Misprision (note version)


misprision, n., misdemeanor. — ME., fr. OF. mesprisionmesprison, ‘mistake, wrongdoing’, fr. mespris, pp. Of mesprendre (F. se méprendre), ‘to take amiss, do wrong’, fr. pejorative pref. mes– (see mis-) and prendre, ‘to take’, fr. L. prehendereprendere. Cp. F. méprise, ‘mistake’, and see prehensile. Cp. Also prison.
(Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language)

I think it is a truism that history and criticism always commit the misdemeanours of mistaking and wronging their objects in the same moment that they ‘create’ and comprehend those objects. The word ‘misprision’ first made a strong impression on me in Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading (Oxford University Press, New York, 1975), where at first I thought it was ‘misprison’ and understood it perfectly as ‘wrongful capture’. Now I am not so certain. Bloom was actually using the word in The Oxford English Dictionary‘s ‘archaic’ sense of ‘the mistaking of one thing, word, etc., for another; a misunderstanding, a mistake’ – and the equivalent of the ‘misreading’ in his title. He argued that, in an extension of Oedipal dynamics, great poets misread their great predecessors; and that only this misprision allows the new generation to create great works of its own. Yet surely Bloom knew very well that all writing has at least some basis in reading – the writing of history and of criticism especially – and that what holds true for great poetry must have its small, mundane counterpart in other forms of writing. It is not possible to read perfectly, and to that extent we are all condemned to misreading. But it is also possible that misreading, like prejudice, is a necessary condition of thinking and writing. As we read what has been written, we marvel at its insight, but also at its blindness, misreading the misreading – caught, not in a prison house of language, but by the reflections of the demon pond at the middle of life’s journey.

In some sense the intention of this piece is to offer a critical assessment of the place of Fritz Lang’s films in English and American writing on the cinema, both in works of film history and film criticism. At the same time I am deeply suspicious of such exercises of authority, and the reader should be warned that a lot of what follows is “just opinion” and probably wrong – too hastily conceived and executed. Perhaps it will be best to read this as a tale of the wonders I have seen: of the wise folk who fished for the moon and of the lunatics who caught it. All of this writing is merely the necessary misunderstanding that nets us a world.

Anyone, even a lunatic traveller, who undertakes to write about the writing about Fritz Lang will be indebted to E. Ann Kaplan. Her Fritz Lang: A Guide to References and Resources is a prodigious feat of scholarship; I needed it every day during the composition of what follows. Kaplan’s introduction summarises the critical writing to 1979 in ways that the reader will recognise to have had some influence on what appears below. Another text that has helped to make a framework for my thinking is Thomas Elsaesser’s “Traps for the Mind and Eye”, which appeared in Sight & Sound for August 1997, particularly his knowledgeable and succinct summary of “the French Lang”.

There are pragmatic reasons governing the selection of some of the material discussed here. I have included a good deal of French writing, especially in the second section, because of the influence that writing has had on Lang criticism in English. On the other hand, I do not read German, and there is nothing in these pages of the extensive writing on Lang which has appeared in German. Finally, much that has been published does not belong here, including Patrick McGilligan’s biography, and much else has been either subsumed or excluded in the inevitable misreading attendant upon taxonomic exercise.

Film History

misprision, n. contempt (archaic). – Formed with suff. -ion fr. OF. mesprisier, ‘to despise’.
(Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language)
C’est la méprise qui crée le mépris.
(Jean Narboni)

If you are looking for what everyone knows about an element of film history (like Fritz Lang) you may well begin with general histories of film. There is a surprising convergence of opinion about Lang’s career in such books. It used to be the prevalent opinion that Fritz Lang did his best work before the beginning of the Second World War and that his most important films were Der Müde Tod (1921), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis(1927) and M (1931). This assessment is by no means out of fashion. You can find it recycled as recently as a decade ago in David Parkinson’s History of Film. Parkinson’s evaluation, which does include The Big Heat(1953) among Lang’s noteworthy films, uncannily echoes those in film histories written by Gerald Mast (1971), Alan Casty (1973), Eric Rhode (1979), John Fell (1979), David Cook (1981) – and even the team of Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell (1994).

Of course, pre-war film historians, like Paul Rotha (1930) and the French duo of Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach (1935), paid most of their attention to the silent films because the silent films were most of what was there to value.[2] Still, the common basis of the differing English and French assessments of this work is interesting today. The films are praised almost exclusively for their visual qualities. Rotha uses Siegfried as the principal example of a particular and highly valued category, “The Decorative Film and Art Film” (124). Bardèche and Brasillach, who are less impressed with the German director overall, nonetheless use words like “beauty” to describe that film and devote considerable attention to the articulation of landscape and the subordination of characters to visual composition in it. They also praise the first two reels of Metropolis for creating “a world” – which suggests a more cinematically aware understanding of Lang’s use of “decorative design” than Rotha’s.[3]

At the same time, these writers are struggling with what they have seen. Rotha deplores the director’s “entire lack of filmic detail, of the play of human emotions, of the intimacy which is so peculiar a property of the film” while professing to admire “his bigness of outlook and his power of broad visualisation” (272) as well as “his courage and self-confidence” (275). Bardèche and Brasillach say that Die Nibelungen displays “a static beauty[4] . . . grandiloquence and gesturing” to the extent that “one finds these two films irritating as a whole” (193). For them Metropolis is an at times “profoundly ridiculous” film containing “some beautiful things which permitted us to overlook the basic confusion of ideas and the impossible story, as well as all the false romanticism” (260-261).

It is easy to empathise with these humanist sentiments. Lang’s films must be among the most unappealing “film classics”; and Rotha and Bardèche and Brasillach were not the first to have classified Lang, for better or worse, as primarily a “visual director” while deploring a lack of humanity or intellectual depth, or sometimes “reality”, in his work.[5]  But it is rather strange that so many film historians writing in English have virtually repeated these early appraisals, and none have constructed very convincing cases for the surpassing merit of what are, after all, supposed to be Awfully Good Movies.

Between 1938 (the appearance of Bardèche and Brasillach in English) and the first edition of Gerald Mast’s A Short History of the Movies in 1971 both Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari To Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1969) had been published. Their diverging visions of Lang are perhaps too well known to require much glossing here. Kracauer portrays him as the perfect, and perfectly unconscious, mirror of his times (at least until the partial objectification suggested by M, which is unfortunately succeeded by an involuntary regression in Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, 1933). Eisner, whose book was first published in French in 1952, is one of the few writers to have found inspiration in the visual qualities of cinema and, doubtless because of this circumstance, discerns much to praise in the carefully crafted and visually elaborate films of Lang’s silent period. Using evidence based on composition, lighting and staging, The Haunted Screen can claim quite convincingly and directly that Metropolis achieves “a genuinely dramatic crescendo” (236); whereas From Caligari to Hitler, pioneering a type of social psychological analysis that is still in use more than half a century on, argues with equal conviction and fierce irony that in the same film “the paralyzed collective mind seemed to be talking with unusual clarity in its sleep” (162).[6]

Few film historians after Kracauer and Eisner are at all persuasive about the “quality and depth” (Cook 365) or “impetus” (Parkinson 137) of Lang’s silent films. Gerald Mast, seeming here to follow Kracauer, devotes just as much space to denouncing Metropolis (“It was one of Hitler’s favourite films”, 174) as he does to praising Der Müde Tod for “its artistic seriousness” (172). Alan Casty, who likes the Mabuse films, finds Metropolis only “sporadically more fruitful” than Die Nibelungen (“The excessive length of the films becomes an exercise in self-indulgence, an orgy of artifice and melodramatic over-simplification of meaning as great as the greed and power exhibited in the tales”, 53). Eric Rhode, another Mabuse fan, albeit one influenced by Kracauer, says that Lang “links together the various episodes [of Die Nibelungen] so arbitrarily that his theme never emerges” (172), and he ignores Metropolis almost completely.[7] John Fell thinks that the Mabuse films are raised “above the limitations of the genre” by a combination of skill and “social commentary” (135); but he condemns Die Nibelungen for being “at times so slow as to defy endurance” (136) and can conclude of Metropolis only that “for all its squeaky plot machinery, Lang’s film continues to amuse and visually to impress viewers” (138), by his wording seeming to exempt himself from the company of those so amused and/or impressed.

