Fortunately for film history, Fritz Lang was much better at inventing tall tales than Gordian Maugg’s cringe-worthy black-and-white misfire “Fritz Lang,” which purports to tell the “real” story of the director’s personality quirks together with the genesis of his most famous work, “M.” Given that Lang was perhaps cinema’s greatest self-fabulist, piecing together the early part of his career is often a case of weighing probability against cloak-and-dagger implausibilities. Yet even taking into account Lang’s often contradictory inventions, this embarrassing pseudo biopic, profligately adorned with period clips for a futile attempt at authenticity, is a luridly fictionalized mess. No wonder the world outside Germany was largely unaware of the film’s existence following its unsuccessful local April release.
In the imaginings of Maugg and fellow screenwriter Alexander Häusser, Lang (Heino Ferch) is a cocaine-snorting, sexually domineering borderline psychopath traumatized at a young age by his father’s abusive behavior toward his mother (who was Bohemian and not, as the film claims, Lithuanian). The movie’s time frame starts in 1929, around the premiere of “Woman in the Moon,” when, according to the writers, Lang barely tolerated his wife, Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf), beyond exchanging script ideas. Where this conceit comes from is anyone’s guess.
While stressing out about the subject of his next movie, Lang becomes fascinated by newspaper reports of the Monster of Düsseldorf, a serial killer whose stomach-churning sadism still has the power to shock. Lang inserts himself into the investigation, taking advantage of his acquaintance with police commissioner Gennat (Thomas Thieme) to follow the inquiries, and to question Anna Cohn (Lisa Charlotte Friederich), friend of the killer’s last victim, and a possible eyewitness who could identify the murderer.
Anna’s face triggers flashbacks for Lang to World War I, when as a wounded soldier (young Lang is played by Max von Pufendorf), he was tended to by nurse Lisa (also Friederich). From this point on, Maugg edits between past and present, building parallels to arrive at a deeply suspect explanation for Lang’s supposed compulsive interest in sexual sadism and murder. In reality, the director’s fascination was more targeted toward how people wield power over others, but this would have been a far less sensational (and significantly more subtle) point for the film “Fritz Lang” to make.
When the Düsseldorf murderer, Peter Kürten (Samuel Finzi) is caught, Lang is granted privileged access to his cell, and it’s from these encounters that he derives the screenplay for “M.” Although there’s little doubt that the 1931 film was based in part on the Kürten case, despite Lang’s sometime denials, he never interviewed the serial killer, and the classic film’s extraordinary evocation of underworld justice, which forms a great deal of Lang’s vision, is completely ignored here. Instead, Maugg uses the Kürten-Lang conversations to bring up one of the biggest mysteries in Lang’s life: the shooting death of his first wife Lisa.
Naturally “Fritz Lang” wouldn’t entertain the idea that Lisa shot herself with Lang’s gun after finding him in bed with his then-mistress von Harbou. Instead, it presents as fact that Lang killed his wife himself. We’ll never know what really happened, and the director was never convicted, yet Maugg is more interested in Dan Brown-style mythologizing than in truth, and his entire movie is riddled with wild inaccuracies. Particularly problematic is the way Maugg sidelines von Harbou’s role in her husband’s life and work. (And she was not “Frau von Harbou” at the time of their affair but Frau Rudolf Klein-Rogge, no less.) Moreover, does anyone imagine, like Maugg, that Lang wore his monocle during sex? Perhaps some film professor one day will assign students the task of detailing all the historical howlers here, including the wildly exaggerated depiction of Lang’s father, but the list is too long to make here.
Montages from movies and newsreels of the era (with added sound) are meant to evoke life in the Weimar Republic, falling back on the stereotype of sex, jazz, riots, and SS parades with Nazi salutes. One of the biggest surprises is that the filmmakers got the rights to use clips from “M,” which allowed for a gratuitous “Zelig”-like insertion of Ferch’s Lang into the picture. Casting is odd, since Lang was 39 in 1929 and Ferch is 53, and there really should not have been a need to cast an old Lang and a young Lang to span a mere 10-year age gap between 1919 and 1929.
Leaving aside laughably overwrought scenes like Lang on a cocaine high, or his father screaming in a storm that there is no God, the black-and-white visuals are lifeless and feel very TV-like. In addition, period recreations seem oddly like a 1980s imagining of the 1920s. Music is predictably overcooked.