A 512-page achievement of artifact over artiface, “Fritz Lang” falls short on the life and work of a great director. Cineastes seeking a coffee-table keepsake will be impressed with the photoplay given the helmer’s output. Full-page treatments of such early treasures as “Die Nibelungen” and “M,” as well as later landmarks such as “Scarlet Street” and “The Big Heat” richly capture the films’ visual brilliance. But readers seeking coherant insight into Lang the man and moviemaker can do better elsewhere.
Marshaled by Filmmuseum Berlin-Deutsche Kinemathek, the book draws on archives as diverse as the American Film Institute and Bibliotheque du film, Paris. The pictures and documentation (letters, Lang’s FBI file, even his Christmas card list) demonstrate those vast resources. The book tilts toward its German origins, however. And while presented with plenty of breathing room, the artifacts suffer from a lack of editorial oversight.
Most pictures and documents are accompanied by a piece of the director’s correspondence, a review or a woodenly translated (from the German) bio brief. The text alights on various affairs and relationships, only to have them disappear and reemerge dozens of pages later, changed but unexplained.
Chapters concerning Lang’s German output are extensive, but his American work suffers by comparison — 26 pages on “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” six on “Fury” and four on “You Only Live Once.” Meanwhile, sources of reviews and letters quoted at length are only revealed at the end of each citation, requiring a hopscotch between pages. Captions have no intuitive relationship to photos.
The book’s most magnetic features include the selections from Lang’s FBI file and the narrative of his war years. The Federal dossier is frighteningly extensive and details his association with Euro expatriates such as Bertolt Brecht and various communist intellectuals. It documents the FBI’s fascinating frustration at fitting Lang into a convenient political classification. It also demonstrates the pains to which Lang went to help other European intellectuals immigrate.
Letters and handwritten monthly ledgers (reproduced here) wringing sums as small as $10.00 from the likes of William Wyler, Billy Wilder and Ernest Lubitsch show how the director pulled from his own pocket and badgered others to support endangered artists.
The book’s real strength, however, is not in these tidbits, but in its enormous bounty of beautifully presented photography. Yet images alone can’t evoke the weight of Lang’s 60-year career, from German Expressionism to Hollywood war films, romances and cowboy pics.