Casty bundles the Mabuse films that he likes together with M and apparently finds in that grouping a “more literal, realistic rendering of . . . social and psychological themes” (54) which is also more to his taste. Fell and Rhode also think that what sets the Mabuse films apart from Lang’s other work is their implied critique of contemporary mores, which they appear to value as Casty does. The three seem to share a not uncommon preference for films which criticise modern society in harsh and explicit terms. They are looking for the American Fritz Lang described by Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film in 1939: “All his material is from everyday life; its drabness is made dramatic by his masterly depiction of the social net in which the average person is caught” (465). Such standards are still sometimes evoked in evaluations of Lang’s work, as they are in judging many, many other cultural products. Debate about the value of Lang’s films often focuses more or less implicitly on interpretations of the degree and force of their social and political messages: how formal practices do or do not effectively challenge one’s understanding of the (power relations in the) everyday world, how irony and/or ambiguity and/or distance may or may not be read as a viable or acceptable political position, how certain images of women and the media may or may not constitute meaningful criticisms of social, economic and/or governmental practice.

David Cook’s history at first makes a praiseworthy effort not to parade this kind of historically-determined prejudice as the judgement of the ages. Unfortunately, this seems to leave him with very little to say about why one would want to watch any of Lang’s silent films today. Reflecting Eisner more or less directly, he thinks “Lang added something new to the cinema” in the lighting of Der Müde Tod, and he says that all Lang’s silent German films are “overwhelmingly impressive in terms of sheer plastic beauty and decorative design” (122). But then he uses the word “massive” to sum up Die Nibelungen; and the phrase “terrifying, if simplistic” is the whole of his verdict on Metropolis (123). Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, who clearly understand Eisner more thoroughly than Cook, maintain an even greater distance than his, subsuming the early Lang entirely into Expressionism, and in the process implicitly making the films of his that they mention significant as typical examples of an important style rather than autonomous, “intrinsically excellent”, works of art or works important because of their influence on others. In a sense Janet Bergstrom is also doing something like this in her brief essay on Lang for The Oxford History of World Cinema when she claims that the director’s Weimar films evinced an “aesthetic distinctiveness that offered a serious alternative to Hollywood”- words which may well intend to suggest a group of films larger than Lang’s work alone. Yet her wording does make it clear that the atypicality of Lang’s films is what she believes we should find valuable about them, whereas the thrust of Thompson and Bordwell’s discussion is to draw attention to the typical “Expressionism” of the films they have labelled “Expressionist”, Lang’s included.

There is an alternative, even postmodern, strategy. Thomas Elsaesser employs it by casually acknowledging the canonical status of some of Lang’s films: “Of course the Dr Mabuse films, Der Müde TodMetropolisM, Fury(1936), You Only Live Once (1937) and The Big Heat (1953) are classics that will always be to the glory of his name” (28). Disingenuous, he does not feel impelled to argue for this state of things or even to explain it, for these are “of course” the circumstances that give rise to his writing, not his writing that dictates the canon or determines when next we will see the workers of Metropolis on YouTube or in an ad for information age shoes.

Elsaesser effortlessly extends his list of ‘classics’ to certain of the American films, but other historians have not had it so easy. The means by which David Cook extends his judgment from Lang’s Weimar films to his American and later German work is typical, in that it tends, in effect, to make Lang disappear from film history. Cook begins by situating himself within the prewar tradition maintained into the sixties by Eisner, finding the silent work worthy only because of its visual merit. But ultimately it is M alone, “the most significant and influential work of Germany’s early sound period” (364) that redeems Lang in Cook’s history. Like Casty and the others, he devotes a paragraph of positive analysis to its camerawork, sound and editing, Peter Lorre’s performance, and what he reads as the film’s implied social criticism. Although in his comments on M he devotes no space to the “plastic beauty and decorative design” that were the sole virtues of the earlier films, he clearly thinks that M is a film of “quality and depth” that far surpasses them. Then, in the same section of his book (“Europe in the Thirties: Germany”), the whole of Lang’s American career is summarised in a much shorter paragraph in which only FuryYou Only Live Once and The Big Heat are deemed to have “achieved the quality and depth of his greatest work” (365). That is, Cook compares Lang’s American films to an earlier deep body of European quality, an oeuvre, that really amounts to just one film. The result is uncanny but not, I think, either unusual nor unlooked-for. Lang is rendered absent in very moment he is invoked to appear.

Some other film historians, like Arthur Knight (1957), Thorold Dickinson (1971) and Basil Wright (1974), virtually – actually, in Dickinson’s case – excluded Lang from history. Believing that his films were not worth writing about, they devoted as little space to them as possible; and the absence of Lang titles in their books produced a corresponding absence in the historical canon. More recent historians do write about the films, often by making lists of them, but in such an unconvincing way that no very compelling reasons for bothering with Lang’s work can be adduced from their texts. At the same time, these texts do produce lists, and these lists in turn do tend to generate impressions of stature. The figure of Lang thus produced is one entirely made of film titles, having no other aspect whatever.

One can watch strategies of writing about this spectral presence shift with the shifting cultural opinion of Lang’s American work. Richard Griffith, who supplemented Rotha’s history in 1948, praises Fury extravagantly, but tracks a downhill course thereafter, even though he is the only general film historian with anything positive to say about You And Me (1938) (480-481).[8] Mast simply dismisses the Hollywood films after 1938, along with those of many other emigré directors, all of which he says were pervaded by “Hollywood’s slick, impersonal sheen” (279). Casty credits Lang with strongly influencing the development of the “criminal as victim” crime film in the U.S. with Fury and You Only Live Once, and he is the only one of the general historians to find The Return of Frank James (1940) and even Western Union (1941) worthy of mention, but he does not like films noirs and perhaps for that reason omits any discussion of Lang’s work after this, although he lists The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) among noirfilms. Fell believes that Lang’s American work “veers from posture to posture without always integrating a coherent view” (243: the “always” is a nice touch), but he does mention FuryYou Only Live OnceThe Woman in the WindowScarlet Street and The Big Heat in his brief discussion of the director’s Hollywood films.

Thompson and Bordwell admire Fury and You Only Live Once, discuss The Ministry of Fear (1944), Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street as films noirs (as they discussed the silent films as contributions to Expressionism), and sum up the later American period by saying that Lang “continued to make sober, sombre genre pictures that radiated paranoid unease” (397), adding Rancho Notorious (1952) and Die Tausend Augen Des Dr. Mabuse (1960) to the canonical list floated by previous historians.

But, all in all, it would seem that recent decades have seen the progressive erasure of Fritz Lang from what used to be a particular position of importance in film history, albeit one that earlier historians had some trouble defining with any precision. Lang clearly constitutes a problem for this kind of historical writing. In part this problem results from the persistent division of film history into national categories, in part from ideas of “Hollywood” both past and present, in part from a conception of some biographies as trajectories of rise-and-fall, and in part from the equation of cinematic value with overweening aesthetic or socio-political difference. Yet there are other forms of film history, even if some are still to be written. Histories of great artists; histories of great works; histories of cinema as global popular art; histories of style and/or narration; histories of genres; histories of film practice. One can imagine that such histories would position Lang differently, find his work presented a different problem or perhaps no problem at all.[9]

Perhaps Bergstrom’s essay in The Oxford History of World Cinema, mentioned earlier, is best understood as an example of the commonest of these other forms of history, the history of great artists. Her piece is, of course, directly focussed on the filmmaker. It appears as one of many such sidebars in a broader, explicitly revisionist, history of world cinema. The text of the volume as a whole resembles an encyclopaedia rather than a traditional history book, with individual entries covering geo-political categories alongside categories defined according to a range of other criteria (technology, form, economics, etc.). There is a slight difference in the way Bergstrom deals with Lang as well. She refers directly to the importance of (French) writing on the film maker, recognising in this way that great artists are made as well as born. Thus one reads a certain self-consciousness into her additions to the canon (which omits Ministry of Fear and Rancho Notorious): Hangmen Also Die (1942), Secret Beyond The Door (1947), While the City Sleeps (1955), Beyond A Reasonable Doubt(1956) and the Indische Grabmal films (1959).

