In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist would have looked like an entirely different film without Fritz Lang’s influence. The shadows in the bedroom, the ominous staircase, the classic poster image with the bright light cascading down on the silhouetted priest, and plenty other visual flourishes owe much (everything?) to Lang classics like Metropolis, M, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Interviewing Lang a year after his own hit horror classic hit theaters, Friedkin tries to pick his hero’s brain about the meanings, influences, and craft of his greatest works.
But Lang has different ideas. The shop talk moments — intriguing in their own right, although often undercut by Friedkin’s jittery zooms, jostling camera, and cuts implemented like a bored child — give way to something more powerful and vital.
After an extended discussion of how “you cannot live in a country which has lost a war without being influenced,” Lang tells the story of how he left Nazi Germany in 1933.
While preparing for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’s release, Lang was informed by “the yellow shirts” they would confiscate his film because of his blatant critiques of Nazism in it. In the film, the titular Dr. Mabuse spews messages of how his crime syndicate will reign for 1000 years, recreating, almost word-for-word, Hitler’s own predictions for his Third Reich. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels “invited” (ordered) Lang for a meeting, at which Lang figured he would have to explain himself for the allegory.
The way Lang tells the story is astounding in its immediacy. You can see that he feels he’s experiencing it again, his expression one of relived fear and disgust. He describes in absolute detail the dress code he was required to wear to the meeting, the way the concrete looked in the Propaganda Ministry, and the way sound echoed off the walls. He’s there, reporting to us what he sees. Friedkin’s irritating camera and editing finally get out of the story’s way as he holds in a tight over-the-shoulder as Lang deadpans, “It was disagreeable.”
The tale features rising and falling action and story beats that feel like his movies and less like an extemporaneous retelling of a moment in a man’s life. The suspense he sews in us while Goebbels sits with him to discuss his summons is up there with the opening of M.
And just like every good storyteller, Lang hits us with a surprise that simultaneously releases tension by answering in the negative the initial question (would he be jailed, or worse, for criticizing the regime?) with one that creates a grander, terrifying one: Goebbels offers Lang the job to be the German filmmaker of the Third Reich. He tells of the sweat that soaked his body and the daydreams of withdrawing his savings and leaving immediately. Lang informs Goebbels that he has Jewish blood, something which Goebbels brushes away with a flippant response that shows the pick-and-choose ideological bankruptcy of Nazism: “Mr. Lang, we decide who is an Aryan.”
Lang is remarkable for not even considering the deal with the devil such a high perch would give him. He just wanted out. He doesn’t pat himself on the back for his morals; they are simply there. He left the next day on a train out of the country on his way to becoming one of the finest film noir directors of the ensuing decades.
You can watch Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin on YouTube. Embedded below is the video for the first part.