest budget film noir for several decades including such classics as Fury, The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, etc. before returning to Germany for his final three films (1960-1). He made no films the last decade of his life, although he appears opposite Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot in Godard’s excellent and hateful Contempt (1963).
There are many excellent books on Fritz Lang, I’d recommend Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang (Secker & Warburg, 1976, and if you haven’t read her classic The Haunted Screen, get that too), Peter Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang In America (Praeger, 1969) and Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature Of The Beast (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) although I’m not sure if I believe McGilligan’s case for Lang murdering his first wife.
Fritz Lang, we’ll not see another like him, nor will we see another film anything like Liliom. Too bad about that.