A great deal of the problem of Lang for a history of film as art originates in the popular sources/bases of his films and their popular success. The summit of his cultural legitimacy is probably Die Nibelungen, a big-budget action fantasy derived from a traditional legend and culminating in an orgy of screen violence. The trashiness of the rest of his material is notable even by the standards of Weimar cinema, which was never shy of sensationalism. This circumstance tends to rule most of Lang’s work out of serious contention in an aesthetic universe of films dealing with worthy or difficult topics. In such a universe The Big Heat is at most a good crime film, or a good genre film, or a more human film than some others of the director’s – almost anything but a good film, period – because, presumably, to call it a good film, period, would be to invoke “postmodern” criteria for the cinema, which is to say no criteria at all, no standards, no taste, the end of civilisation as we know it (again).

Another key source of trouble, this time for histories of national cinemas, is Lang’s movement in the mid-thirties from European art cinema to Hollywood (not to mention his return to Europe later to make even more trashy movies than he made in Hollywood). If Lang is an important force in “German cinema”, what are film historians to make of him in the context of “American cinema”, indeed as the American he became? The switch of nationalities was accomplished over much the same time that the director switched from the practice of overt cinematic stylisation (“statically” or “plastically” beautiful shots; elliptical and “symbolic” editing) to what appears at first to be a kind of no-style, a cinematic equivalent of the Le Code Civil that Stendahl admired so much.

Connected with both of these changes, and perhaps emblematic of the inter-relatedness of both, is the question of where film historians are to put their discussions of M. As I have pointed out, Cook deals with M in a section on Germany and decides to deal with the Hollywood films there too, suggesting some sort of link between them. Fell and, surprisingly, Thompson and Bordwell opt for achronology along the other axis and in so doing emphasise certain distinctions that are perhaps intended to make a difference between Europe and Hollywood. They discuss M after they have dealt with most of Lang’s Hollywood films. Fell does this in a section on “Europe, Russia and Sound”, which has the effect of stressing technological as well as national and regional differences. Thompson and Bordwell, compounding surprise upon surprise, deal with Weimar sound films, including Lang’s, in a chapter on “The German Cinema under the Nazis”, having ignored them in an earlier chapter exclusively covering the development of sound technology in Germany (“Germany Challenges Hollywood”). The effect of these differing treatments is to make M and Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse into a backdrop or preface to Lang’s migration to Hollywood and a decade and more of Nazi films. The films become marginal, between one definable chunk of film history and another.

Film Criticism

prehensile, adj., adapted for grasping – F. préhensile, fr. L. prehensus, pp. of prehendere, ‘to grasp, seize, lay hold of’, fr. pre- and –hendere, fr. I.-E. base *ghe(n)d, ‘to clasp, seize, reach, attain, hold’. See get and words there referred to and cp. esp. prey.
(Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language)

Reading . . .
is a belated and all-but-impossible act,
and if strong is always . . . misreading
(Harold Bloom)

In March 1937, only two years after the publication of Bardèche and Brasillach’s film history, an article by Georges Franju entitled “Le style de Fritz Lang” appeared in Cinéma-tographe, a journal that Richard Abel identifies as “the semiofficial organ of the newly formed Cercle du cinéma ciné-club and Cinémathèque française” (146). Cinéma-tographe was an auteurist journal, edited by Franju and Henri Langlois, and it lasted all of two issues. Franju’s piece, however, did not perish with the journal. It was reprinted more than twenty years later, slightly revised, in Cahiers du Cinéma 101 (November 1959)[10] .

Cahiers 101 celebrated Franju and Les yeux sans visage (1959), and “Le style de Fritz Lang” was probably included to point up a convergence of taste between Cahiers ‘ postwar auteurist critics and the director, one of the founders of the Cinémathèque and one of the most admired documentary film makers of the postwar period. Indeed, the convergence is marked: “Le style de Fritz Lang” uncannily anticipates most of the concerns which dominated postwar critical writing on Lang’s work, and continue to circulate today.[11]

Franju’s piece is about more, and less, than Lang’s style. In fact it begins with an assertion of substance that might provide a foundation for almost every comprehensive analysis of the director’s work since: “Lang, whether or not he is translating Thea von Harbou, seems to dream continually of justice and a higher equilibrium” (16). Even though he had a low opinion of Fury, Franju recognised in its preoccupation with justice a fundamental continuity between the German and American work which is not usually remarked on by the film historians I have cited.

That continuity provided one of the bases for the postwar auteurist reassessment of Lang and the reorientation of critical writing towards his Hollywood period. Words like “justice” and “balance”, sometimes in the form of “fate”, “the trap”,[12] “revenge”, “morality” and “truth” have been scattered throughout French and Anglo-American appraisals of Lang’s films since this time.

In English, the reassessment and reorientation made its strongest impact with issue No. 28 of Film Culture (Spring 1963), in which Andrew Sarris unveiled a pantheon of directors entitled “The American Cinema”. Lang was placed in the “Second Line” of Sarris’s pantheon, in an entry which used “fate”, “patterns”, “determinism” and “destiny” as descriptors of the director’s work. “It must be stressed”, stressed Sarris, implicitly linking the Weimar and early Hollywood “classics” to the later American and German films, “that Lang’s cinema has not declined over the years” (14). Peter Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang in America  (1967) reaffirmed and expanded Sarris’s paragraph, and his book swiftly became the foundation text of the Anglo-American reorientation. Bogdanovich’s chapter of thematic analysis is called “Fate, Murder and Revenge”, paraphrasing a line in The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck  from Rancho Notorious , a film which by 1967 had acquired a position in the Langian auteurist canon just below that of The Big Heat .

As we have seen, however, a significant segment of subsequent Anglo-American writing continued to reject the idea that there was a substantial continuity of kind between Lang’s work before sound, or before 1933, or before 1939, and his work after one or other of those divisions. This was not only true of general film histories. Two years after Bogdanovich’s book had appeared, Paul Jensen’s The Cinema of Fritz Lang  devoted more than half of its length to the films before the onset of World War II and dismissed virtually all the rest as “programme fare” (203). Frederick W. Ott’s The Films of Fritz Lang  (1979) allows the director until 1948 before “one senses a decline” (55).

A year later, Robin Wood’s exemplary summary of the Anglo-American continuity position, “Fritz Lang: 1936-60”, was published in the second volume of Richard Roud’s Dictionary of Cinema . With some deliberation it used the two Indische Grabmal  epics, almost the last work of the director, as leading examples of Lang’s ability to create a lasting cinema. Treating the films from 1936 to 1960 like dramatic texts shaped by a director’s preoccupations, Wood describes Lang’s stylistic “economy”, “functional precision” and “detachment” as well as certain of his “recurrent motifs”: “the trap”, “the suppressed underworld” and “revenge”. In the end Lang’s defining quality, in Wood’s (mis)reading, appeared to be moral strictness defying a human condition almost always determined by fate, and his ideas were expressed or illustrated or merely “encouraged by the rigour and purity of his mise en scène ” (606). Wood’s remains one of the most complete and eloquent Anglo-American auteurist accounts of Lang’s work, in its assumptions as much as its execution; and, of course, almost everything that he says of the American and later German work seems just as applicable to the Weimar films.

