Fritz Lang was one of the few filmmakers who thrived creatively in both the silent and sound eras, as well as in both Europe and Hollywood. One big reason for that was that Lang began his career in his late 20s in Germany, at a time when the Expressionist movement was encouraging both fine and popular artists to experiment. By the time Lang made his early-’20s masterpieces Destiny and Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, he’d already had a couple of years of making movies under his belt, trying out a variety of techniques in a number of different genres, learning what worked and why. The three-DVD Kino set Fritz Lang: The Early Works contains three of those fledgling efforts: 1919’s Harakiri, a retelling of Madame Butterfly starring Lil Dagover as a Japanese woman who has a baby with a European soldier and then braves social scorn while she waits for him to return; 1920’s The Wandering Shadow, in which Mia May plays a “fallen woman” who escapes into the mountains to avoid her lover and find some spiritual redemption; and 1921’s Four Around The Woman, with Ludwig Hartau as a rich man investigating his wife’s possible infidelities. Though different in approach, all deal with themes that will recur in later Lang films—in particular the idea that human beings are enslaved by their passions, and if allowed enough anonymity, people behave abominably.
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about the films in The Early Works, because in some cases they’ve been reconstructed from badly damaged, incomplete prints, found in archives without the original German title cards. But even the pieces of these movies that exist are only intermittently Lang-like, stylistically. Harakiri in particular is very plain, with Lang doing little visually to enliven a predictably melodramatic plot (or to alleviate the awkwardness of a Japanese story being played by a European cast). The Wandering Shadow contains more memorable images, shot on location at misty mountain lakes populated by salt-of-the-earth types who are being imposed upon by darkly attired city folk; but nearly a third of the film is lost, which makes it easier to admire as a piece of cinematic history than as a piece of cinema. It’s Four Around The Woman that’ll be of most interest to Lang buffs, both for its occasional visual flourishes—including a fun opening shot of a rotating bar—and its depiction of upper-class Germans snooping around each other’s private lives like shameless gumshoes. It’s a strong warm-up for the following year’s Dr. Mabuse, and for the crime stories that would make Lang’s reputation over the next few decades.
Next to his noirs, Lang was best known as a fantasist, whose 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis remains influential on the design and themes of futurist fiction. But Metropolis followed another, even more ambitious epic: Die Nibelungen, a two-part, five-hour adaptation of an ancient poem about the warrior-prince Siegfried and his vengeful wife Kriemhild. Made to compete in an international market that was becoming dominated by the Hollywood epics of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Die Nibelungen was grander than anything cinema had seen before, with large-scale battles, enormous sets, and mythical creatures aplenty. In its narrative complexity—and in its adolescent understanding that dragons and long-bearded dwarves and shapeshifters are all awesome—Die Nibelungen rivals the recent adaptations of Game Of Thrones and The Lord Of The Rings.
But Die Nibelungen is also remarkable just as a Lang film. Co-written with his longtime collaborator (and wife) Thea von Harbou, Die Nibelungen filters a tale of sword and sorcery through Lang’s usual preoccupations. Magical world of wonders or no, the landscape of Die Nibelungen is occupied by people who betray each other because they can’t keep their desires in check; and the arc of the film is about how those desires and betrayals threaten to bring mighty kingdoms down. Lang captures the spectacle, moving his camera past majestic waterfalls and bloody battlefields like a photojournalist who’s traveled back in time.
Key features: None on the early films; an hourlong documentary on Die Nibelungen, which tracks some of the differences between the original German prints and the changes for the American market (and also helps explain how and why the elements of the film degraded over time), and describes how the Nazi aesthetic was shaped inadvertently by Lang.
The Wandering Shadow: C+
Four Around The Woman: B