Not often does a biopic choose to ignore historical detail in place of a fan fiction-like retelling of its subject’s life story, but director Gordian Maugg has done just that with Fritz Lang, and in the process of creating myth has actually allowed himself the freedom to fully explore the man. Blending fact with invention and placing his Lang at the center of a story revolving around the kind of guilt and murder that the director himself would have been captivated by, Maugg is able to probe the tortured mind of an artist whose struggle to deal with his own sins is laid bare on the big screen for all to see, hidden in plain sight like the dark characters the filmmaker was so fond of. The result is a fascinating tribute to a complex movie maker, an absorbing examination of inspiration, and a treat to cinephiles the world over.
Little in Fritz Lang should be taken as literal truth, and though many of the larger elements are based in reality, it’s the deviations that produce the most compelling content. As Maugg’s story goes, after wowing audiences with his vision of the future with 1929’s Woman in the Moon, Fritz (Heino Ferch) is treading creative water, flattered at fancy cocktail parties by colleagues and financiers, but still looking for the subject of his next film. When he happens upon a news story about a serial killer that has gripped the city of Dusseldorf, he mysteriously drops everything and begins his own investigation, aided by the director of police, Ernst Gennat, a man with whom he is acquainted from a tragic incident many years ago. Lang isn’t so much interested in solving the case, or even justice for that matter, but more in the psychological profile of the person behind these grisly murders of women and children. He wants to know specifically what drives this man to kill – perhaps also for reasons other than mere artistic inspiration.
While it’s implied that these brutal events serve as the genesis for what would turn out to possibly be Lang’s greatest achievement, M – A City Looks For a Murderer, the influence on his future takes a backseat to the exploration of a troubled past. Shuffling about the various countryside crime scenes and police stations like a German Columbo, the director recreates the atrocities in his head, watching the scenes unfold as he tries to understand, tries to relate. Fritz Lang is a character study of a character that may have never truly existed as portrayed, but it succeeds wonderfully in capturing the essence of a creative mind that never stops working, whether toward constructive or self-destructive ends.
To set the mood, Maugg has shot his film in glorious black and white, eliciting a sense of noir shadiness where no one is clean. While not necessarily mimicking Lang’s own stark visual style, he does make efficient use of shadows and smoke, as well as some sharp angles every now and again. The two biggest contributors to that 1920s feeling though are a boxy aspect ratio that reminds one how nice it is to have some vertical breathing room composed into a frame, and the splicing in of old Weimar Republic newsreels, as well as shots from Lang’s M. The former insertions serve multiple purposes, from setting an authentic stage to contrasting a naive public with the seedy deeds being perpetrated behind the smiles, as well as providing a cheap alternative to what might have been an expensive establishing shot. Footage from M parallels moments and emotions in the case itself, ones either happened upon by accident or related during interviews with the dark-eyed killer himself, opening viewers up to the creative process.
Heino Ferch also deserves a large share of the credit for making Fritz Lang work. Sporting a case full of monocles for any occasion and carrying himself with the ease of one used to being in a position of authority, Ferch conveys both Lang’s position of comfort and his obsession with pursuing his own nightmares by only the most subtle changes in expression. He stifles any outward trace of his curiosity, but can’t help revealing the fire behind his eyes when furiously scribbling potential script notes, or discovering clues that might lead to the answers he seeks. It’s a natural performance that never devolves into the grandiose, never relies on broad mannerisms that telegraph to an audience that this person is Important. He’s nothing short of magnetic, and I could frankly watch Ferch as Lang simply smoke a cigarette for ninety minutes and probably feel I still gained some insight.
As the film takes place during the rise of the Nazi party, there is naturally some subtext, with the town shocked at how inept they are at identifying a madman (naturally, he’d show some irregularity for all to see, right?), and the killer’s explanation as to why he does what he does is certainly allegorical. Still, it’s Lang’s own struggle, the struggle of an imperfect man dealing with his demons through celluloid creation, that is the main draw. Few legendarily maniacal directors have achieved the towering status of Fritz Lang, a genius pioneer of German Expressionistic cinema in the 1920s and creator of some of the darkest, most enduring images in the medium. Fritz Lang pays inventive tribute by positing that while the filmmaker certainly had clear visions of the world as he saw it, from the fiery industrial underground of Metropolis to the shadowy predator of M, his view of himself might have been even bleaker.
FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017