However another, perhaps more important, piece in Roud’s Dictionary  was entirely given over to “The German Period” of Fritz Lang. It was written by Noël Burch (originally in 1973), and it focussed on formal or stylistic patterns in the Weimar films. Burch’s article is unusual, even among formal analyses, because it eschews drawing thematic conclusions from its account of the life of forms. It is concerned to direct readers’ attention to ways in which sequences are linked in Lang’s Weimar films, but it does so by emphasising the (increasingly overt) role of discontinuity, or disjunction, in those linking strategies. At the same time however, something else is almost inadvertently displayed in Burch’s text: the extraordinary detail of the strategies he analyses. Burch’s piece for the first time suggested the susceptibility of Lang’s texts to close readings informed by a sensitivity to what might be called cine-pragmatics: the recognition that what is shown on the screen is the result of countless apparently minute or trivial practical decisions. In Burch’s analysis the tales of the German director’s obsessive practice (which he pointedly does not repeat) would be of more than anecdotal importance, for the reader recognises the cinematic results of both on and off the set obsession in the intricate montage Burch describes.

Burch’s article was originally written in French as ‘De Mabuse à M: Le travail de Fritz Lang ‘ for the Revue d’Esthétique  (1973), one of a series of articles (sometimes co-written with Jorge Dana) using Lang’s films to build up a historical account of illusionist narrative. Burch was writing about how Lang ‘worked’, where Franju in 1937 had written about Lang’s ‘style’. Yet if by “style” one understands some kind of systematised and holistic formal practice, a physiognomy, Franju failed to deliver what the title promised (and Burch comes much closer). Franju did, however, call attention to certain repeated practices of editing, mise en scène and acting in Lang’s films – elements of style, if you will. By doing so he inaugurated a (mainly French) critical tradition, exemplified and pushed to the extreme in Burch’s piece, that has proven at least as critically significant as the Anglo-American auteurist tradition. Style, in the general terms suggested by such notions, has been an integral part of almost everyone’s discussion of Lang. What formal analysts have brought to that writing has been their concentration upon formal issues as the fundaments of understanding, moving (as surely we all do) from expression to content instead of vice-versa .[13]

Franju credited Lang with “an intuitive découpage . . . the conditional ordering of shots, a spatial positioning that surfaces entirely through the découpage” that “orders and directs” the spectator to make intuitive connections, to become complicit in the creation of the narrative (19). He uses an example from Der Müde Tod: the opening shot is of a still figure along a road, the next is of a moving coach, and the third is an intertitle about the occupants of the coach; and the result of this juxtaposition is that virtually every viewer knows that there will be an encounter between the still figure and the occupants of the coach. Franju also noted a particular use of the reaction shot acting “through a rupture in the narrative, on reflex . . . showing the emotive image before the motive of the emotion” (20), a strategy that clearly also solicits spectatorial participation. Of the acting in Lang’s films, Franju observed that “in effect, the role is not carried inside the self, but on the self. The cinema is less an art of exteriorisation than of the exterior” (22). Here, in a kind of larval form, are notions of determinism, disjunction and distance which are now commonplace in stylistic discussions of Lang, and which still seem productive for describing how his films work. Moreover, coursing through these three examples is an idea of a spectatorial activity both determined and distanced by discontinuities sited within a continuous flow.

Wood’s more thematic interpretation stressed the austerity and detachment of Lang’s style – his distance – in fairly general and impressionistic terms. Burch’s piece charted a progression of linking strategies from disjunction overshadowed by narrative determinism in the first Mabuse films to an elaborate and explicit play of disjunctive ellipses, “rhymes”, and fragmentation resolving implacably to a terrible coherence in the finale of M. At the same time, however, Burch also stressed the distancing effect of the spectator’s recognition of the discontinuity and determinism that Lang’s later work employed. He contrasted the exhibitionistic dispersion of these techniques with another, less distanced, way of making films, one governed by camouflaged laws of visual continuity and psychological mimesis: classic narration – big, bad mama Hollywood. Wood had seen Lang’s “detachment” as a compatible, if not always comfortable, variation within the Hollywood system. For Burch, as for Theodor Adorno, truly autonomous art defies pre-existing systems. Thus when Lang began to make films that Hollywood studios released he must have sacrificed the distancing techniques of disjunctive linkage that marked the Weimar films as works of cinema rather than reproductions of nineteenth-century literature.

In a sense Burch’s work completes and extends Franju’s in ways that nothing else between the two does. Yet between them there was a particularly fertile period of French writing that included three monographs on the director. As one might expect, a great deal of the most influential criticism appeared in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma from 1955 to 1961. Although the Cahiers critics tended to ignore the discontinuity that Burch later critically repositioned, their attempts to rethink film making as a species of (intellectual) writing led them to understand the later American and German films as rhetorical exercises whose narratives were entirely governed by certain logics and explicitly devoted to the representation of the conflict of ideas rather than the vicissitudes of real life. This is the period in which “the French Lang” was created, that crystallised figure which Elsaesser describes as a kind of epiphany for the director.

The tentative beginnings of this process can be seen in Phillipe Demonsablon’s adroit and oblique argument that an imputed biography (the effects of the war and of aging) is expressed in the mise en scène he imputes to, but never describes in, Human Desire (1954) in a review published in 1955. By 1956 Jean Domarchi is giving Lang the title of “constructor” and describing what he does as “abstraction” (“risquons le mot”, 40), claiming that “American methods gave him the means to rid himself of expresssionist bric-à-brac and accede to an unsurpassable rigour” (41), and noting that no character escapes criticism in While the City Sleeps.

Jacques Rivette’s 1957 review of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt extends the idea of rigour until (logical) necessity eclipses abstraction. The review is called “La main”, and its palpable, if unspoken, intention is to discern the workings of Lang’s “hand” in this film. An unspoken prologue might also be evoked by this title, a prologue in which the critic would claim that his review responds to the retold tale of the representation of the master’s hand in each of Lang’s films. What does it mean when the director of a film signs himself as his hand? Does it mean, perhaps, “this is not a hand”? For Rivette it seems it does. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a film of “pure negative” and “Lang is the cinéaste of the concept” (50), engaged in the “destruction of the scene: since none is treated for itself, all that survives is a sequence of pure moments each of which retains only its mediating aspect” and “even the destruction of the character: here each is truly no more than what he says, what he does” (49), a disembodied hand indeed.[14]  The notions of purity and of emptiness set in train by Rivette’s unmentioned hand are then articulated more extremely and explicitly by Demonsablon in his review of the Indische Grabmal films, which he says “offer us the example of a cinema set free, but a freedom with no other object than pure spectacle – pure in sense of pure chance or pure loss – that is, to simply state a fact and not to enhance it” (59).

Cahiers 99 (September 1959) was the journal’s “Lang issue”. A substantial section and the cover were devoted to the director. Domarchi and Rivette conducted the interview. Demonsablon contributed a dense and ambitious essay, “La hautaine dialectique de Fritz Lang”, arguing at length that “it is under the sign of the Idea that the work of Fritz Lang positions itself, and it is always the idea that we discern in it under traits that belong to pure mise en scène” (16). Tellingly, there were two pieces by hot mise en scène extremists: Fereydoun Hoveyda’s review of the Indische Grabmal films as examples of the popular serial tradition, and a fervent essay by Michel Mourlet, “Trajectoire de Fritz Lang”, in which he attempted a radical synthesis of the ideas of mise en scène, abstraction, rigour and negation advanced by earlier writers.[15]  If those others argued that in Lang’s films all the elements of fiction cinema – story, sets, actors – were abstracted, made distant, as they are rapt into the mise en scène, Mourlet’s piece was a hymn to the films as realms of despotic control and to Lang as the totalising practitioner of a mise en scéne so rarified as to threaten its own extinction. There was hardly any dialectic in the system that Mourlet described, and few “signs of the Idea”, however abstract: all was form, purity, negation. His piece finds its own resolution in a figuration of the director as a doomed obsessive-compulsive: “This mania for perfection, for an artistic absolute with which the creator attempts to shield from chance what is most precious in himself, pushes the Langian system to the extreme of audibility and believability. This is the reason it is so little believed and so little heard” (24).

