This is the first time the transcript of this interview has been made available in its entirety, although an edited version (entitled “The Lost Interview”) was published in Movie Maker Magazine in February 2004. At the time of the interview, Fritz Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was recently home from hospital, recuperating from an operation.
FRITZ LANG: Danke schoen.
LLOYD CHESLEY: Interviewing you here in the Hollywood Hills, and you started off in Austria, and you’ve been an expatriate it seems all your life, does that seem strange? Do you not think of yourself as any single nationality?
LANG: No, not at all. Don’t forget, I am born in Vienna, I was working a very long time in Germany, one of my best films I made in France, and then I was working here, so I became a kind of an international mind. I don’t belong to anyone. And I don’t think that what I am or what I do is important; I think films are important. And generally I am very much opposed to interviews because a film should speak for me, not I.
CHESLEY: Don’t you think that if a work of art is sufficiently interesting, for example, we can go on watching any single of your films time and time again—I guess it was my fifth or sixth time watching Man Hunt—if you can discover information beyond that, don’t you think that’s worth going after?
LANG: What kind of information? No, I tell you one thing: I think if a film doesn’t tell you anything that a film has to tell, then the director is lousy.
MICHAEL GOULD: We did find that with your best films we came up with the least questions.
LANG: Come on. I will try to answer them.
GOULD: One thing that interested me was that other than working with Dudley Nichols twice, you never worked with any other screenwriter more than once.
LANG: Oh yes, in Europe, constantly. Ja, but don’t forget here it is very difficult because it depends on the studio where you work, you know?
GOULD: Do you think not having a script collaborator hindered or helped you?
LANG: I tell you one thing, I think that generally speaking the script writer, the script creator, is very, unfortunately, not judged correctly here in Hollywood, you know? Not as much as an actor or the director. And I think that is very wrong, and when I work with a writer I was always working hand in glove, very close.
GOULD: From what stage?
LANG: That depends. If it is my idea, from the beginning on, or if there is an outline, as it was, for example, in Fury, there was a four-page outline. And in this outline was only one thing that interested me, for example. It was my first American film. It was that one could make a film about lynching. But the outline, itself, puts the emphasis on something else. So when I found this in the chests of MGM—and they have a very good writer, Bartlett Cormack—we talk what I wanted to do. And I said “Look, there is one idea—we can make a picture about lynching in the United States.” And about the same time, or a little before, there was a lynching and I spoke very lousy English in these days, and I collected all the newspapers which I could get, you know, and we cut out all the reports about the lynching and what happened there, and we started to work together on the script. Does this answer your question in a certain way?
CHESLEY: Yes, but it raises another question. The lynching theme is a very serious and what we would call a “heavy” theme, and when you were back in Germany for the most part you were dealing with fantastic fantasies and fairytale-like romances, and then, well I suppose it was with M, you made this abrupt switch which I think no one could even predict.
LANG: No, that’s not quite correct. It’s not quite correct. But, look, don’t forget when I was in Germany, as I told you, I was born in Austria, yes, I became interested in the German human being and I wanted to make some films about the romantic German human being in Destiny, or the German after the First World War it was the Dr. Mabuse films, or the German of the legend it was the Nibelungs, or the German of the future it was Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. And then I became a tiny bit tired, and then there was something to do with my private life about which I don’t want to talk, and I got tired about the big films. And I tried to do something quite different and I made M.
CHESLEY: Big films is right. That is the way to describe what you made. Those are probably the most super-spectacular films ever done. Metropolis and Die Nibelungen are…
LANG: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’ve seen many French, not too many, French films and so on.
CHESLEY: I think of, for instance, in Metropolis to have the luxury of breaking off into a little tangent the story of Babel and yet to have those thousands of extras and immense set.
LANG: I don’t know if you read about it. There has been written a lot of lies about Metropolis. There were never thousands of extras; never.
GOULD: What was the number?
LANG: Two hundred fifty, three hundred. Not more.
CHESLEY: I think of that shot where there’s a man in the foreground with his back to the camera and then in the background there’s a huge stairway and all of a sudden it floods with the slaves running . . .
LANG: Ja, but it was never more than two hundred, two hundred fifty. No. It depends how you use a crowd, you know.
GOULD: The question of spectacle raises something else I am interested in. A financial matter. Your German pictures were really expensive, I imagine. They seem like some of the most expensive films made at that time, and yet when you came to Hollywood a lot of your films were, I guess, budget films almost.
