Fritz Lang

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/29/17 12:46:23

"A decent Fritz Lang film for not being made by Fritz Lang."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though there have likely been many biographies and articles written about Fritz Lang, most primarily know him through his films, and that is the way this picture chooses to approach him and his time, refusing to step outside of its subject and instead creating a sort of alternate reality where Lang's life was a Lang film. It's a bit of a risky play - writer/director Gordian Maugg is likely not in the category of the man he pays homage to as a filmmaker - but it's at the very least an interesting one.

As the film starts, it's October 1929 and Lang's Woman in the Moon is playing in German theaters, but the days of silent film are rapidly waning, and producer Seymour Nebenzal (Philipp Baltus) expects Lang's next to be a talkie. Unfortunately, Lang (Heino Ferch) and his wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf) are having trouble coming up with a good script, so when he sees an item in the newspaper about Inspector Ernst Gennat (Thomas Thieme) leading the search for a serial killer in Dusseldorf, he hops a train and inserts himself into the investigation, which becomes an obsession when he lays eyes on Anna Cohn (Lisa Friederich), a friend of one of the victims who looks uncannily like Lang's late first wife Lisa.

I suspect that relatively little of the main action in Fritz Lang is based on actual fact in all but the loosest of senses; though Lang's research for his first sound film, M, was extensive, it did not extend to being part of the proximate case that inspired it. Instead, it plays as the sort of historical mystery that makes sleuths out of real-world figures, at least at first, but it soon pushes that into obliquely examining one of the darker points in Lang's life before returning to a narrative about the split between himself and von Harbou. It's an at times uneven journey, both because Lang's visitation of the actual killer in the last act seems like a bit much and because it can sometimes gloss over Lang's own less-sterling qualities and the depths of the turbulence in his relationships with his wives; a serial killer tends to overshadow things.

Despite that, Heino Ferch gives quite the entertaining performance as Lang, infusing him with the sort of charisma and obvious wit and genius that makes it easy enough to believe him both as an entertaining man about town and a master at his chosen craft even if the audience gets to see very little of Lang working at the thing he was best at. He and the filmmakers mostly have his cruel streak come out in quick bursts, disguised somewhat by his best qualities so that it's more arrogance than sadism, but it's enough to remind the audience that Lang was not primarily a haunted soul, but was in fact detested by even those who respected him. Thomas Thieme gets to do that the most, always showing a certain amount of stiffness even when deferential to his guest. Johanna Gastdorf is given relatively little to do as von Harbou, unfortunately, mostly playing the wife he grew apart from though a late comment by Lang about how he is less interested in "masses and machines" and more specific characters and their potential for evil hints at what the movie could have been had Maugg chosen to focus on their relationship more. Lisa Friederich plays her dual roles as similar enough - fragile but somewhat awed by Lang - that they begin to run together for the audience as much as they do for Lang.

What often lifts the film above simple biography or fan-fiction is the way that Maugg tries to put the audience in Lang's world. He's hardly the first director to reference his subject's style and specific images, but he commits to it more than most, having cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier shoot in sharp black and white with a relatively square frame, recreating the staging from many of Lang's films - I'd love to watch it after re-viewing some of Lang's work and see how many of the things that looked familiar were close re-creations. What's often most fascinating, though, is the blurring of the line between Fritz Lang's reality and film. Any sort of scene meant to establish location and atmosphere is made of archive footage, often a grainier look that acknowledges the main story as a fantasy but also highlights the difference of the real world; it's a technique mostly reserved for documentaries these days but it echoes how in films of the 1920s and 1930s, this slightly messier sort of location shoot would be used as an establishing shot even though it didn't quite match the more tightly-controlled studio shoot . When Lang steps off a train into 1929 Duesseldorf, he seems write literally to be walking into M, and by the time the film ends, actual scenes from that film are being interspersed with Maugg's narrative, a nifty was to show how Lang is transforming what he sees in the real world into his own work of fiction.

Those who love Fritz Lang's films may be torn between the liberties it takes and the style it faithfully recreates, so "Fritz Lang" the film may be a bit of an acquire taste. It's a worthy take on the man; though fascinated by its subject, it's never so reverent that it makes a bad thriller.

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