Some construction was still to be done before the figure of “the French Lang” would be complete. In Jean Douchet’s August 1961 review of Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse, he compares the figure of Mabuse to a film director and to Lang himself, and ends with a paragraph asserting that Lang’s work is “a long suite of introspections” on a “fundamental obsession” with possessing the world by means of the cinema and that the last three films “take mise en scène as their subject” (53). All that remained to finally leave behind the territory that Franju had originally scouted was to recognise and schematise the implications of what Douchet had asserted, and this followed, some five years later, in Bellour’s “Sur Fritz Lang”, which has set the agenda for almost all the French writing work on Lang since, especially in the way in which that piece intertwined and foregrounded concepts of vision and doubling (“a vision of a vision”). Elsaesser sums up the resulting position succinctly and precisely, and at the same time suggests what has become of the notion of discontinuity in the new criticism:

In this perspective Lang’s mise en scène formulates the norms of what has come to be regarded as the classical cinema, as it situates itself at the limits of this mode. In this way the very functioning of the system, and the assumptions on which it rests, become demonstrable and evident. (29)

That is: Lang’s distance allowed him to see fully. The determinism of his thought forced conclusions upon his films and upon his viewers that all of us might otherwise have wanted to avoid. And the result is that the films articulated a discontinuity between what was represented in them, even unto the system of that representation, and what Lang’s vision represented of that representation. Our recognition of this discontinuity owes everything to Burch, although it stands in stark opposition to his judgement on the post-Weimar films, for it was Burch’s essay, six years after Bellour’s, that argued most forcefully for the disjunction between Lang’s vision and that of so-called classical cinema.

Elsaesser’s account of the director stops here, as well it might. Nothing so fundamental has happened to the figure of Lang as its transformation into the Tiresias of mise en scène more than thirty years ago (a transformation in which Jean-Luc Godard also played a part). Rather, that figure and some of the films made under its name have been used to illuminate certain of the critical interests which have occupied academic film studies over the past twenty-or-so years, providing corroborative evidence for those interests and extending their parameters, as they once did for Expressionism or social realism or the auteur policy. Unsurprisingly, the “interests” to which I am referring are loosely interrelated and they all tend to use Lang’s American work as a place in which one finds some kind of difference from what they assume as a norm. They are: studies of films noirs, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic interpretation, narrative and mise en scène analysis. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, in most of this writing the doubled and doubling quality of Lang’s vision remarked on by Bellour and Elsaesser tends to be resolved into a singularity: a subtext or subversion of what manifestly appears.

The cover of E. Ann Kaplan’s anthology, Women in Film Noir is a publicity still from The Blue Gardenia (1953). The anthology was first published in 1978, the year before Kaplan’s Fritz Lang: A Guide to References and Resources, and it contains an essay by her on Lang’s film. In the course of the anthology Woman in the WindowScarlet Street and The Big Heat are also assumed to be films noirs. In the filmography appended to the book no other director’s work is represented so often as Lang’s. That is, Lang and film noir are being brought together in a (dis)juncture which places the director somewhat outside the mainstream. The book, and Kaplan’s essay, chart this territory in terms of gender. She explicitly represents The Blue Gardenia as “a challenge to critics” because of its deployment of both male and female discourses (83). In so doing, Kaplan introduced critical writing to the idea that Lang’s vision was particularly apposite in what it might reveal about the conventions of gendered representation (which was, after all, one of Tiresias’s special talents as well).[16]

Ten years later, the (dis)juncture linking film noir, Lang and gender was still evident. In the CinéAction! issue on film noir (Summer 1988), an article by Florence Jacobowitz on The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street questioned common ideas of masculinity. The other Lang piece in that issue, by Douglas Pye, was on The Blue Gardenia. Called “Seeing by Glimpses”, it posited the film’s invitations to its own misreading as its most significant quality. In 1992 The Movie Book of Film Noir republished Jacobowitz’s essay. In the same volume, Michael Walker’s general introduction cited both i>Woman in the Window and i>Scarlet Street as “paradigm” examples of films noirs (12). The book as a whole thus confirmed the (dis)junctive status of these Lang films at least, and it also continued the process of finding another type of subversive vision in Lang’s work in Pye’s analysis of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt which, like his Blue Gardenia piece, called attention to the strategies which that film uses “to challenge our habitual assumptions” (109).

The Blue Gardenia was for the third time the focus of an article published in the context of film noir in 1993, when Janet Bergstrom’s elegant study of that film appeared in Joan Copjec’s anthology, Shades of Noir. Bergstrom refused either to repudiate or endorse Kaplan’s brief for Lang as a social critic or Pye’s case for the director as a critic of human and cinematic perception. Instead she represented the film as irretrievably divided, refusing to commit. In the same place, Elizabeth Cowie’s essay on “Film Noir and Women” used The Secret Beyond the Door as the prime textual example for a section entitled “Deathly Desires” (145-166). Here too, Lang’s film was valued for its singular difference; and Cowie deliberately blurred or refused explication of an origin of that difference: in Lang’s vision, in the qualities of noir.

Stephen Jenkins’s long essay “Lang: Fear and Desire”, which constituted the main part of Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look (1980), has become perhaps the standard psychoanalytic citation for Lang criticism. It undertakes the correction and completion of previous readings of “the Lang-text” according to ideas of that text’s essential “dramatised investigation of the female” and “radical dramatisation of the processes of vision and discourse” (123). Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films by Reynold Humphries (1982, 1989) concludes that the great virtue of the films it has analysed is “the systematic refusal of the Langian textual system to apply transparently, according to codes of received ideology, the codes of representation” (174). The projects of such texts seem to move in parallel with those devoted to film noir. Like Kaplan, Jacobowitz and Cowie, Jenkins highlights issues of gender; whereas for Humphries, as for Pye and Bergstrom, gender is only one of the articulations of desire offered by the films.

Both Jenkins and Humphries use a combination of formal analysis and Lacanian-influenced interpretation that seems to have made its initial appearance in Thierry Kuntzel’s “Le Travail du film”(1972), which was devoted to the opening sequence of M.[17] The limits of this method of decryption are sorely tested in the gonzo academicism of Tom Conley who, like Burch, mirrors Lang’s obsessiveness with his own, grimly deciphering the writing in Scarlet Street, the layers of secret dirty wordplay and octopartite theopneustic rebuses, toilet puns and anagrams, neither winking nor stopping to savour the destruction he has wrought, cloaking the corruptor in white and pitting him, as we have come to expect, against a capitalist media Moloch machine.

There is a sense in which all of these commentaries are about Lang’s mise en scène. At the same time, there is a strand of writing which seems more specifically to have to do with strategies of narration in Lang’s films, or what I have called cine-pragmatics. “The French Lang”, the Tiresias of doubled vision who signs with his own hand, has been well-served in both French and English. Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang, published first in English in 1976, is the all-too-appropriate founder of this tradition. Its mixture of documented production history and sympathetic textual analysis is a vision of a vision, at once Eisner and Lang, not least in its reservations about the work that bears its signatures. The first part of “Deux fictions de la haine”, twice-authored itself by Jean-Louis Comolli and François Géré, combines a detailed examination of some aspects of the narrative and mise en scène of Hangmen Also Die (1943) with an exquisite sensitivity to ideas of doubling and duplication in perhaps the earliest application of “the French Lang” in a sustained textual analysis.[18] However, Pye’s film noir pieces mentioned above are also studies of filmic narration informed by a recognition of how some of Lang’s films appear to defy the conventional narrative expectations they also seem to satisfy. And George Wilson’s admirable study of You Only Live Once, which first appeared in 1977, and which he later made the centrepiece of a revision of classical narrative theory, argues much the same thing, and anticipates a great deal that has been published since. Yet in the end, I think that each of these pieces wants there to be only one vision, one mode of narration, in the films they examine, and this is the “subversive” narration, the one that is assumed to “challenge” ordinary movie-goers, even to “hate” them.

