Fritz Lang (2016)
Fritz Lang, now showing at Fantasia 2017, is a special kind of biopic. Rather than going the conventional route and telling the story of an artist’s life from beginning to end, the film engages with an important, pivotal moment in Lang’s life and career: the conception of his first sound film M, which would prove a masterpiece and mark a major shift in Lang’s artistic focus.
Lang (Heino Ferch) is at a crossroads in his career. One of Germany’s most beloved filmmakers, he has just released Woman in the Moon, the latest in a long line of silent epics dealing with a mechanized future. Artistically at sea and unhappy in his marriage to longtime collaborator Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf), Lang becomes interested in the case of a serial killer “The Monster of Düsseldorf,” who has been killing young women and children and apparently drinking their blood. He heads off to Dusseldorf to take part in the investigation, with the agreement of police Commissioner Gennat (Thomas Thieme), and discovers fodder for his next film: a sympathetic investigation into the mind and murders of a serial killer that will eventually become the film M. As Lang becomes more deeply enmeshed in the investigation and construction of his new film, he recalls his war experiences, the violent death of his first wife, and a childhood that all too closely parallels that of the killer.
Fritz Lang departs even further from the conventional biopic route by integrating Lang’s contemporary quest for the killer with clips from his films. As Lang steps off the bus in Düsseldorf, he walks directly into his own frame, a scene from M where an innocent man is accused of trying to abduct a child. The film continues to overlap the fiction of Lang’s films, his artistic visions, and the “reality” of the Düsseldorf killings, drawing parallels between characters and events. Lang regularly sees scenes of violence that are inseparable from the actual action of the film – for instance, the murderer carrying one of his victims to a lonely hill and burying her body – in an attempt to depict the way that Lang constructs a scene for his film.At one point, he even follows a young woman home from the bus station, conjuring images of the murderer attacking her. In another, he attempts to put himself in the position of the killer as he eats lunch with a friend of one of the victims.Lang’s increasing desire to enter into and understand the mindset of the murderer, which will be ultimately reflected in M, is the film’s biggest sticking point, though it is never pushed so far to render the director wholly unsympathetic.
This identification between art, artist, and reality manages to avoid coming off as simplistic pop psychology, as the film deliberately enters into a nebulous world in which art and reality co-mingle. Fritz Lang is shot in the same aspect ratio as M, in black and white, and utilizing some of the same lighting techniques (based in German Expressionism) that Lang made famous. This allows for greater integration between the clips from Lang’s films and the “reality” of the film itself, effectively erasing the line between Lang’s artistic production and his real life. That this is all typified in a fiction film only loosely based on Lang’s life – and including a number of assumptions about his real life experiences – even further complicates that line between art and reality that all biopics must face. While Fritz Lang plays fast and loose with history – and should be looked at as a fiction film, not a true historical depiction of Lang’s work and psyche – it nevertheless attempts to access the intersection of art and reality within the mind the artist.
The experience of the film is immeasurably heightened by a familiarity with Lang’s work in general, and M in particular. This is especially true in certain scenes, like that of a high-profile criminal telling Gennat that the criminal world will hunt down the murderer if the police fail to. That element will never be returned to in Fritz Lang, but anyone who knows M knows that the confluence of police and underworld, both of them hunting down the murderer simultaneously, is one of the major themes of Lang’s work. The same goes for the underlying criticism of the German police state and the rise of fascism, inherent in M’s political message (both the left and right wings made claims for the film as theirs). While Fritz Lang briefly touches on altercations between communist and fascist forces, the presence of Nazi party members at a beer garden, and Lang’s half-Jewish background, the film nevertheless only skirts those issues, and doesn’t really relate them in any meaningful way to Lang’s creation of M. Fritz Lang rather focuses on investigating the relationship between the director, the murderer, and the production of art than attempting to tell a true-to-life story.
Fritz Lang complicates the relationship between art, artist, biography, and reality, overlapping Lang’s work with a fictionalized version of his life, exploiting the fluidity between murderer, victim, and observer. It is also a hearty acknowledgement of Lang’s important contribution to German cinema, told not with reverence or worship, but with a desire to access the meaning of Lang’s cinema in its oft confusing and contradictory themes and meanings. Whether or not the film ultimately succeeds must be up to the viewer, but seen through the lens of art and not history, it is a fascinating work.
Fritz Lang is now showing at Fantasia 2017.