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Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, Part Three

In the third and final part of my review of Kino Lorber’s enormous Fritz Lang: The Silent Films Blu-ray box set, I’m going to explore the last few films in the set, which also make up Lang’s final silent films before he turned to sound with M (1931): Metropolis (1927), Spione (Spies, 1928), and Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1929), as well as Die Pest in Florenz (The Plague of Florence, 1919), an added rarity with a script from Lang. In the first part of this essay, I discussed The Spiders, Harakiri, personal favorite The Wandering Shadow, and Four Around the Woman, while in the second part I explored Lang’s epics like Destiny, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Die Nibelungen. As I’ve already mentioned, having these films together makes this set a must have, though—if I had one complaint—it is admittedly rather slim on special features, particularly considering that Lang is one of the giants of cinema. I can see how this would be sort of a sticking point for anyone coming to the set as a fan of Metropolis eager to check out more of the director’s astounding work.

I single out Metropolis in particular, because it is clearly Lang’s most famous silent film. And part of the problem—at least in terms of this year’s Lang releases—is that Eureka/Masters of Cinema have just unveiled a 90th anniversary set of Metropolis collecting every version of the film with extensive special features (and even a 100-page book). The set is dazzling in scope, in a way that makes the single Metropolis disc in this Kino set seem short-sighted by comparison: there is only one version of the film (though it is the most complete and looks spectacular) and the only accompanying special features are the Voyage to Metropolis 50-minute documentary and an interview about the somewhat recently uncovered missing footage, believed to be lost for decades.

In these reviews, I haven’t spent too much time belaboring over whether the editions are acceptable, the quality of the special features, and so on—mostly because these films have been seen by so few people that I felt it would be beneficial to explore them more fully than the cursory short paragraphs they seem to have gotten in reviews so far (and I sympathize, as 11 films are a hell of a lot to cover in one review, particularly considering how long some of these titles are). But Metropolis is perhaps the only exception, since it’s arguably Lang’s most-seen film. In the decades following its release, it was met with what could charitably be described as a mixed critical reception. The chief complaint seems to be that it’s just too epic in scope, that it feels like two separate films slammed together, unravelling at the seams. I’m sure this has to do with the unravelling partnership between Lang and his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, his chief screenwriting partner during those years. But regardless of its alleged flaws, I have never been able to regard Metropolis with anything but absolute awe.

For the one person reading who was born under a rock, Metropolis is essentially dystopian science fiction meets political melodrama. It follows the events in a futuristic city, the titular Metropolis, with some rather horrifying parallels to our current political and economic turmoil. Rich industrialists lord over downtrodden workers from lofty towers; the laboring poor are crushed beneath the city in its mechanical bowels. When the leading industrialist’s son (Gustav Fröhlich) falls in love with a good-hearted young woman (Brigitte Helm), he is swept up in revolution, though an inventor and scientist (the great Rudolf Klein-Rogge) attempts to intervene.

Generally regarded as one of the first true science fiction films, this reimagines some of Lang’s most important themes: disguises and doubling, powerful cabals and political intrigue, and an unlikely love affair that has world-shattering consequences. I wish I could accurately convey the sense of wonder Metropolis makes me feel at every single viewing. I can’t pretend it’s my favorite Lang film, but there is something terrifying, naive, and breathtaking about it. Like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, it is really too immense of a film to be contained in a set with so many other films—at least if you want to consider this a complete Metropolis with the special features such a film deserves. The upside to including it in this set, outside of having a complete bible for Lang’s silent films of course, is that you really get a chance to put Metropolis in context, to see it in and around his other silent films, allowing you to really chart his development as a filmmaker.

An important, though often overlooked companion piece to Metropolis is Spies, which seems to be one of Lang’s lesser seen films. It’s certainly not celebrated on the same level as either of the Mabuse films or Metropolis—but it also makes for a wonderful double feature with Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, or even Four Around the Woman. An obvious influence on later espionage classics, the film follows Willy Fritsch’s Agent 326, who works for the Secret Service and is ordered to locate and neutralize Haghi (Mabuse himself, Rudolph Klein-Rogge), the head of an international spy organization. A precursor to Ian Fleming’s SPECTRE and Blofeld, Haghi’s network has rooted itself through all levels of European society and operates through manipulation, blackmail, and violence. Haghi himself is disguised as a handicapped bank director (in shades of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), and his right hand woman (Gerda Maurus) is sent to seduce 326—but, to her dismay, falls in love with him.

This presents a development of themes found in The Spiders and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, though Spies’ Sonja, a Russian agent, is one of Lang and Thea von Harbou’s most compelling female characters to date. As in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, the character is imprisoned, though in this case by Haghi, to keep her from interrupting his scheme to steal an important treaty. At some point I’d love to do a comparison of the master-servant/mastermind-henchman relationships at work in a number of Lang’s early films, as these generally involve a contrast of male and female characters, complicating things with romantic plots and sexual tension: that’s certainly the case in The Spiders, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Woman in the Moon, and Spies.