LANG: Look, don’t forget one thing. After the war, after the First World War, there was an inflation, you know? And let me say, to give you an example, when a worker in the studio went home, let me say after six o’clock, we are shooting at six o’clock, you know? And the studios were about, by car, three-quarters of an hour from Berlin, at Babelsberg, which is now East Berlin. He came home and all the shops were closed. And the daily money which he got, because it was inflation, he got his salary in daily money every evening. The next day he couldn’t buy anything, practically, out of it. So, let me say in the Nibelungs I think I had one hundred and fifty knights, you know, the uniform would have cost a fortune, but when it came to paying it was no more than if he would have paid one knight at the beginning of the film. You know, it is something which is very hard to explain. It was the first time, I think, in history that a country had such an inflation.
GOULD: What I meant more was that you, as a director, were making bigger films with more money in Germany and you had to work more economically in the States.
LANG: No. You know, that’s not correct. But, as I said to you, I got sick and tired of these big films which I made and I became much more interested in the human being, itself, you know.
GOULD: You notice that in the changes in your performances, too. Your silent performances are totally different . . .
LANG: . . . and that’s another thing; don’t forget one thing. The German audience is one audience and the American audience is another audience. Right?
LANG: Let me say, for example, I remember when the Nibelungs were shown here in this country, I remember Mr. Pommer [producer Erich Pommer], I don’t know if you know the name, he showed them in Pasadena, you know. The audience didn’t understand it. They have no fun with it, you know, because they didn’t know the legends. They had no relationship to a legend. The only legend, for example, which in my opinion the American knows are the westerners. Right? So, for example, when I got the offer to make westerns—the first one was [The Return of ] Frank James and the second one, I forget, what was the second one?
GOULD: Western Union?
LANG: Western Union. I knew what I had to do. I had to not to make a film of reality, I had to make a film which was in reality a legend. And it was something very peculiar, especially after I made Western Union I got a letter from some old-timers, and they wrote to me and they said “Dear Mr. Lang, we just saw Western Union”—and they liked it very much and then they said, “We have never seen a film that shows the west as it really was except in Western Union.” Which isn’t true, it was not true, but it was the west they dreamed about, you know, in the past they wanted that this is reality and therefore they believe it to be reality. Does this answer partly your questions?
CHESLEY: So then along with making psychological dramas, for want of a better word, things like Scarlet Street, Fury, and You Only Live Once, you were still making your fantasy and myth films when you were in the States. And the westerns.
LANG: It is very hard to explain, you know. The creative process is something very peculiar. It has nothing to do with my work in Europe, nothing whatsoever. It is something quite different because you have . . . You see, I like audiences. There is a saying that an audience is stupid, it has the mind of a sixteen-year-old, fourteen-year-old, thirteen-year-old girl. I never had this. I like audiences and I try to, I think I tried . . . I like to put something in each film which I made, something which people could discuss at home, something that it was not only pure entertainment—I have nothing against entertainment films. I think, let me say, if you are a worker, you should eat something. This is something to eat. I think so, no? If a worker goes, let me say, after a hard day’s work to a movie he doesn’t want to be preached this, and this, and this—he gets bored, no? But if he—I’ve spoken very often about this—if he gets something which entertains him and there is something which makes him think about some social things which are not quite correct, then he can talk it over with somebody, let’s say with his wife when he goes to the movies, right? And then he says, “look what was this?” and then she says, “No, that was not quite as you said it was because he said ‘so and so’.” And then he says, “So he said something different? So let’s go see it a second time.” And then they go, and then I not only make two people who want to see the film once, I make two people who want to see the film twice. But they discuss something beyond entertainment, and that is, I think, in my opinion, what is important.
CHESLEY: While we’re talking about entertainment, let’s talk about action scenes.
LANG: What do you call action scenes?
CHESLEY: Shoot-outs and fights.
CHESLEY: Shoot-outs and fights. Let’s say the shoot-out [LANG: shoot-out] at the end of Western Union in the barber shop [LANG: Ja]. That’s one of my favorite shoot-outs. How do you come up with a scene like that? Where do you start? How do you plan the shots?
LANG: First of all, when I go and start to shoot in a studio I know exactly what I want to do. I am not one of those directors—and now I am not saying that these directors are wrong—who see things in the studio and starts to change his mind when he sees the set and so on. I work at night at my desk, so I know exactly what I want to do. I know the set, I have the floor plan in front of me and I know exactly what I want to do. And afterwards … I cannot describe the creative process. It’s something very difficult.