Eisner’s specific combination of historical research and textual analysis spawned no effective progeny for fifteen years. Then, in 1991, with the publication of Le double scénario chez Fritz Lang by Gérard Leblanc and Brigitte Devismes, her method sprang to renewed life. Produced under the imprimatur of Armand Colin, this volume is one of the best designed books on the cinema as well as an extraordinary critical tour de force of sustained cine-pragmatic analysis. Making inspired and painstaking use of the Lang archives of the Cinémathèque française, and in particular the director’s shooting script and notes for The Big Heat, Leblanc and Devismes mapped, annotated and dissected Lang’s strategies of translation, manifestation and evasion as no one had done before.[19]

That their achievement was almost instantly recognised as a significant one – and one that made attractive use of the copious material deposited in various archives throughout the world – is demonstrated in the collection edited by Bernard Eisenschitz and Paolo Bertetto, and originally published in Italian as the catalogue for a 1993 exhibition of the Lang archive of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema of Turin. Revised and reworked in French and published later that year with the combined support of the Museo Nazionale, the Cinémathèque française, and the Filmoteca Generalitat Valenciana, Fritz Lang: la mise en scène contains no less than twenty pieces making use of archival materials, written by an impressive range of scholars and critics, many of whom (like Bellour, Douchet, Frieda Grafe and Georges Sturm) had consciously associated themselves with the direction of Fritz Lang’s trajectory. The book’s title mimes the critical (dis)juncture of “the French Lang”, in which a name becomes a practice; and it is full of wonderful analytic essays, including one each by Leblanc and Devismes (both on Rancho Notorious) and an abbreviated version of the Bergstrom piece on The Blue Gardenia mentioned earlier. All in all, it grants its subject the heft and authority of a given – a cultural presence.

One way or the other, almost all the most recent writing about Lang’s films has treated them as rhetorical texts, as arguments, often about the nature of the cinema – that is ultimately, about their own nature, their own status as rhetoric. Yet not much of this writing has seemed to take the lesson of the films as models for itself: “this paradox of a means of communication that refuses to serve as communication” (Legrand 132). Critical writing that will not communicate is madness, of course – like termites nibbling at the edges of the frame or like a man talking out his life to a stuffed monkey named Peter. But what of critical writing about films that refuse to communicate? Perhaps this dilemma accounts for a certain mad hermetic writing about Lang’s work that seems to mime the industry of termites or the dialogue of man with monkey.

And of all the writing on Lang, it seems to me that Mourlet, Conley and Bergstrom’s “The Mystery of The Blue Gardenia” have most precisely measured the work as termites would: busy through it with words and methods calculated to invoke the man with the monkey, tunnelling a doubled vision to match his talking to himself.

Mourlet gnaws away at his own foundations in a vision of a vision of a self-obsessed mise en scène, captured in writing which undermines what it is trying to say through its own hyperbole, denies as it asserts, proclaims tyranny over a kingdom of ants, and makes of its visionary hero a blind old man whom no one believes when he cries out that he knows who is whistling. Conley too maps madness with madness: who will believe his cabalistic methods in which a few reversed letters or a half shot are transmuted from gold to shit? Look. The signs are there – signs of such teeming profusion that on Conley’s pages, they simply and terribly negate, devour content with content with expression with expression, and Scarlet Street becomes the film and the writing of the film that h(ate)s itself.

Writing under the sign of a director said to be most present in his absence and matching her subject in her own technique of self-effacement as self-evisceration, Bergstrom summons Lang only to deny him everything but the ephemerality of action (not out-of-work, not author, not hired hand, not proto-feminist, not subverter, not even a cynic; only a crab-dolly, ruled lines on a shooting diagram, notes on a script, connotations of efficiency, the collapse of multiplicity into intersecting tangents of similarity). Her words, quietly, modestly, brush away their own traces as they recount a film that will not resolve: merely they exscribe a recurrent, scuttling activity – thinking about a film, not a great film, only a film. Here, as with Conley, as with Mourlet, it is the system, textual, industrial, critical system, that produces no resolution, that can resolve nothing of Lang or from Lang – for, as these termite writers above all display, and as Lang’s own irreconcilable division asserts endlessly, only nothing resolves.

Yet, for all that I have imputed to it, Bergstrom’s essay sits quite comfortably among the others in Fritz Lang: la mise en scène, which is, as I have indicated, an attempt to re-figure Lang both comprehensively and responsibly. But even in this book there are patches of absence, elements of the work are missing. Not all of the director’s films are covered, and some of the omissions at least can be considered significant ones. Of the Weimar films only Der Müde TodMetropolis and M are the subjects of essays. Liliom (1933) and You and Me are not analysed, and neither are the two 1940s westerns, American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950), Clash by Night (1952), The Big HeatHuman Desire – and any of the later German films. Clearly The Big Heat was omitted because of the Leblanc and Devismes book and American Guerilla in the Philippines because there was no one brave enough to essay it. The others are more difficult to account for, but the effect of the American omissions is to cement the (dis)juncture I have noted before between Lang and what may be called a noir cinema – in a volume explicitly devoted to the (dis)junction between Lang and mise en scène. Perhaps the earlier westerns and the two ‘fifties kammerspiel melodramas are not accessible to analyses predicated on singular difference, but if that were the case, one would want to know why it were so. The final German films do present special problems and may require a greater ability than we apparently now possess to write both positively and convincingly about popular cinema.

This catalogue of absences, then, also suggests something of what “remained to be done” with Lang’s work in the early nineties. At that point, for example, the Weimar films were long overdue for a detailed reassessment that would replace the Expressionist and decorative Lang with a construct informed by an understanding of the stylistics of early cinema, Weimar culture and “modernist montage”. That situation had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, as we shall see.

If we put the Weimar films together with the later German work, Liliom and the two 40s westerns, an ensemble is made that suggests that there is still scope for broadening our understanding of Lang’s work in terms of diegetic creation or world-building – that is, as fantasy. This is not a new idea. It is related to Rotha’s and Eisner’s different apprehension of the significance of Lang’s early films and is tacitly invoked every time someone mentions architecture in connection with his work. Gérard Legrand’s critical writing on the director has been suggestive of such an approach. [20]  And as Legrand’s work demonstrates, there is more to diegesis than meaningful architecture. The absent films I have mentioned represent worlds of extremes: they are stuffed with sensational and exotic images, images which are quite clearly not “just images” or even “just ideas”. There is a universe of cinema here as well, a pattern of the cinema as universe that surely warrants our attention.

Moreover, that universe is figured temporally – “implacably”, “remorselessly” – and we have hardly begun to think about time and rhythm in the cinema.[21]  What will a temporal understanding of the cinema make, for example, of Burch’s assertion that in the first Mabuse films “perhaps for the first time in the history of the cinema one can talk of a completely controlled rhythm” (588) alongside Jay Leyda’s observation that “Fritz Lang, had seemed to ignore [rhythm and tempo] in his original cutting” of those films.[22]

The dominating cultural presence asserted by Fritz Lang: la mise en scène is also accepted today by a significant portion of the Anglo-American critical academy. The result is a strange, but not uncommon, conflict between a certain range of critical writing and a certain range of historical writing. With the exception of the Oxford History, where critical biographies of film makers are dispersed in an achronological series throughout a text otherwise unconcerned with individual achievement, current film history attaches little importance to Lang’s work as a whole. Current criticism, however, has tended to bestow on the same work the gnomic status of a scripture capable of answering any question put to it. And, of course, both writings are misreading.

Historical Criticism

prison, n. – . . . fr. L. prensionem, acc. of prensio, contracted form of prehensio, ‘a seizing, arresting’, fr. prehensus, pp. of prehendere, ‘to lay hold of, seize, catch’. See prehensile and cp. misprision, prize, ‘the act of seizing’.
(Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language)
Thesis 3: Some interpretations are just.
(Jean-Jacques Lecercle)

In the last year of the twentieth century the British Film Institute coordinated an English language reassessment of Lang’s work comparable to what had taken place in Europe during the previous decade. The BFI sponsored a major retrospective (Fritz Lang: Master of Darkness). There were at least four books published, and even a website.

