Lovers, Filmmakers, and Nazis: Fritz Lang's Last Two Movies as Autobiography

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In the 1930s, the filmmaker Fritz Lang fled Nazi Germany and remade himself into one of the most successful Hollywood directors, producing hit films for two decades. Then he did something unusual: he went back to Germany to make two peculiar movies, one a two-part remake of a 1921 epic on which he had been a screenwriter, the other a black-and-white sequel to the last movie he had directed before leaving his native land. He then never made another movie, though he lived for sixteen more years, moved back to Hollywood, and received numerous offers, some of which he worked on but none of which he completed. Something in those two last German movies altered Lang; he said that in making them he felt a "circle beginning to close" (qtd. in Bogdanovich 111). The phrase suggests that these films represented to him a way to tie together his whole career, and indeed his whole life: they served some sort of autobiographical function, revisiting and recasting his past.

But to call these films autobiographical, we would usually expect to find in them more than just remakes of earlier aesthetic works: we would expect them to represent real events in Lang's private life. Movies such as The 400 Blows and 8 1/2 are considered "autobiographical" in this sense, even though they are fictional works, because they seem to represent moments in the private lives of their directors, one tracing an adolescence bearing similarities to Truffaut's, and the other showing the love life of a film director like Fellini. Lang's last two movies are about a ruler of India and a psychiatrist who aims to conquer the world; they do not seem to reflect much in Lang's private life. However, there is another way to see these movies as an effort to re-envision Lang's most private affairs, and thus another way to see them as autobiographies of a very distinctive kind. To understand this, we need to add in a very well-known fact about Lang's life in Weimar from 1921-1931, the era which these movies revisit: Lang was married to Thea Von Harbou, and she was the screenwriter for all his movies during that period. Their collaboration and marriage created an intense bond between them, merging the two personalities. As Lang's assistant director at that time, Conrad Von Molo, described the couple, they "were just like one team. It was more than just 'belonging together,' more than love, they were a real combination and the idea was impossible that there would be a row between them. They were absolutely one entity" (McGilligan 162).

Von Molo was wrong about the impossibility of a row between them; in fact, he was partly responsible for the row which finally separated them. His roommate, a young man from India named Ayi Tendulkar, became Von Harbou's lover in the 1930s, and eventually one of the causes of a divorce between Lang and Von Harbou. Another cause of that divorce was the rise to power of the Nazis. Lang claimed he hated them and just barely escaped their grasp in 1931; Von Harbou and Tendulkar remained behind, joined the Nazi party, and after Lang's divorce came through, married. Lang's later public statements about his separation from Von Harbou left out the affair: "our separation was amicable ... the only thing that divided us was National Socialism" (McGilligan 181).

During World War II, Von Harbou and Lang both made movies--Von Harbou in Germany, Lang in Hollywood. After the war she was imprisoned for her part in the Nazi regime, and in her defense she claimed she had never been a believer, but had joined the party just to "assist Indians in Germany and Indian prisoners of war" (McGilligan 330). Lang vehemently denounced such explanations, saying publically that she had been an enthusiastic supporter of National Socialism. Her view prevailed, she was released from prison, and she went on to make a few postwar films. In 1954 she died, and three years later Lang returned to Germany to make his last two movies. Now we come to the interesting part: those two movies are revisions and extensions of the very first and very last movies on which Von Harbou and Lang worked together. …