GOULD: So, do you go so far as to storyboard each shot, to draw out each shot?
LANG: Ja. Each shot, each close-up; and I’ll tell you why. Let me say I have a set, if I shoot all in one direction and not, as many directors do, one shot here, one shot here, one shot here, one shot here, I have not concentrate to switch the lights. Therefore, I can save money; not to save money, not to make a film cheaper, but I use this money in another way, you know? I make a rehearsal, I go with my actors through every single shot, and my cameraman knows this. And then we shoot everything in one direction and then we throw the lights around and shoot in the other direction. So, for example, when you talk about the shoot-out there, I try to know everything. This is hardly giving you an answer. It’s hard to say, I know it.
GOULD: Would you just have one rehearsal with the actors?
LANG: Much more, much more, much more.
GOULD: And what about improvisation on their part?
LANG: Why? No improvisation.
GOULD: No improvisation.
LANG: Look, there is possibilities of changing something. I change something when an actor comes and says, “Look, I cannot speak this line,” which is sometimes possible. But I don’t change the meaning of the line, you know. Do you understand what I mean? I try to give him other words that he can explain exactly what the line said before. But I don’t change anything.
CHESLEY: You know what you want from your actor, but you can’t really know when you walk in how to get that from the actor.
LANG: I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t like what many directors do: to play the part for an actor. You know many director say, “Look, I have no time to explain it to you for Christ sake. Now I want to show you what you should do.” I don’t want to have twenty-five little Fritz Langs running around on the screen, you know, and I think, and therefore I talk with every actor before I start shooting, in the preparation, you know, about the character; and we can talk for hours. Regarding the script, if he doesn’t understand something in the script, or if he says, “Look, to me it looks silly that we just do ‘this and this,’” then I have to try to explain to him why, according to his character, he has to do it. You know? Does this now answer something? You look at me as if you . . .
GOULD: I wanted to know why you used Sylvia Sidney three times for your first three American films. Was that just chance?
LANG: When you work the first time with an actor or actress there is always a kind of strange relationship, you know? It is something very peculiar. Let me say, for example, the girl has to step on a ladder and jump down, you know? So you go the actress and say, “Look, Miss so-and-so, I apologize, but when do you have your tender days?” She says “Why?” I say, “Look, there is a scene where you have to jump down from a ladder and I don’t want you, when you don’t feel well, that you do such a thing.” So she tells me about it. There is immediately a kind of a relationship between a director and an actor which is a peculiar relationship, you know, a kind of intimacy which is nothing personal but a professional intimacy, you know? And then you start to talk with her and talk with her and if you have an actress like she was, or later on I liked Joan Bennett very much. You have a feeling, you know, you make a hand movement and she knows. So naturally you try to use this up because it saves you time and if it’s good for the part, why so why shouldn’t you use her?
CHESLEY: Which actor did you find the most sympathetic?
LANG: Darling, I never speaking about actors. You cannot ask me, “how is this director, how is this actor?” I think that is very unfair; neither if the European actors are better than the Americans, or if the European actresses are more sexy. These are questions which I don’t think have anything to do.
GOULD: Here’s a question, which may be in the same category. What do you think of Godard’s films?
GOULD: Jean-Luc Godard’s films.
LANG: I know Jean-Luc Godard very, very much. I like him very much. I am not too happy about what he’s doing now.
GOULD: Since Weekend? Since when?
LANG: Since . . . what’s his Chinese girl?
GOULD: La Chinoise.
LANG: La Chinoise.
GOULD: And why don’t you like what he’s doing?
LANG: [Long pause] Switch it off, I will tell you.
[The tape recorder is turned off.]
LANG: You speak about financial success. Look, when a film is finished and it runs in a theater, the financier, or the people at the studio who are responsible for the money, they want to know how many people were in the theater, right? Because they want to know if they will get their money back. I go to the theater, too, and I want to know how many people have seen the film today, but I am not interested in the money, I am only interested how many people do I reach with my ideas. That is the difference. So I don’t know, so when you said “is it a financial success?” at the moment it doesn’t interest me. It would interest me if it is a success that the audience wants to see the ideas, if I like them or not, you know. He is very ardent. He doesn’t belong to the party, he is a very ardent defender of Communist ideas, especially of Mao’s ideas. I am only interested in the reaction of the audience.
CHESLEY: I didn’t really finish the discussion of action. I’d like to talk about fistfights just to find out this one thing: when you’re standing on a set and you’ve got two people in front of you, how do you set it up so a punch looks like it hurts as much as it does in your films? I think particularly of The Big Heat where Glenn Ford smacked a guy right across the vestibule.
LANG: Glenn Ford. Glenn Ford is a very, very clever actor, and he knows exactly his limits. When you talk with him the first time there are no limits, he can do everything. But so you find out what the limits are. And he knows exactly how to fight, you know. So you rehearse, slowly, everything, you know, and then either you do it in one shot or you do it in ten shots, that depends. But you rehearse it exactly.
GOULD: What would be the difference between action and violence in your filming? Some action is not necessarily really violent—I think that’s what Lloyd was talking about. Other action almost socks the audience out of . . .
LANG: Do you know M?
LANG: Do you remember, once the child is killed we see that the murderer has bought her . . no, that she was playing with a ball, right? And then he buys her a balloon, right? Now, we see just a … and then the ball rolls out and comes to a standstill. Then immediately we know the girl is dead and we then we see the balloon flying away. Right? Now, this is action, in a certain way. It is not violence. But I want to show you something now. Supposedly, I’m not talking about tact, now, and supposedly it would be today when you could show much more without being censored, right? At the time when I did M it was ’32 or ’31, what can you show? You can show one thing: how a murderer rapes a child, right? Let me say he slits her up, right? Fine. Aside, that it is very horrible to look at it and very tactless, it is only one way and many people would look away, but if you don’t show it, if you just let the audience know what happened, then every single man and woman in the audience can imagine the most horrible things that she can think about it, which is quite different than what the neighbor might think, correct? And then they help me, I don’t show anything, any violence, and still the audience helps me and I don’t have to show them the horrible thing of how a child has been raped? Correct? Now, I always thought that I never showed violence, which is wrong. I don’t call the ‘shoot-out,’ which you talked about, I don’t call this violence.
Have you seen the Gary Cooper film, Cloak and Dagger? You remember the fight? This fight is violent. I was very proud. Gary Cooper, who usually never made a fight—his double made the fight—he made this fight. And I had an interview like this and I said, “I never made a violent fight,” now wait a moment, I remember, and I think because I am, let me call myself a liberal, which is not very correct, but let me call me that, and I hate fascists, and this was a fight of a decent man against a fascist, so seemingly my hatred got the better hand of me, you know?
GOULD: [Laughs] I’m glad it did.
CHESLEY: Violence. It leads us on to the whole question of censorship which is coming down hard on violence these days. You say that as if you would rather just do action and keep violence off the screen. What kind of effect do you think it has on an audience? Is that a discussion piece?
LANG: I tell you, I think it has already has. I think the American audience gets more and more used to violence, and more and more you hear, when you read the papers. When I came to this country in 1934 there were not so much murders, there were not so much fast shooting as it is now. The average American is violent. And the past, when the Mayflower people came, they were not so very nice to the Indians. They killed them off. Then the violence started. Let me say, somebody would say they were wild people, so and so, they threatened the people. OK, but this violence became more and more and more and more, and today I am very unhappy about what’s going on in the United States about violence. It is just that you get, what should I say, carelessly, you know, you get used to it, you know what I mean?
CHESLEY: Do you think movies add to that? Do you think that the little kid who goes to see a violent movie . . .
LANG: No, not the children, no. But then you come to a certain age. Look, it is absolutely much better if you would talk against it, if you are not of my opinion.
CHESLEY: Well, I don’t have an opinion on that subject.
LANG: But you should have. How old are you?
CHESLEY: I think it’s an important subject.
LANG: How old are you?
LANG: And you have no opinion?
CHESLEY: Well, I used to have an opinion, but now I’m wondering about it.
CHESLEY: Because I think I may have been wrong, but I’m not sure.
LANG: Wait a minute. What was your opinion?
CHESLEY: I grew up watching lots of violent movies. And I don't consider myself violent.
LANG: Wait a minute—movie or television?
CHESLEY: Both, you know, television . . .
LANG: And you were thinking what?
CHESLEY: Well, I never thought that violence on the screen really had an effect on an audience, I thought it was up to the individual.
LANG: In a certain way, yes, but as I said you get used to it. What do you think?
GOULD: I can only speak on an individual level.
LANG: No, come on, speak.
GOULD: I don’t see anything wrong with violence on film on any level. I mean, that’s just another censorship of another sort.
LANG: No, I tell you, I tell you one thing. Maybe I’m wrong. But maybe it is something else. I remember a western, you know, where there was a fight and after one man was wounded and the gun dropped from his hand, you know, usually there was no reason to prolong this because the man was defeated, but in this film the victor went up and stamped with his foot on his right hand and you hear the bones break so he could never use a gun anymore. That, I think, is unnecessary violence.