Two of those epochal books seem to signal either the end or the beginning of something: the culmination of a way of writing about Lang and the cinema or the announcement of that very way. In Tom Gunning’s The Films of Fritz Lang and in Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After, history, criticism, cultural studies and cinematic analysis are seamlessly stitched together in almost every sentence. In both cases the result is a formidably convincing reading that makes Lang’s past work – and especially his Weimar films – a work for these times.

Gunning’s old-fashioned, forward-looking authorship study is a holistic interpretation without apologies, based on the determining figure of “Lang’s Destiny machine” as it realises itself in the sweep of a clock’s hands towards zero: world without sense. It may be the most serious, most ambitious, most successful book about any director’s work in English. By contrast (or by way of supplement), Elsaesser reads Lang’s work, and in particular the Mabuse films, as one of the founding gestures of Weimar cinema. His analysis of the films takes the crooked path of difference: blatantly postmodern, he describes their ticking, their gaps, their missing ground. In his hands the Mabuse films become a perfect manifestation of the doubled indeterminacy of Peter Sloterdijk’s “cynical reason”, oscillating always between asserting themselves as “portraits of an epoch” and the “ultimate metaphor” (153). And both Gunning and Elsaesser’s readings are just – precise, detailed, balanced – eminently sound and sane, no taint of Mabuse’s madness in their distant looks. Just misreading.

The alternative to misreading is impossible, “full” reading – complete understanding. Stasis. Imprisionment. Such a reading is what Lang’s films (or at least, a significant proportion of them) most strongly resist. Historically and critically always in the wrong place and at the wrong time, Lang’s work seems to have been crafted exclusively for misapprehension. It courts both simple and complex misreading. For film history this quality presents problems. For criticism, however, it has proved to be the films’ salvation. The very difference that makes the work disappear in history has made it a particularly productive object of critical misreading; and criticism has, by and large, responded to the difference it has perceived in Lang’s work by rethinking its own assumptions. The stringent demands imposed by these films, and particularly their constantly reiterated demands to look again, have been met by writing that is often both inspired and concrete, the best kind of speculation and analysis. The misreading that this kind of Lang criticism practises is the strong misreading Harold Bloom attributes only to the greatest of poets. And in the end, only such just misreading can summon us, its readers, to dream these films again.


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Bardèche, Maurice and Robert Brasillach. Histoire du Cinèma. Paris: Donoël, 1935. Rev. 1964. History of the Film. Translated and edited by Iris Barry. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938.
Bellour, Raymond. “Sur Fritz Lang”. Critique 226 (March 1966). “On Fritz Lang”. Translated by Tom Milne. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. Edited by Stephen Jenkins. London: British Film Institute, 1981. 26-37.
Bergstrom, Janert. “The Mystery of The Blue Gardenia”. Shades of Noir. Edited by Joan Copjec. London: Verso, 1993. 97-120.
Bergstrom, Janet. “Fritz Lang”. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 196-197.
Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. New York: Praeger, 1967.
Burch, Noël. “De Mabuse à M: le travail de Fritz Lang”. Revue d’Esthétique (special issue 1973). “Fritz Lang: “German Period”. Translated by Tom Milne. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The Major Film-makers. Volume 2. Edited by Richard Roud. New York: Viking Press, 1980. 583-599.
Casty, Alan. Development of the Film: An Interpretative History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Comolli, Jean-Louis and Francois Géré. “Deux fictions de la haine: 1) Les Bourreaux meurent aussi”. Cahiers du Cinéma 286 (March 1978): 30-47. “Two Fictions Concerning Hate”. Translated by Tom Milne. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. Edited by Stephen Jenkins. London: British Film Institute, 1981. 125-146.
Conley, Tom. “Writing Scarlet Street”, MLN 98 (December 1983). Rev. and rpt. As “The Law of the Letter: Scarlet Street”. Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 20-45.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981. Rev. 1990.
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Cowie, Elizabeth. “Film Noir and Women”. Shades of Noir. Edited by Joan Copjec. London: Verso, 1993. 121-166.
Demonsablon, Phillippe. ‘La difficulté d’être” (review of Human Desire). Cahiers du Cinéma 50 (August-September 1955): 44-46.
Demonsablon, Phillipp. “”Le tigre d’Argol” (review of Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal). Cahiers du Cinéma 98 (August 1959): 58-59.
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Dickinson, Thorold. A Discovery of Cinema. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Domarchi, Jean. “Lang le Consrtructeur” (review of While the City Sleeps). Cahiers du Cinéma 63 (October 1956): 40-41.
Douchet, Jean. “L’étrange obsession” (review of Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse). Cahiers du Cinéma 122 (August 1961) 49-53.
Eibel, Alfred, ed. Fritz Lang. Paris: Présence du Cinéma, 1964.
Eisenschitz, Bernard and Paolo Bertetto, eds. Fritz Lang: la messa in scena. Turin: Lindau, 1993. Rev. as Fritz Lang: la mise en scène. Turin: Cinemathèque francaise, Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Filmoteca Generalitat Valenciana, 1993
Eisner, Lotte H. L’Écran démoniaque. Paris: Éditions André Bonne, 1952. Rev. 1965. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Translated by Roger Greaves. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. Translated by Gertrud Mander. London: Secker & Warburg, 1976.
Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. London: Routledge, 2000.
Fell, JohnA History of Films. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.
Franju, Georges. “Le style de Fritz Lang”. Cinéma-tographe 1 (March 1937): 5-6. Rev. and rpt. In Cahiers du Cinéma 101 (November 1959): 16-22. “The Style of Fritz Lang”. Revised version translated by Sallie Ianotti. Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 583-589.
Griffith, Richard. “The Film Since Then”. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema. London: Vision Press, 1949. Rev. 1960. Rpr. 1967 (London: Spring Books), 415-620.
Guislain, Pierre. M le maudit. Fritz Lang. Paris: Hatier, 1990.
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Madness. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.
Humphries, Reynold. Fritz Lang: cineaste américan. Paris: Éditions Albatross, 1982. Rev. and translated by the author as Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Jacobowitz, Florence. “The Man’s Melodrama: The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street”. CinéAction! 13/14 (Summer 1988): 64-73. Rpt. In The Movie Book of Film Noir. Edited by Ian Cameron. London: Studio Vista, 1992. 152-164.
Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.
Jenkins, Stephen. “Lang: Fear and Desire”. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. Edited by Jenkins. London: British Film Institute, 1981. 38-124.
Jensen, Paul M. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1969.
Kaplan, E. Ann. “The Place of Women in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia“. Women in Film Noir. Edited by Kaplan. London: The British Film Institute, 1978, 1980: 83-90.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Fritz Lang: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.
Knight, Arthur. The Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of the Movies. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological history of the German Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Kuntzel, Thierry. “Le travail du film”. Communications 19 (1972). “The Film-Work”. Translated by Lawrence Crawford, Kimball Lockhard and Claudia Tysdal. Enclitic 2 (1978): 38-61.
Leblanc, Gérard and Brigitte Devismes. Le double scenario chez Fritz Lang. Paris: Armand Colin Éditeur, 1991 .
McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Marie, Michel. M le maudit. Fritz Lang. Éditions Nathan, 1989.
Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971.
Moullet, Luc. Fritz Lang. Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1963.
Mourlet, Michel. “Trajectoire de Fritz Lang”. Cahiers du cinema 99 (September, 1959): 19-24. “Fritz Lang’s Trajectory”. Translated by Tom Milne. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. Edited by Stephen Jenkins. London: British Film Institute, 1981. 12-17.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ott, Frederick W. The Films of Fritz Lang. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1979.
Pye, Douglas. “Seeing by Glimpses: Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia“. CinéAction! 13/14 (Summer 1988): 74-82.
Pye, Douglas. “Film Noir and Suppressive Narrative: Beyond A Reasonable Doubt”. The Movie Book of Film Noir. Edited by Ian Cameron. London: Studio Vista, 1992. 98-109.
Rivette, Jacques. “La main” (review of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt). Cahiers du Cinéma 76 (November 1957): 48-51. “The Hand”. Translated by Tom Milne. Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Edited by Jim Hillier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 140-144.
Rhode, Eric. “Fritz Lang (The German Period: 1919-1933)”. Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1966. 85-105.
Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema. London: Jonathan Cape, 1930. Rev. 1949, 1960. Rpt. 1967 (London: Spring Books).
Sarris, Andrew. “Fritz Lang” (subsection of “The American Cinema”). Film Culture 28 (Spring 1963): 14.
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.
Walker, Michael. “Film Noir: An Introduction”. The Movie Book of Film Noir. Edited by Ian Cameron. London: Studio Vista, 1992. 8-38.
Wilson, George M. “You Only Live Once: The Doubled Feature”. Sight and Sound 46.4 (Autumn 1977): 221-226. Rev. and rpt. As “Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once”. Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986: 16-38.
Wood, Robin. “Fritz Lang: 1936-60”. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The Major Film-makers. Volume 2. Edited by Richard Roud. New York: The Viking Press, 1980. 599-609.
Wright, Basil. The Long View: An International History of Cinema. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1974.


