THE WEIMAR AESTHETIC OF FRITZ LANG

Metropolis: Lang’s most openly left-wing 
film, but also his most fascistic.
by Jake Bowyer

Sometime not long after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Joseph Goebbles, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, approached a monocled Austrian with a proposition: make films for the Third Reich. The filmmaker, one Fritz Lang, had originally approached Herr Goebbles with another proposition about the lifting of the Nazi Party’s ban on his film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Goebbles responded with: “The Fuhrer and I have seen your films and the Fuhrer made clear that ‘this is the man who will give us the National Socialist film.’”

Following this meeting, Lang told his servant to pack his bags for Paris.

There is plenty of reason to doubt Lang’s version of events. After all, Goebbles hardly missed writing down anything in his diary, and yet he failed to record anything about having an interaction with Lang. It is not impossible that Goebbles offered Lang the chance to head the German film industry, but it seems likely that Lang, ever the artist, embellished a lot.

What is undeniable is the influence cinema had on the Nazis and other radical political movements in Germany during the Weimar era.

In his book Hitler’s Monsters, historian Eric Kurlander shows how much cinema influenced both the right and left in Germany. In particular, Expressionist filmmaking was exploited by the National Socialists and Communists. Take for instance the classic horror tale, Nosferatu [1922]. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, director F.W. Murnau’s vampire classic was seen by left-wing film critics as symptomatic of the German population’s “susceptibility to fascism”[1]. Indeed, Siegfried Kracauer, one of the founding intellectuals of the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxists, wrote the key tome outlining this thesis—From Caligari to Hitler. For Kracauer, Graf Orlok (the German Count Dracula) and the mad hypnotist Dr. Caligari (from the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) are but tyrants who gave Weimar audiences the central authority that they craved.

Orlok, the "It" guy of 1920s Germany
Right-wing students of Weimar cinema had a different reaction to monster movies. According to Kurland, “Murnau’s Nosferatu constitutes a brilliant work of Expressionism as well as a rumination on the Jewish (Eastern European) other”[2]. Orlok, who many scholars have characterized as looking something like an anti-Semitic stereotype, drinks the blood of German virgins after first hypnotizing them. Orlok is also the great bringer of plague from the dark corners of Eastern Europe. For a population recently inundated with refugees from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, many of whom were shtetl Jews that even German Jews saw as otherworldly[3], it was easy to correlate supernatural vampires with seemingly parasitic foreigners.

As for the films of Fritz Lang, Hitler was such a fan that he even wrote a review of Lang’s 1924 two-part film series, Die Nibelungen.  Based on the medieval German epic Nibelungenlied (which Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer, turned into an amazing opera), Lang’s Die Nibelungen was, according to Hitler, a parable about the Aryan German and his battle with Jewish dwarves. Given that Lang himself was part Jewish, it seems unlikely that this was his intent as a director.

Hitler's appreciation for Lang was not unique. After leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army (where he was wounded at least three times while fighting the Russians and Romanians on the Eastern Front), Lang moved to Berlin in 1918. By the early 1920s, he was one of the most respected filmmakers in all of Germany. Much of this success was due to his collaborations with his second wife, Thea von Harbou. Harbou would continue to make films in Nazi Germany, and in 1945 she was held in a British prison camp for having Nazi sympathies.

Of all the brilliant films that Lang made during the Weimar era, only four will be discussed in this brief article. While Die Nibelungen clearly meant much to Hitler, the films that Lang made between 1918 and 1934 that meant much more to Weimar culture as a whole are Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and the aforementioned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Each one of these films deals with the pressing concerns of everyday Germans prior to the Third Reich: crime, financial instability, labor relations, and the collapse of social mores.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was released in two parts in the pivotal year of 1922. Although the German economy had stabilized somewhat by that point, the threat of internal revolution still ran high. Although it is often lionized or forgotten these days by champagne socialist professors, the Bolshevik-inspired revolutions in Berlin, Munich, and the Ruhr saw far-left elements come close to seizing control of Germany, then Europe’s most industrialized nation. Despite what you’ve been told about the inherently racist and fascistic nature of Germans, many middle class and patriotic working class voters gravitated to the National Socialist cause because they remembered the days when the bourgeoisie of Munich were disarmed, imprisoned, and murdered by Russian-backed “Reds.”

Scene from Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, although based on a potboiler novel written by Norbert Jacques of Luxembourg, is primarily a study of the collective psyche of the German people following several mass traumas. The main character, Dr. Mabuse (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is a brilliant gambler and criminal genius who wants nothing less than to bring down the Weimar Republic.  With his hypnotic powers, Dr. Mabuse manages to weaponize a pair of typically Prussian aristocrats—Count Told (played by Alfred Abel) and Countess Told (played by Gertrude Welcker). Along with Mabuse’s gang of underworld types, all of whom follow him like a messiah, this coalition of the high and low in German society attempts to wreck the already weak currency.

A silent epic featuring ghosts, magic, and the power and brutality of street politics, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler is one of the first Lang films to feature what Professor Kurlander has termed the “call to unreason” that permeated both late Wilhelmine and Weimar German society. The film also highlights Lang’s interest in authoritarian personalities, with the semi-supernatural Dr. Mabuse being something of a cross between Fantomas and Lenin.  Mabuse’s entirely political character is even more present in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

The 1933 sequel features very little of Dr. Mabuse (still played by Klein-Rogge), for the arch-criminal has been confined to an insane asylum since being captured by the army in 1922.  In this film, homicide investigator Lohmann (played by Otto Wernicke) and a reformed ex-con named Tom Kent (played by Gustav Diessl) try to destroy the massive criminal ring that has been established by Dr. Mabuse. This criminal army takes its orders from an unknown figure who himself takes orders from the veritable Bible of crime that is named in the film’s title. Dr. Mabuse’s testament is a frightening magnum opus about crime for crime’s sake, and the ability of using anarchic terror to destabilize the Weimar democracy. For Mabuse and his chief follower (a seemingly respectable white collar worker), the goal of crime is to establish an “Empire of Crime.”