GOULD: Have you seen Hitchcock’s Frenzy?
LANG: No. I heard about it. Switch it off.
[The tape recorder is turned off.]
LANG: . . .which I think is enough.
GOULD: When Gloria Grahame gets the hot water in her face [in The Big Heat] we don’t really see that either.
LANG: Ja. It was in. It was in. It was cut out by someone, I don’t know.
GOULD: Then why would you put that in? Even without it, that’s very violent.
LANG: There is violence in that, correct, but it was the violence of the evil people.
CHESLEY: Do you not think that if violence is a general trend of the American mind, if it’s in everybody...
LANG: It’s growing more and more and more and more.
CHESLEY: Yeah, probably.
LANG: It’s growing more and more and more. Look . . . I tell you one thing. 56,000 people have been killed in Vietnam. I can’t understand with the best of intentions how anyone can be for the war. What has been achieved? Huh? That everyone talks only about the 56,000 Americans that have been killed. What about the 100,000 of Vietnamese people that have been killed? What do we have to do over there? Give me an answer?
CHESLEY: Wrong person to ask.
LANG: You have to think a tiny bit. What do we have to do over there? We have an undeclared war, right?
GOULD: Well, we know what we have to do.
LANG: What? What?
GOULD: Pull out.
GOULD: But I’m not going to argue with the man in the White House.
LANG: Why not!? That is your duty, to argue. Look, I’m going to tell you one thing. You know what I don’t understand, that nobody has said, “Look at the North Vietnamese.” There is no war declared. First we see some people come and bomb, and then they catch someone, they are mercenaries. They are not prisoners of war because there is no war. Is this correct? Ja?
GOULD: No, of course not.
LANG: Is not correct? Why not? Is there a war? No. Congress has not declared war.
GOULD: Do you read the newspapers?
GOULD: It doesn’t depress you too much?
LANG: It depresses me very, very much. I am very unhappy. I am very, very unhappy about what’s going.
CHESLEY: Do you see a hope in American youth and various movements?
LANG: Ja. Hundred percent, a hundred percent.
GOULD: Well, let’s take this back to the movies.
LANG: Oh! I thought you had it on.
GOULD: It is on.
GOULD: Have you seen any new films?
LANG: I see hardly you now.
GOULD: Here’s a very silly question, but you’re about the only person who could answer it [laughs].
LANG: Is this the only silly question?
GOULD: In Metropolis, I’ve seen it about five times and I’ve seen different prints in different cities, and every print I’ve seen, when Maria, the robot, does her dance in front of those men in black tie, there seems to be a series of jump cuts.
LANG: I don’t know. Darling, I don’t know. The film is almost 50 years old, 40. . .
GOULD: I was just wondering if this was in the prints or in the original. She seems to have her head on one side, and then all of a sudden it is on the other, and she’s doing all these weird contortions.
LANG: Darling, no, there are no jump cuts, definitely not. I’ll tell you what happened. People cut one film up, two films, frames, I don’t know. I tell you when I was in East Berlin they wanted to reconstruct Metropolis and I couldn’t help them. I don’t have a script, I really couldn’t tell them how it was.
GOULD: Do you have any prints of your films?
CHESLEY: That’s a question I have. Michael asked you the other day if you were going to watch Man Hunt and you said ‘no,’ that you don’t watch your old films.
LANG: I just watched it in case you wanted to ask me.
CHESLEY: I was wondering why you wouldn’t watch your old films. They’re good movies.
LANG: Look, when you sit weeks and months with a writer, you go scene by scene through a script, right? That’s the first time that you go through a script. Then you sit with your architect and go scene by scene and you say, “Look, you made here so-and-so for a set we don’t need this one, it costs money, you know, and you make here a door here and here’s a desk, and now why don’t you make the door here because when he has to walk out he has to walk ten paces without a line. Here he can go immediately, so it is not boring,” and so on. Second time. Then the cameraman, third time. Then you go and work with the actors, so you go four times to a film before you start shooting. Then you start shooting. Then you start cutting. And then when you have the first preview you see all the things you have never seen before, and then you try to avoid all this, and then if you are finally finished, it’s finished.
GOULD: That brings up a question of editing control. Throughout your career did you always have the same kind of control over the editing, or did it vary?
LANG: Always. I insisted on it. I insisted on it.