[1]  This is a version of a sort of review essay begun many years ago and as yet unpublished. It is called “(note version)” because it includes notes. The version still to be published will not have any notes and, for that reason and some others, the two essays are quite different to read. I owe many, many thanks to Rick Thompson for arranging the publication of this version. Doug Pye and Ian Cameron have both had an improving hand in editing (and re-editing) this essay, and if the piece has any clarity now, it is largely due to them. I am also grateful to Clare Stewart and Michael Koller for first proposing that I writing about Fritz Lang. A much shorter, and rather different, essay with the title “Misprision” appeared under my name in their catalogue, Fritz Lang: Traps for the Mind and Eye (Melbourne Cinématèque, 1998: 10-16). I have benefited from conversations with Tim Groves on the way films are written about and with Rick Thompson on the way in which Lang has tended to become synonymous with film noir. Dick Abel responded to my eleventh hour cry for help in his typically selfless way. By other means the writing has been enabled through Felicity Collins, Anna Dzenis, Val Forbes, Tom Gunning, Adrian Martin, Geoff Mayer and, as always, Diane. Unless otherwise specifically indicated in the text, all of the translations from French in what follows are mine.
[2] Their opinions, however, did not change with the passage of time. Rotha ceded his to Richard Griffith, who found nothing worth praising after 1939, but Bardèche and Brasillach actually rewrote and updated their book in 1964, saying much the same things about Lang that they had in 1935.
[3] Iris Barry compounds the misunderstanding by translating “un monde” as “a new world” in the English version. Even so, references in the text are to this version.
[4] This description of Die Nibelungen, italicised for emphasis, also occurs in René Jeanne’s notorious article on “Le cinéma allemand”, which appeared in the last issue of L’Art cinématographique (1931). Jeanne, who thought that Russians, Jews and other wogs had ruined German cinema, goes on to say that “static beauty is not the end towards which the efforts of a cinegraphic author ought to be directed” (27).
[5]The earliest precedent I can find for this point of view in English is Iris Barry’s review of Die Nibelungen for the Spectator, 14 June 1924, as Kaplan summarises it (139), but one of the best known expositions of it is Luis Buñuel’s 1927 review of Metropolis, reprinted in Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology, 590-592.
[6] Kracauer’s discussions of Die Nibelungen and Metropolis continually uses words like “ornament” and “ornamentation” in connection with the patterns made by human figures on the screen. The significance and complexity of this self-referential phrasing was obscured for me until I read The Mass Ornament (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
[7] This seems especially mean-spirited in someone who had previously published a book of criticism called The Tower of Babel (1966) in which there was a not-unintelligent essay on Lang’s early German films.
[8] Kaplan misidentifies Griffith as Rotha in her entry #177 (184).
[9] I should say that The Oxford History of World Cinema contains examples of many of the histories I have listed and that Fritz Lang is conspicuously absent from almost all of them. For example, Phil Hardy virtually omits the director from all but the beginning of his article on crime films (304-312), taking a stand radically opposed to those who have seen Lang’s work as having contributed significantly to the genre’s “humanisation”, as Jacobs, Griffith, Mast and Casty do, and/or to the development of film noir, as is commonly supposed these days.
[10] The 1959 version was translated into English by Sallie Iannotti in 1978 for the Great Film Directors anthology (583-589). Kaplan’s reference for this piece is not correct. Subsequent page references in this text are to the Cahiers reprint because it is likely to be more accessible than the original publication.
[11] Franju was not merely prescient about what would be written about Lang. “Exhibitionism”, an essay of his that appeared in the second issue of Cinéma-tographe and dealt with the work of Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, is read by Abel as foreshadowing current psychoanalytic/spectatorial criticism (165; 231-233). As we shall see, spectatorship is very much the issue in the Lang piece as well.
[12] I would like to believe that this trope of Langian criticism originates with a cannily titled piece by Jean Douchet, “L’Oeuvre de Fritz Lang à la Cinémathèque: le piège considéré comme l’un des beaux-arts” appearing in Arts 729 (1-7 July 1959): 6.
[13] This sentence is intended to foreshadow Tom Conley’s appearance in this text somewhat further on.
[14] Tom Milne’s English translation of this review appears in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, edited by Jim Hillier (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 140-144.
[15] The Demonsablon and Mourlet pieces from Cahiers 99 were translated by Tom Milne as “The Imperious Dialectic of Fritz Lang” and “Fritz Lang’s Trajectory” for the BFI volume, Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look, edited by Stephen Jenkins. For some reason Jenkins reversed the order of their original publication (18-23; 12-17).
[16] It is disappointing to find Nat Cole still “Cole Porter” in Kaplan’s essay in the 1991 revised edition of Women in Film Noir.
[17] Burch’s original article was clearly intended to be read as a response to Kuntzel’s, as can be inferred from its French title, “De Mabuse à M: le travail de Fritz Lang”. However, Kuntzel’s piece tends not to be cited in other French and English writing that seems at least partly indebted to it.
[18] An English translation by Tom Milne of the Lang section of this piece appears as “Two Fictions Concerning Hate” in Jenkins’ Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look (125-146).
[19] This may be the place to mention some of the other monographs devoted to just one Lang film: in French these include Michel Marie’s M le Maudit in the Nathan Synopsis series (1989) and Pierre Guislain’s M le Maudit in the Hatier Image par Image series (1990). The British Film Institute’s “Film Classics” series has produced compelling and informative monographs on The Big Heat (1992) by Colin McArthur, M (2000) by Anton Kaes, and Metropolis (2000) by Thomas Elsaesser. There is also a terrific German-English volume on Metropolis edited by Wolfgang Jacobsen and Werner Sudendorf for Menges (2001).
[20] This writing has its beginnings in “Notes pour un éloge de Fritz Lang” (Positif50-51-52, March 1963: 130-136), which figures Lang as a magical adept, and continues at least to “Structure architecturale, transgression et permutation (etc.) dans While the City Sleeps” in the Eisenschitz and Bertetto collection (408-412).
[21] Doug Pye is among the few writers to have essayed the question of the “almost remorseless” quality of Lang’s narration, in a couple of very suggestive paragraphs of his “Film Noir and Suppressive Narrative” essay (104-105).
[22] Jay Leyda on Esfir Shub and Sergei Eisenstein’s re-editing of the Mabuse films in Films Beget Films, London: Allen & Unwin, 1964 (24).

Created on: Friday, 1 December 2006 | Last Updated: 8-Dec-06

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →