Fritz Lang's Mediaevalism: From Die Nibelungen to the American West

Article excerpt

This essay relates Fritz Lang's mediaeval epic film Die Nibelungen to the three Western films he made in Hollywood. In particular the last of these, Rancho Notorious, reworks the theme of "fate, murder, and revenge," which is fundamental not only to Die Nibelungen but also to Lang's work as a whole.

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Two quintessentially American film genres, the Western and film noir, have been more strongly influenced by European literary and cinematic traditions than all others. Westerns are thematically related to the heroic archetypes of classical and mediaeval mythology, while film noir is a direct offspring of German expressionist cinema. (On the former see Winkler, "Classical Mythology," and "Mythologische Motive"; on the latter, especially McArthur.) Among the directors who have contributed major works to both kinds of film is Fritz Lang, the most important of the expatriate German directors in Hollywood. From Fury, his first American film in 1936, to his last one twenty years later (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), virtually all of Lang's American work is in the tradition of film noir; with whose origins he had been familiar since his days at the UFA studios in Berlin. A number of Lang's important German films had dealt with some of the chief themes of noir cinema, in particular big-city corruption: Dr. Mabuse der Sp ieler, Metropolis, M, and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. In Hollywood, Lang reworked his European themes not only in his noirs but also in his three Westerns: The Return of Frank James, Western Union, and Rancho Notorious. For his Westerns, Lang also took recourse to themes and archetypes he had developed most extensively in his two-part silent film Die Nibelungen, based on the mediaeval German epic.

As had been the case with much of ancient and mediaeval epic, literary genres that arose from an oral tradition centuries old, filmmaking is a collective process, especially under the studio system in which Lang worked all his life. For this reason, Lang did not always achieve what he wanted in every respect and had to put up with studio interference or censorship. A recurring theme in his 1965 conversations with Peter Bogdanovich is the phrase "no copyright for directors" ("Fritz Lang" 213). (1) But the films make it immediately obvious that none other than Lang himself is their sole artistic creator. Rancho Notorious is a case in point. Its plot is credited to a screenwriter other than Lang, and the script in turn is based on yet someone else's story: "Gunsight Whitman" by Sylvia Richards ("Silvia" in the film's credits), turned into a screenplay by Daniel Taradash. But Lang said in his conversations with Bogdanovich that it had been his intent to "write a picture about an aging, but still very desirable, d ance-hall girl and an old gun hand who is not so good on the draw anymore. So I constructed this story" ("Fritz Lang" 211; McGilligan 380-88 and 393 provides a detailed account of the film's plot and of its making; the idea and early drafts of the script were by Lang; cf. McGilligan 380). Lang's words are neither an idle claim nor an attempt to take credit where none is due. Despite the changes from his original intention that the finished film contains, Rancho Notorious deals with themes essential to Lang's whole body of work.

Man's struggle against fate, a theme as fundamental to classical literature since the Iliad and Greek and Roman tragedy as it is to mediaeval culture, is the main thread connecting Lang's films, not least where larger-than-life characters are their protagonists. As he himself put it, "[it's] the main characteristic, the main theme that runs through all my pictures--this fight against destiny, against fate" (Bogdanovich, "Fritz Lang" 191). As a young man growing up in Vienna, Lang had his first experiences with artistic representations of death and destiny on the stage (McGilligan 15). These were to become a formative influence on his own work as early as his 1921 film Der mude Tod (literally, "Weary Death"; English title: Destiny). …