GOULD: Were there never any specific issues that you ‘lost’ on? Say, with a producer like Harry Cohn?
LANG: I made a film, I think it was While the City Sleeps, I don’t know. There was a scene with Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews sitting in a bar—and I had seen something similar in a restaurant in New York. And she orders a drink and he’s already drunk, you know, and she opens her purse and takes a small frame out and looks at it and smiles. And you know immediately that she is naked, she is on the make for him, and you see the barkeeper who looks over and he would like to see, too, and Dana Andrews wants to look at it too, because everybody knows now that they will see Ida Lupino naked; and Dana Andrews grabs her wrist and the little frame falls over the bar. And the barkeeper jumps on it and looks at it and now you show it for the first time, and it’s a naked baby of about, I don’t know, six weeks or something on a bear rug and the audience laughs. I made it and the producer wanted to cut it out. “It’s not funny.” I said, “Look, first of all you have no right to cut it out. After the preview you can do whatever you want.” So I had to fight with him because I don’t want to have a fight five days, and finally we left it in and it comes to the preview. Now, you never know what an audience will do so I am sitting there, hold my tongue, and the film goes and now it comes. And I am waiting and waiting, and the audience starts to laugh and applaud, and the producer runs out and meets my cutter outside and the cutter says, “You see, Mr. so-and-so, Lang was right.” He said, “Yes, he was right here, but I will show it at a preview until the audience doesn’t laugh and then I cut it out.” Look, against this there is nothing that you can do. Against the stupidity of human beings you are powerless.
CHESLEY: Another small question.
LANG: You don’t like that?
CHESLEY: I do.
LANG: Well, I don’t either.
CHESLEY: We’ve seen the Nibelungen each of us, twice, and that is without knowing any of the fable personally, or anything like that. We’ve never read it. Who killed Kriemhild?
LANG: She, herself, Brunhild.
CHESLEY: No, we were thinking of the second film, Kriemhild’s Revenge. Kriemhild. Who killed her?
LANG: I don’t know the name now. It is according to the original, somebody who is sick and tired about the whole killing, you know, a famous knight.
GOULD: On the prints we saw it just seemed to be somebody’s vassal, just stepped out of line and . . .
LANG: I tell you, the first part, an acquaintance of mine has it, is totally correct as I cut it. The second part I have never seen the correct print here in the United States.
GOULD: OK, what about the difference in styles between part 1 and part 2? There’s a lot more movement in part 2.
LANG: No, but wait a moment. We had four cultures. The first is the fairytale culture: the blacksmith who teaches him to make sword, right. Then the dragon, and then the wizard who sits on the tree who gives him a cap who makes him invisible. That is the fairytale, right? That’s one culture.
There is the culture of the kings of the Burgunds. You see the elegant robes they wear, they are a little stylized, right? It is a highly cultivated people who are already going down in their development, you know? Then you come and you come to Iceland, where there is the virgin queen. It is the third culture. Then, in the second part you see the Mongols, the Huns. This are absolutely realistic wild people—that is the fourth style. Therefore, when the two styles clash together—the highly educated and already on the downhill Burgunds with the fresh-from-the-East coming Huns—you have the clash of two styles, correct? And that was something which I hope comes out.
CHESLEY: That’s interesting. Let’s talk about Man Hunt a little, specifically.
CHESLEY: Because we just saw it.
LANG: Ja, what do you want to know?
CHESLEY: The character of Walter Pidgeon and the relationship of [his character] Thorndike to Joan Bennett is very unique in what starts out as a kind of hero story.
CHESLEY: There’s no real . . . the love story is totally unique.
LANG: Ja, but wait a minute. In these days you don’t have to show a love story when you see a naked woman.
CHESLEY: They don’t even kiss.
CHESLEY: They don’t even kiss. Their one possible kiss is stopped when a policeman walks up.
GOULD: He is very much a white knight.
LANG: No, but look, when Goebbels offered me the leadership of the German film [industry], the same evening I left Berlin. So, naturally, at a time like this I think, "what should I say?" Or otherwise would I rather end up in a concentration camp, right? And I looked out the window and it was already too late to get my money—that is another story—but, thinking what can happen to me till I leave Germany. And do you think if the most luscious girl would have come I would have gone to bed with her? No. I have other things to do. And that is exactly what happened to Mr. Pidgeon. Hmm?
