Friedrich Christian Anton Lang was born December 5, 1890, in Vienna, as the son of the architect and building contractor Anton Lang and his wife Paula, born Schlesinger. Lang who had been toying with drawing and painting already as a child attended architecture studies at Technische Hochschule Vienna in 1907 after finishing school. Furthermore, he started to study art in 1908, at first at Vienna’s Akademie der Graphischen Künste. In 1911, he went to Munich to continue his studies at Kunstgewerbeschule Julius Diez. He travelled extendedly – "Germany, Belgium, Holland, Mediterranean countries, and coastal regions in Africa" (Lang, 1928) – and allegedly went as far as China and Bali. From 1913 to 1914, Lang lived as a painter in Paris. When World War I broke out, he managed to return to Vienna where he joined k.k. Landwehr-Feldkanonen-Division No. 13 as a volunteer on January 12, 1915. He attended Einjährig-Freiwilligen-Schule and served as an artillery officer (from August 16, 1916, on as lieutenant in the reserve) at the Russian, the Romanian, and the Italian front. He was wounded several times and was awarded with the Karl-Truppenkreuz and twice with the Silberne Tapferkeitsmedaille II. Klasse.
During his stays in military hospitals, Lang painted and started to write screenplays as he had been a film enthusiast from early on. His first screenplay that was made into a film was probably "Die Peitsche". Director Adolf Gärtner used it for a film of the Smart Webbs detective film series. In 1917, the Viennese-born producer and director Joe May bought several of Lang’s screenplays and turned them into films within his successful film series about private investigator Joe Deebs, including "Die Hochzeit in Exzentricclub" ("Wedding in the Eccentric Club") or into a melodrama starring his actress-wife Mia May like "Hilde Warren und der Tod" ("Hilde Warren and Death"). From June 30 to September 30, 1918, Lang was dismissed from military service for the "field grey play" "Der Hias" by I. Ronach that Lang directed and played for the entertainment of the soldiers. In August 1918, Lang met the Berlin-based film producer Erich Pommer who gave him a job at Decla in Berlin after Lang had left the army on November 1, 1918, as senior lieutenant in the reserve.
Lang then worked as a dramatic advisor, wrote screenplays and played minor roles. Influenced by contemporary French ("Fantomas") and Danish films, he mainly appeared in light entertainment movies: Grotesques, crime films, costume drama and sensationalist films, mainly directed by the popular directors Alwin Neuss (who often played the leading role in his films) and Otto Rippert. In early 1919, Lang made his debut as a director with "Halbblut" ("The Half-Castle"). He celebrated a huge success with the start of the adventure film series "Die Spinnen" ("The Spiders") and also directed the first two films of the series. Lang’s source material was also made into a novel and published as a book and in sequels in the new film newspaper Film-Kurier.
During a one-year engagement at May-Film GmbH, Lang met writer Thea von Harbou. They worked together until 1933 and got married on August 26, 1922. The melodrama "Das Wandernde Bild" ("The Moving Image") was their first collaboration. Lang was also supposed to be the director of the two-part adventure movie "Das indische Grabmal" ("The Indian Tomb", based on a novel by Harbou). Although he prepared the shooting, the film was eventually directed by Joe May. Remakes of the film were finished in 1937, directed by Richard Eisenberg, and in 1958, directed by Lang himself. After his return to Pommer’s production company Decla-Bioscop, "Der müde Tod" ("Between Two Worlds") marked the start of a series of films by Lang/Harbou that rank among the classic films of the German silent movie era. Within the scope of a romantic, old German legend, Lang varied the subject of love and death in three episodes that were located in a fairy-tale like Baghdad, in the Venice of the Renaissance, and in exotic China.
Based on a novel by the successful pulp fiction writer Norbert Jacques, Lang finished the two-part movie "Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler" ("Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler"), starring Harbou’s ex-husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge in the leading role, for Ufa, the production company that had taken over Decla-Bioscop in the meantime. Thematically, the film was modeled on "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"): A ruthless ubermensch with the ability to hypnotize other people deludes his victims to commit murders until he becomes mad himself. Critic Kurt Pinthus detected a "triple sensation": "First, the audience sees an exciting event. (…) Secondly, the viewer’s eye is irritated and delighted by the extraordinarily skilful, thoroughly trained, (…) aesthetic photography by Karl Hoffmann. (…) And thirdly, director Fritz Lang has fervently tried to concentrate the lunacy of our age in characteristic characters and milieus." (Das Tagebuch, May 6, 1922).