While the film suggests that Mabuse is, at heart, a nihilistic anarchist akin to The Joker, the comparisons of Mabuse’s organization to the Nazis and the Communists are hard to miss. Mabuse’s gangsters are divided into individual cells which are tasked with different operations (Division 2-B carries out murders, while Division 3 carries out financial crimes). These divisions are often played against one another in such a way that they prefigure the later bureaucratic competition fostered by the Nazis.

Metropolis as Babylon-Berlin
Automation, Taylorism, and the modern world are the main focus of Lang’s greatest film, 1927’s Metropolis. Based on Harbou’s original novel, Metropolis tells the tale of a future Babylon where the working classes are literally assigned to live and work underground. Their’s is a demonic existence, where some men are forced to turn the hands of a factory clock for eternity. In Metropolis, technicians and capitalists live above ground and care far more about machines than they do about workers. Like today’s bi-coastal elites, the owners of wealth in Metropolis do not care about workers because they do not have to—they are too busy enjoying the Elysium of their own manufactured Edens.

Much like other Lang films, Metropolis blurs the line between technology and mysticism. After the wealthy playboy Freder (played by Gustav Frohlich) falls in love with the social reformer Maria (played by Brigitte Helm), his father, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel) hires the magician/inventor Rotwang (played by Klein-Rogge) to create an android that can be made to look exactly like Maria. With equals parts tech and black magic (note the pentagram in this picture), Rotwang’s creation leads the workers astray all the while using her sexual charms to instill lust in the young men of the ruling capitalist class. During her dance, which occurs while the city’s workers are dying, Maria becomes the Whore of Babylon—a thoroughly modern temptress revving up the engines of Weimar boys with sex, exoticism, and intoxicants.

THOT problems
Metropolis is both Lang’s most openly left-wing film, but also his most fascistic. While Metropolis is about "mass ornamentation" (to lift a phrase from Kracauer) and the ways that mass industry supplies populations with sex and consumer goods in order to mollify them and divert their attentions from the plight of suffering workers, it also concludes with a message in support of corporatism. After all of the suffering and subterfuge, Freder convinces his father and the chief organizer of the workers to work together in order to create a more humane economy. Such imagery seems ripped right from the contemporary propaganda of the Italian Fascist Party.

While Metropolis is Lang’s most acclaimed film, the director’s favorite film was 1931’s M. M is another examination of the Berlin underworld, except this time the criminals unite not to cause havoc, but to restore order. The target of the organized criminals and the highly scientific police department is the child serial murderer Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre). It is the criminals, not the official authorities, that capture Beckert. In keeping with liberal republican norms, the criminals put Beckert on trial and provide him with legal representation. In what is one of the best, but most disturbing scenes in cinema history, Beckert defends his actions by contrasting his uncontrollable lust to kill with the rational choices made by the assembled burglars and jewel thieves. The evil maestro Lang makes his audience sympathize with the monster Beckert—a decision that is not repeated in the Hollywood version of the film that was made in 1951.

M is a visceral reminder to modern audiences that the Nazis came to power in Germany not just because of a bad economy and anger over the Versailles Treaty. Millions of Germans in both the countryside and the cities were horrified by what they saw as the culture of degeneracy coming out of the left-wing capital of Berlin. The darker side of the Berlin sex trade was the rise of lustmord, or lust murderers who preyed on women and children. Famously, when asked which German serial killer inspired the creation of Hans Beckert, Lang said that there was too many to choose from. This answer makes sense given that, between 1918 and 1933, Weimar Germany was home to such human monsters as Fritz Haarmann, a gay cannibal; Peter Kurten, a sadistic pedophile; Karl Denke, another cannibal; Carl Grossmann, yet another cannibal and child molester.

Lang continued making films once he landed in the United States. Indeed, in America, Lang became a master of the film noir genre and one of its best creators. However, Lang’s Weimar movies remain his greatest achievements. Kracauer noted at the time in his short essay The Salaried Masses that the lower middle class in Germany, which provided the National Socialists with much of their support in the early 1930s, increasingly identified themselves with the images that they saw on the silver screen. Much like the dour workers in Metropolis, salaried employees in Berlin lived as a mass, “whose existence…increasingly assumed a standard character”[4]. The cinema made such uniformity easier, as all lower middle class workers came to see the movies, along with weekend trips to the leafy suburbs, as rites of passage or as representations of their class. The Nazis were as much a part of this mass culture as any other German political party during the Weimar era, and their celebration of Lang’s oeuvre is an example of the mass political seeing in the mass cultural the means of securing power.

The four films discussed all embody the nervous energy of the Weimar era and the many monsters that threatened the insecure republic. Crime, technology, and the dehumanization of entire populations characterizes Lang’s films because these topics characterized Weimar culture as a whole. In this regard, the National Socialists, who thought so highly of Lang, both promised to eradicate the degeneracy of Weimar by also utilizing the mediums and aesthetics first created by the mass markets of Weimar.

The making of Metropolis
[1]: Kurlander, Eric. Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017): 77.
[2]: Ibid.
[3]: Brenner, Michael. The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998): 142.
[4]: Kracauer, Siegfried. The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, Trans. Quintin Hoare (London and New York: Verso, 1998): 68.



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