Fritz Lang: The Early Works (1919-21)

Director: Fritz Lang

For a long time I thought that, apart from The Spiders, all of Fritz Lang’s pre-Destiny films were considered lost. As such, I was a bit surprised to recently find this was not the case for three of them at least (the other two, his first two films, seem to remain MIA); not only that but you could actually find (kind of shit) copies of them on the Interwebs. Better still, a few months ago Kino put them out on DVD. Let’s take a look…

Harakiri (1919): Basically, Lang does Madame Butterfly. Nominally it’s based on the David Belasco play, though it changes all the character names presumably to avoid copyright infringement trouble (seems F.W. Murnau wasn’t the only German filmmaker pulling that trick back then), and, from what I can gather, also incorporates added elements from the original short story. (Here’s a handy comparison guide.) I don’t know the production history of the film—some notes to that effect might’ve been a nice addition to the set, Kino—but it didn’t really give me the feeling that Lang’s heart was fully in this one somehow. It’s not really helped by the fact that the surviving print is riddled with patches of missing footage that occasionally make it quite jumpy to watch, but I think it’d be a hard watch even without that; Lil Dagover is OK as the sorely beset O-Take-san, monstered by priests in semi-blatant bald caps and eventually abandoned by the Norwegian (?) naval lieutenant who rescues her, but her insistence that the latter will return for her and their child one day and her refusal to accept help from Prince Matahari (yes, I do wonder what audiences at the time made of that name) ultimately just made her feel a bit pathetic rather than tragic. Not overly impressed. Still, the DVD restoration made it rather easier to watch than I imagine the version I found on Internet Archive would’ve been.

The Wandering Shadow (1920): This was Lang’s first collaboration with his future wife Thea von Harbou, and also featured the man he more or less stole her from, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in a supporting role… the latter seems to have had oddly few problems with Lang despite that, appearing in most of his German films thereafter, so what that says I don’t know. Anyway, as Wikipedia says of Lang, he switched back and forth during these early years between pop adventure thrillers like The Spiders and more serious fare like this. He seems a bit more invested in this one than he did Harakiri, and as such it’s somewhat more watchable (some awesome location shots)… it’s a melodrama in the mountains; Irmgard is the widow of Georg who’s fleeing the attentions of the latter’s brother John; it comes as no surprise that Georg is in fact not dead, cos he’s listed in the credits… and played by the same actor who plays John, by virtue of the plot’s frankly implausible need for them to be identical, otherwise the story’s kind of ludicrous romantic twist would be even less likely than it is even so… The Wandering Shadow is OK, but it’s still kind of obviously an early work, and it makes a crucial mistake by carrying on for another reel or so after the threat of John is dealt with, beyond the point where it could’ve been allowed to end with a little tragic dignity. Mind you, the surviving print, found in Brazil in the 1980s, is apparently only about two-thirds the length of the original (it was quite severely cut for its overseas release). Maybe if the missing footage reappeared it’d make a difference; certainly the beginning of the film is initially confusing as hell because a bit of scene-setting seems to be lost. Still, I don’t suppose we’d have another Metropolis on our hands even if it did…

Four Around the Woman (1921): The last film in the set is also pretty much the only one that looks like one of Lang’s later films. Four Around the Woman (whose odd title doesn’t really make sense until the end) was also found in Brazil along with the previous film, though it seems to have lost far less footage along the way; there’s identical twin shenanigans in this one too, but somehow they seem less preposterous, perhaps because the film surrounding them is a lot better than the two preceding. There’s a sudden and quite marked advance in style, most notably in the cinematography (here provided by Otto Kanturek), editing and overall pace. Starting off as something of a crime story, it settles into more of a romantic melodrama; the woman of the title is Florence, wife of stockbroker Harry Yquem (man number one), who’s engaging in some dodgy jewellery purchases using forged banknotes (provided by Meunier, man number two). While doing so, he accidentally spots a man he thinks is Florence’s vanished former lover (man number three), though he is in fact the latter’s identical brother (man number four) who’s returned after years away. This is almost the plot for a romantic comedy (Aljoscha Zimmermann’s score for the film is noticeably more jaunty than the other two), although ultimately it’s somewhat darker than that. Not exactly the proto-Mabuse it looks like it might be at first, and not exactly a lost masterpiece as such, but a solid and quite remarkable progression from the earlier films in which Lang finally appears to be firing on all cylinders. From here it’d be onwards and upwards…

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