It’s easy to see how this thread winds through all Lang’s most important silent films, though Spies feels smaller and more intimate than Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler or Metropolis, and is really something of a sister film to Woman in the Moon: both star Lang’s lover at the time, Gerda Maurus, and actor Willy Frisch, and include a number of regular cast and crew, such as Thea von Harbou on script duties yet again. But power of the love affair in Metropolis, far more hopefully and less bleak than the previous, more tragic silent films, continues on in Spies and Woman in the Moon. It’s tempting to see Lang as a man in love during this period, because of the unexpectedly hopeful note in his romantic plots within these films. Yet as in the Dr. Mabuse films and M, the world here is fundamentally corrupt, ruled by cabals and marked by paranoia, claustrophobia, and surveillance, but unlike in The Spiders, the beautiful female spy is at least allowed a chance at redemption through love. Of course, this is offset by torture, several suicides, car chases, violence, and many of the genre staples that would come to be associated with espionage films. Kino helps to put some of this into perspective with a welcome and informative documentary that runs at just over an hour long, Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action.

Woman in the Moon similarly deals with espionage and intrigue and feels like the strange love child of Metropolis and Spies. This was to be Lang’s last silent film and, in retrospect, it’s not surprising that he blended several of the genres and themes he had explored throughout the ‘20s: science fiction, espionage thriller, national/international conspiracies, epic romance, and melodrama. Though the plot sounds a bit absurd on paper, the film is essentially about the wonder that inspired space travel and the very real rocket programs in development in Germany at the time (a prototype inspired the rocket in the film and this wild history is touched upon in the short featurette accompanying the film). Helius (Willy Fritsch again) teams up with Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl) to travel to space; Mannfeldt believes there is untapped economic potential, as he thinks there’s gold on the moon (!). The rocket they build is of interest to the same type of exploitative businessmen found in Metropolis, who blackmail them into taking a man (the great Fritz Rasp) with them on their trip to the moon. Also accompanying them is Helius’s assistant Friede (Gerda Maurus), who he is secretly in love with.

This oddly prescient film has two main veins: on one hand, it is driven by corruption and greed, resulting in nefarious plots and double-crossing, bolstered by the rocket’s development and the wonderful special effects in place surrounding it and their lunar travel. But it is also a deeply affecting love story about the growing bond between Helius and Friede, and though this romantic subplot is often criticized, Helius’s sense of wonder and fascination is equally balanced between his longing for space travel and his longing for Friede. Based on a novel by Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote the script, one has to question what she thought of the parallel on set romance between her husband and the film’s leading lady. Certainly their marriage would end soon after and Lang would go in a completely different direction for M and his socially conscious, scathing American films. Despite any potential tension during the making of Woman in the Moon, the film transcends the frustrated, tragic romantic conclusions of so many of Lang’s silent films and leaves its central lovers stranded but hopeful on the moon, looking beyond the bitter events of the recent past to a blissful future—however brief—together.

Woman in the Moon includes the main special feature found on their previous solo Blu-ray release of the film, a short documentary about the making of the film. But the greatest special feature on the entire set has got to be the inclusion of The Plague of Florence. Directed, as I mentioned, not by Lang but by Otto Rippert, this is a delightful addition, particularly because it’s such a rare curio from the early years of Lang’s career. I need hardly to say that it can’t compete with Lang’s own work as a director, but this is a rare Gothic romp for Lang, who wouldn’t return to such subject matter until Secret Beyond the Door (1947): it’s a loose adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” one of my favorite of all his tales. You can’t find The Plague of Florence elsewhere on DVD, as far as I’m aware, and it’s an entertaining look at Poe filtered through Lang’s core themes. As in The Spiders, there is a beautiful central villainess (Marga von Kierska), who essentially seduces a city’s ruler (Otto Mannstädt) and his son (Anders Wikmann)—which can be read as early shades of Metropolis—setting off the Black Plague within the city to cause mass devastation.

It is ultimately her beauty and wantonness that drive the population to mayhem, including some of its most pious members, such as a hermit (Theodor Becker), and the plague itself is actually personified by a woman (Julietta Brandt). Not an absolute must-see, but a lot of fun, The Plague in Florence would be a great addition to a box set or programmed series of early films inspired by Poe—most of which are explored far too little by fans or critics—such as Alice Guy’s short The Pit and the Pendulum (1913), Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Richard Oswald’s The Living Dead (1932), The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935), and so on. Like Destiny, this is something of a morality play, so don’t expect it to reach the dazzling heights of some of Roger Corman’s lush Poe adventures of the ’60s, but it is still a beautiful-looking film and closes out one of the absolute best home video releases of the year.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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