There is a girl who is a whore. Did you see the scene where she’s in bed and crying and she doesn’t understand that he doesn’t sleep with her because she loves him? And maybe she loves him twice as much, maybe she wouldn’t love him if he would have gone to bed with her. But everything which he does to her is something so new. For example, there is one scene, which I forgot that I did it, I tell you very frankly; and he kisses her hand and she looks at him. It has never happened to her that anyone kisses her hand. Is it really necessary to show naked breasts for such a thing?
GOULD: Let’s talk about love scenes, because no one ever talks about the love scenes you’ve done, and I think you do great love scenes. I’m thinking about the one with the frogs in You Only Live Once, and the scene on the bridge in Man Hunt, and there’s a nice one in Cloak and Dagger, too, with Lilly Palmer.
GOULD: What do you think is the importance of love scenes?
LANG: Look . . . you will undoubtedly believe that love is a very moving thing and important thing in human beings, hmm? In the life of human beings, right? It’s the same thing in a film.
GOULD: Would you say the film revolves around its’ love scenes?
LANG: No, it depends.
GOULD: Is that where you get your audience?
LANG: No, it depends, it depends. Look . . .have you seen—what was the last thing I saw before I went to the hospital?—have you seen Slaughterhouse Five?
LANG: These scenes with the girl were very decent despite that she has naked breasts. Right? They are very decent, but I, personally . . . come, switch it off.
[The tape recorder is turned off.]
LANG: Just making is not love. [Laughter.]
CHESLEY: The way I look at Pidgeon’s character is that he seems to be someone who realizes everything important too late. It’s not until after Bennett is dead that he realizes first that he wanted to kill Hitler, and second that he was in love with her, it seems. Was that an important theme for you in the film?
LANG: Everything is important on a film. Every single scene is important on a film. If a scene is not important you should throw it out.
CHESLEY: That brings me to something else, which was the way George Sanders spoke German. Did he speak German?
LANG: I couldn’t tell you. I liked George Sanders very much, and if I wouldn’t have been in the hospital I would have written something in the papers about him [Note: Sanders had died several months previously]. I was very much, personally, hurt that after he committed suicide in Spain, that nobody, there was not one director, who wrote how wonderful Sanders was on the screen. I never worked with anybody who was less problem. Unbelievable.
CHESLEY: The second to last scene of the film is a montage between newsreel footage of the armies invading and newspaper shots and Pidgeon in the hospital. Did you put that montage together?
CHESLEY: And did you collect the stock footage yourself? How would you put together a montage like that?
LANG: We got the montage from daily shots which we got from European films.
GOULD: And you put it together, as opposed to . . .
LANG: Ja. It was not in the script and I don’t know who had the idea, if it was my idea or my cutter.
GOULD: The scene where he gets off the boat in London, it’s dark and foggy and it reminded me of the sequence in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box.
LANG: By the way, you know all the shots were made on the lot of 20th Century Fox? There was a lake, and when they follow him with the dogs that was made in it, but otherwise the valley where he creeps up on George Sanders, it was made in the studio. It was faked in the studio.
CHESLEY: How about the very opening where he is on the cliff, there’s that shot that looks at his muddy footprints and leads up to him on the cliff with the rifle. Was that a set or was that . . .
LANG: Studio. Built in the studio.
GOULD: What do you prefer?
LANG: I definitely prefer studio.
LANG: Simple, I make a shot of you, hmm? And five hours later I want to make a close-up out of you. The same lighting. But when I make it outside the sun is in the morning there and five hours later it’s there, so I cannot make the shot anymore because it's different lit. You know what I mean?
GOULD: Do you think it’s a bad trend in the last ten years to use a lot of locations?
LANG: There are many trends which I personally don’t like, but this is something else. I don’t see any necessity. For example, M, everything is shot was made in the studio, you know?
CHESLEY: Speaking of M, that reminds me of something. My favorite character in the film is the leader of the gangsters.
LANG: Ja. He was afterwards a very famous actor. I forgot the name now [Gustaf Gründgens]. He was a very, very famous actor, afterwards, not at the time when I worked with him.
GOULD: M was made in 1931 and that was your first sound film.
LANG: Ja. That was my first sound film.
GOULD: You made Woman in the Moon in 1929. How did it feel to wait so long to get into sound? Were you anxious?