With his films "Nibelungen - Siegfried" ("Siegfried’s Death") and "Kriemhilds Rache" ("Kriemhild’s Revenge"), Lang on his own account tried to "bring back to life the world of myth for the 20th century – alive and credible at the same time." With stern stylization and ornamental manner of composition – in architecture, costume, direction of mass scenes, image format and rhythm – Lang tied on to his directing principles of "Der müde Tod" to illustrate the saga’s obsessive thematic consequences. The film’s dedication "Dem deutschen Volke zu eigen" lead to nationalistic misunderstandings and speculations. Sergej Eisenstein stated: "I had loved the "Nibelungen" saga since childhood but later Fritz Lang’s film put me off the saga."
From October to December 1924, Lang made a trip to Hollywood together with Erich Pommer. On May 22, 1925, he started the shooting of "Metropolis" that took him until October 30, 1926. Because of the enormous expenses concerning actors, material, and money ("One director has to be the most expensive one"), Lang struggled with the management of Ufa that had encountered financial difficulties and was acquired by Hugenberg’s Scherl group in early 1927. Pommer left the company, while Lang set up his production company Fritz Lang-Film GmbH whose films were still distributed by Ufa.
"Metropolis" is a utopian fairy-tale: a colportage story in an exotic milieu, a mixture of styles that made film history, not the least because of Lang’s technological and scenical passion for innovations. Still, the film’s ideological dubiousness provoked critical reactions from several of Lang’s contemporaries: "A technological future city and arbor romanticism; a world of machines and ridiculous fates of individuals; social contrasts, and as a mediator between "head and hand the heart". (…) Thea von Harbou invents an impossible character plot that is overbearing with themes, while Lang stylizes this source material and lets the images fight against each other. At times medieval dance of the dead, at times modern dance of the dead. At times, the film’s length is a strain, at times it suggests further education but the plot never gives an orientation." (H. Ihering, Berliner Börsen-Courier, January 11, 1927).
"Spione" ("Spies", 1927) was linked to the "Mabuse" film series in terms of leading actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge and themes (a mysterious man rules a web of spies); "Frau im Mond" ("Woman in the Moon", 1928/29) linked the utopian dream of a voyage to the moon with worldly crime film elements. "Lang’s films are not realistic. They never reflect the immediate environment. They spring from a discernibly abstract reality that has been developed with the means of the cinema, a method whose truth claim is based on the fact that it corresponds better with the artificial, made, historic character of social reality than the notion of a plain reproduction of reality." (F. Grafe, 1976).
Lang then finished his first sound film "M" for Seymour Nebenzahl’s Nero-Film. The film made use of the new technology by the use of noises and, first and foremost, with the use of a musical theme that the director whistled himself. In "M", Peter Lorre plays a psychopathic child murderer who disturbs a whole city, is hunted by the police, and finally captured by alarmed gangsters. The police arrive just in time to prevent lynch law. The film that started shortly after the trial of the mass murderer Kürten ended met a sensitized public. The left-liberal press criticized Lang for promoting the death sentence. But that was a misunderstanding, because Lang did not denounce the murderer but tried to call for sympathy for the apparent "monster". "In contrast to Lang’s previous leading characters, the child murderer, Peter Lorre, is not the dominant center of a system. The center is the destructive desire, like Mabuse. But Lorre does not control this desire and does not turn it into power, thus he finds himself in a fight against the law." (E. Patalas, 1976).
"Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse" ("The Testament of Dr. Mabuse"), "is a crime film, directed with sophistication. In the film, the themes that have interested Lang for all his life are easily recognizable: claustrophobic fears in confined spaces, magical communication via hypnosis and its decryption." (M. Töteberg, 1984). In interviews, Lang repeatedly pointed out that he had anticipated the later tyranny of the Nazis in his film; but his representation that the film should be seen as the foundation of his later actual anti-fascist engagement is doubtful at best. Regardless of the ideological tendencies in the screenplays of his wife, an NSDAP member, that Lang probably viewed as material to play with, his attitude towards the Nazi ideology remains indifferent at least temporarily.
