The most important UFA director was undoubtedly Fritz Lang, one of the key personages in cinema history. Whereas Jean Renoir was the supreme humanist of the cinema, Lang was the eternal pessimist, most comfortable with scenarios of doom and destruction that reflected his own bleak view of life. Beginning as a scenarist for director Joe May, Lang was dissatisfied with the manner in which May translated Lang’s vision to the screen and thus became a director himself. His first film, Halbblut (The Half-Breed, 1919), a revenge/romance drama, has been lost due to neglect and nitrate decomposition, as was his next film, Der Herr der Liebe (Master of Love, 1919). But Die Spinnen (The Spiders), a two-part crime drama (Der Gold-ene See [The Golden Lake] in 1919 and Das Brillantenschiff [The Diamond Ship] in 1920), was enormously popular, firmly launched him on his new career, and tagged him as an action director with a personal stake in his films.
In fact, Lang was to have directed Caligari, but when the project was turned over to Robert Wiene, Lang added the framing story that provides the film’s twist ending and then moved on to other projects. It was in 1920 that Lang met and began working with scenarist Thea von Harbou, who would script his most influential German films; the couple married in 1922. One success followed another, as Lang directed Der Müde Tod (Destiny, 1921), in which Death intervenes in the destiny of two lovers; Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler—Ein Bild der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, 1922), a two-part serial-like epic that first introduced the notorious master criminal Dr. Mabuse to the public; and Die Nibelungen, again in two parts (Siegfrieds Tod [Siegfried’s Death] and Kriemhilds Rache [Kriemhild’s Revenge], both produced in 1924), which used the same source material as Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, that of the thirteenth-century warrior Siegfried. Each film was more successful than the last, and Lang refined his kinetic ability as a director, creating films of eye-pleasing spectacle that also contained great depth as well as the psychological exploration of human frailties.
While the Dr. Mabuse films put decadence at the center of the narrative and viewed the economic hyperinflation of the day as a terminally corrupt construct, ready to collapse at any moment, the Nibelungen films offered the public pageantry and mythological splendor, as Lang sought to recapture the grandeur of Germany’s ancient history. Germany at the end of the First World War was a society in chaos, with inflation reaching catastrophic heights. A wheelbarrow full of bank notes was necessary to purchase a loaf of bread, and the currency was further devalued by the hour. Germany had lost the war, and now it was losing the country itself, together with the hope of a stable, middle-class life. Lang looked around him and saw German society in ruins.
Lang’s most impressive achievement during this period is undoubtedly Metropolis (begun in 1925, completed in 1927), a massively scaled science fiction saga of a future civilization in which the very poor are condemned to a life of near-slavery to satisfy the needs of the rich. Metropolis used thousands of extras, enormous sets, and lavish special effects to dazzle audiences with a Dystopian fable of society gone awry, a world in which justice does not exist. With its vision of a hypercapitalist, consumer-driven world of the future, not unlike postwar Germany, Metropolis anticipated, and deeply influenced, most science fiction films of the twentieth century, in particular Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and George Lucas’s Star Wars films (the first in 1977).
While some have dismissed Metropolis as a simplistic allegory, Lang’s nightmarish vision of social inequality, bolstered by razor-sharp editing, expressive camera work, and remarkably prescient futuristic props (such as two-way television used as a communication device, monorails, and other technological advances), was an international success. The cost of the film, however, was enormous, and nearly bankrupted UFA during its lengthy production schedule.
For his first sound film, Lang directed Peter Lorre in M (1931), the story of a psychopathic child murderer who cannot stop himself from committing his horrible crimes. In the film’s conclusion, Berlin’s underworld crime bosses gather together to stop Lorre’s character, repelled by his bestiality and fearful that a police crackdown will hamper their own illicit activities. In response to the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, Lang created Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), a courageous act of social criticism in which he put Nazi slogans and text from Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf into the mouths of Mabuse and his utterly degenerate henchmen.
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda, banned the film but then called Lang in for a meeting; in a surprise move he offered him a key post at the now-Nazified UFA, working on films that would aid the Reich’s aims of world domination. Lang knew who had tipped Goebbels off to the subversive content of his latest Dr. Mabuse film: it was none other than his own wife and key scenarist, Thea von Harbou, who was drifting into the Nazi orbit and would soon become a reliable screenwriter, and later a director, in service to Hitler’s Germany. Von Harbou had collaborated with Lang on the script of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and, alarmed at the direction the film was taking, immediately alerted the authorities to what she viewed as Lang’s “disloyalty.” In addition, Lang’s mother was partly of Jewish ancestry, but Goebbels indicated he was willing to overlook this “crime” if Lang went along with the Nazis’ plans.
Lang saw that he was trapped. Pretending to accept Goebbels’s offer, Lang almost immediately fled the country, abandoning the negatives of all his films, his personal fortune, and his wife—who promptly divorced him. His act of moral courage in this situation is difficult to overestimate; had he stayed and lent his considerable skill and international reputation to the Nazi movement, he would have been a formidable propagandist for the Reich. But despite his innate pessimism and fatalistic outlook, Lang acted quickly and decisively, removing himself from harm and depriving Hitler of Germany’s most popular film director at the height of his early fame.
After his flight from Germany, Lang made one film in France, the fantasy Liliom (1934), before coming to the United States, where he began his second career as a director at MGM. Soon, other talented German expatriates fleeing the Third Reich would join him; many of these artists eventually wound up working as filmmakers in the fight against Fascism.