Making Hollywood Films Was Brutal, Even for Fritz Lang

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MAKING movies in Hollywood has never been easy, though maybe it should have been for the Austrian genius with a monocle screwed into his right eye and a dark, forbidding Weltanschauung lodged deep in his head. But life is cruel and filmmaking can be nearly as brutal, and so it was for Fritz Lang (1890-1976). “I always fought very hard in Hollywood,” he said in 1970, sounding like the embattled veteran he became. Late in life he said that the main theme in all his movies was the “fight against destiny, against fate,” and it’s hard not to wonder if he was thinking about his own fortunes as a Hollywood director

By the time Lang landed in the United States in 1934 he was a legend in Germany, his adopted homeland, where he had directed films like “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,” “Metropolis” and “M.” He left Germany in 1933 after his film “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was banned there as a threat to law and order and public safety. He liked to say that he fled Germany in one frantic evening after Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, asked Lang to run its film division. He did leave, but several months after his alleged meeting with Goebbels. But then a pulse-pounding flight to freedom, as incredible as any manufactured on a back lot, certainly sounded better, sexier, more mythological than a calculated departure.

Was Lang thinking of his own fantastical escape when he shot “Cloak and Dagger,” a 1946 thriller that ends with Gary Cooper — as Alvah, an American scientist turned spy — fleeing Fascist Italy on a small plane, a busty young resistance fighter in a tight sweater, Gina (Lilli Palmer), weeping ciao in the nearby grass? One biographical nugget did enter Lang’s conversation about that film in an interview he did with Peter Bogdanovich. Describing a nail-biter of a fight between Alvah and a Nazi, Lang mentioned that he had wanted to join the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the C.I.A. “I couldn’t get in because of my eyes,” Lang said. Really? Whatever the truth, it makes another good story for an artful dissembler....

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