By a Thread: Civilization in Fritz Lang's Fury

By Rippey, Theodore F. | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

By a Thread: Civilization in Fritz Lang's Fury

Rippey, Theodore F., Journal of Film and Video

JOE: THE LAW DOESN'T KNOW that a lot of things that were very important to me-silly things maybe, like a belief in justice, and an idea that men were civilized, and a feeling of pride that this country of mine was different from all others-the law doesn't know that those things were burned to death within me that night. I came here today for my own sake. I couldn't stand it anymore. I couldn't stop thinking about them with every step and every breath I took. (Fury)

Indeed, the law doesn't know. Worse yet, it does not care. Nor does it feel, think, judge, or act. An abstraction that exerts palpable influence only via its human enforcers, the law depends completely on those enforcers to connect it with the actual process of justice. Thus it cannot protect in the most concrete sense-and the realization of this cold, hard fact adds a note of terror to Joe Wilson's anger as he makes his courtroom speech at the close of Fritz Lang's first American film. To the eyes and ears ofthat court, Joe (Spencer Tracy) is an uncanny apparition, an apparent returnee from the grave. His presence indicates the literal untruth of his death, but his words confirm that death figuratively. Lang and Tracy show us the difference on Joe's face: this is not the man we met at the beginning of the film. The loss of that man, who believed in those "silly things," is statistically insignificant but nonetheless of great consequence: if Joe cannot find life after death, then civilization, the film charges, is dead as well.

In what follows, I read Fury as a document of, as well as a contribution to, the cultural construction and critique of civilization during the 19205 and 19305. My analysis takes textual and contextual factors into account as it illustrates one result of Lang's productive encounter with the codes and constraints he became subject to when he took up creative work in the United States. Arriving after witnessing the Weimar Republic's collapse, Lang was well positioned to contemplate the features of each national situation and consider how each society thought, lived, and possibly questioned the idea of civilization. The work on his first American film yielded a concrete rendition ofthat abstract, often incoherent idea, variations of which had currency on both sides of the Atlantic. Fury shows that the only option open to those who lay claim to civilization is to both embrace and reject the concept, to take as the foundation for actual life an idealized fantasy of what Norbert Elias calls "the social weave"(2:330-31). The alternative is a rogue's life, an existence torn away from the social fabric, a life that, though it is more logical for the subject whose own flesh has been burned by civilization's collapse, is psychically unbearable.

I consider Lang's film and Elias's theory in tandem because Elias's work on civilization surveys a set of problems central to Fury. These problems involve the social-structural relationship between individual and state, as well as subject-internal workings of affect and intellect. Such issues call for an analytical vocabulary that draws on traditions of social thought and psychoanalytic theory but elaborates itself independently in the space between, and Elias's genealogy and technical model of civilization furnish such vocabulary. The term civilization itself was even more loaded in the 19305 than it is now, marked as it was by the German intellectual right's insistence on the incommensurability of German kultur and "Western" Zivilisation. Elias chose it nonetheless, not to defend the virtues of a naïve concept of civilization as achievement but to offer a history of an evolving process and a theory ofthat process's continued workings in modern society. Mary Fulbrook argues that Elias, despite his attempt to characterize the process in value-neutral terms, "certainly operated with an evaluative hierarchy" (9), that is, that he participated in the very Eurocentric discourse of civilization that he sought to analyze. …

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