After the Nazi’s ascension to power, nationalist Fritz Lang set up Regie-Gruppe der Nationalsozialistischen Betriebsorganisation (NSBO) together with Carl Boese, Victor Janson, and Luis Trenker. "Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse" was banned by Film assessment headquarters on March 29, 1933. (The film premiered in December 1933 in Vienna; editor Lothar Wolff brought the material of the French version to Paris where the film was edited.) In early April Lang had a conversation with propaganda minister Goebbels who offered him the "leadership of German cinema" – according to Lang’s later accounts – but Lang delayed his answer and on "the same evening" traveled to Paris where he arrived in July 1933. (His passport showed several Austrian and Belgian visa for the months in between.) On April 20, 1933, his marriage with Thea von Harbou was divorced after they had separated in October 1931. From December 1933 on, Lang filmed "Liliom", based on Ferenc Moliar’s play, for Pommer who tried to make a name as a producer in France. On June 1, 1934, David O. Selznik and Lang signed a contract about a film in London. Lang then traveled to California. In 1939, Lang became a US citizen and set up the Anti Nazi League in 1936 with several other members.
After several of his projects had been turned down, Lang finished "Fury", his first Hollywood film, in 1936. In this paraphrase of "M", an innocently accused man (Spencer Tracy) narrowly escapes to get lynched. In 1936, Lang also finished "You Only Live Once" for the independent producer Walter Wanger. The film also tells the story of the tragic fate of an innocent convict. In "You and Me" (1938) – that was directed and produced by Lang – Sylvia Sidney (the leading female actress of his first three US films) proves that crime does not pay off. Kurt Weill wrote several songs for the film and Lang had been influenced by Brecht’s theory of the teaching play.
Darryl F. Zanuck then contracted him for Twentieth Century Fox and Lang finished the western films in color: "The Return of Frank James", starring Henry Fonda (a sequel to Henry King’s "Jesse James") and "Western Union", starring Robert Young and Randolph Scott, about the construction of a telegraph line to San Francisco in 1861. "Man Hunt" was finished in early 1941 and blatantly linked a spy story with the current situation in Nazi Germany. In 1942, Lang developed "Hangmen Also Die" with Bertolt Brecht and the US screenplay writer John Wexley, a film about the assassination attempt on Heydrich and the resistance in Czechoslovakia. Lang realized the film with numerous German emigrants for Arnold Pressburger’s company Arnold productions. But Lang’s collaboration with Brecht led to conflicts. "Lang was thinking within the structures of Hollywood whose settled patterns did not require Brecht’s efforts. (… Brecht was concerned with) the realistic, thus verifiable, reality-depicting development of the story and with the social profile of the characters within the story. Lang was looking for extraordinary visual actions and the effect of converging actions." (W. Gersch in: Exil in den USA, Leipzig: Reclam 1980).
"The Ministry of Fear" (1944), based on a novel by Graham Greene about the "fifth column" in England, is considered to be one of Lang’s anti-Nazi films. The same counts – with limitations – for "Cloak and Dagger" (1946). Due to these films – and because of his acquaintance with Brecht and Hanns Eisler – Lang was prosecuted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee.
In April 1945, Lang set up Diana productions together with producer Walter Wanger, Wanger’s wife, the actress Joan Bennett, and the writer Dudley Nichols. He then finished "Scarlet Street" and "Secret Beyond the Door" (1947), two dark thrillers about the entanglement of love and murder, for the company. Previously, in 1944, he had also finished "The Woman in the Window" (1944) about a similar topic. During the following years, Lang made genre films like the war movie "American Guerilla in the Philippines", the western film "Rancho Notorious", starring Marlene Dietrich, and several of the best examples of film noir: "Clash by Night", "The Blue Gardenia", "The Big Heat", "Human Desire", "Moonfleet", "While the City Sleeps", and "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt".
In 1956, Lang returned to Germany for the first time after war, and in 1957 to Berlin. After several projects, for instance about the 20 July Plot or about Störtebeker, fell through, Lang accepted Artur Brauner’s offer to shoot a remake of "Das indische Grabmal" ("The Indian Tomb"). But artistically, the expensive film turned into a disaster, just like "Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse" ("The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse"), another attempt to tie on to another former successful film – again for Brauner’s CCC-Filmkunst. In 1963, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film "Le Mepris" ("Contempt"), Lang played an old director who wants to make a film about Ulysses but gets in conflict with his producer. The Ulysses sequences that were cut from the first German distribution version were mainly directed by Lang himself.
Lang still carried on with several of his own projects despite his deteriorating health – he had turned nearly blind – but none of them were realized. Later, he traveled, visited film festivals, and gave interviews. Film historian Lotte H. Eisner, a longtime friend, wrote a book about Lang that he edited and rewrote chapter by chapter.
"Fritz Lang’s style? There is one word to properly describe it: relentless. Each shot, camera movement, and cut, each movement of an actor, and every gesture is definitive and inimitable." (Truffaut). Fritz Lang who had married his longtime companion Lilly Latte in America died on August 2, 1976, after a long illness in his house in Beverly Hills.