LANG: No. When I made Woman in the Moon—Girl in the Moon—it was my own company and the release was by UFA and one of the higher echelon from UFA was in the United States and had seen sound, heard sound—the first [Al] Jolson film. And then he came back and asked me to make sound when the rocket starts. And for me it was wrong. It was breaking the style of the film, you know? So I said “No.” So UFA said, “If you don’t do it we break our contract, we don’t pay you anything.” I said “OK, then we will see.” Then my lawyer said to me “Look, Fritz, you cannot make the same things. You have to deliver everything which you promised in your contract to UFA.” It was my three architects, Gerda Maurus and other people—about seven or nine people. I had to deliver them to them. I didn’t get paid for it, and this went on for eight or nine months and UFA hoped that I would finally collapse, which I didn’t.
But I got sick and tired of all those things and I didn’t want to make any films anymore. I wanted to become a chemist. And about this time an independent man—not a very good reputation— wanted me to make a film for him, and I said “No, I don’t want to make any films anymore.” And he came, and came, and came, and came and didn’t get me along. So finally I said “Look, I’m going to tell you one thing, I will make a film, but you have nothing to say for it. You don’t know what it will be, you have no right to cut, you have nothing to say, only to give the money. He said, “Fine, understood,” and so I made M. Otherwise, I would have never made the film in these days without a love story. Never.
LANG: And this was the time which passed, you know, that I won my suit with UFA and then we started to write the script, and originally I was thinking about something else. I talked with my wife, Thea von Harbou, and I said, “What is the most insidious crime?” and we came to the fact of poison letters; anonymous poison letters, you know? And then one day I said no, I said I had another idea. That was long before, contrary to the newspapers, before this mass murder Kürten thing in the Rhineland, you know. And if I wouldn’t have had this, that no one has to tell me anything, and so on and so on, I would have never, never have made M. Never. Nobody knew Peter Lorre. It was his first film. No love story. No famous actor.
CHESLEY: Would you compliment Peter Lorre as highly as an actor as you did George Sanders?
CHESLEY: You never used him in the States, though.
LANG: Didn’t I say to you that I didn’t talk about actors?
CHESLEY: Let’s talk about music, then. I really liked the music in Man Hunt, you know?
LANG: On television, no? They must have put it on later on. Do you remember M? I like music only when it belongs to the film. I don’t like music as a background. You know, it might be, for example, in a love scene it helps, I grant you that, but if a love scene needs music, uh-uh.
CHESLEY: One thing I do notice is that your action scenes generally don’t have music.
LANG: No. Never.
CHESLEY: I thought that music would make an action scene less violent; kind of add to the choreography nature of it.
LANG: I don’t know. But it doesn’t belong. That’s my opinion. Look, for me it is wrong. Period. For me. What anybody else does it’s OK.
GOULD: We started the interview talking about how you must be interviewed an awful lot in recent years. In the last few years there’s been a great deal of film consciousness, lots of books coming out, film schools—we’ve been to a film school—things like this. Do you think that’s good or bad?
LANG: I think it’s very good. I think it’s very good as long as people like you don’t want to argue about certain things. You said before, you don’t want to fight.
GOULD: I didn’t say that.
LANG: You said it!
GOULD: I’m a Canadian citizen.
CHESLEY: As someone who makes very dramatic, in-depth-type films, do you think that this move to a lot of intellectualizing and people going to sit in the movie and saying, “Oh, look, he did that, oh look he did that,” and they’re not sitting there and getting in on the action that’s going on…
LANG: Look, I really don’t’ know what you mean by this question. Explain it to me. Do you know what you just said?
CHESLEY: Yes, I know what I said.
LANG: You understood what you just said?
CHESLEY: Yes. I’ll try and make it clearer. What I mean is, an audience goes into a film and they can take it if they don’t try to consciously think of what you were doing, of what the director was doing.
LANG: The moment the audience thinks what the director was doing, the film is not good. Hmm?
GOULD: Well, there are two levels to watching a film.
LANG: Not to an audience.
GOULD: We’re talking about an audience that is becoming more aware of what a director does on a set.
LANG: That has nothing to do with the film. Do you really think that an audience knows that? Nobody knows that.
CHESLEY: I know, but they can spend so much time in their seats thinking they do know . . .
LANG: If a film gives them time to think in the theater and to think what the director has done, then the film is rotten. If one doesn’t feel with the characters in a film—go home.
GOULD: Well, obviously. But you have a lot of audiences today that, say, go see Frenzy and think they know a lot about Hitchcock and you’ll hear comments like, “that was a Hitchcockian thing to do.” They seem to . . . do you see what I’m trying to get at? They’re not just accepting a Hitchcock movie on that one level.
LANG: Look, I don’t want to talk about other directors, but what you said before about the violence thing in Frenzy; if people want to see it that is their business. And I don’t think that I have any right to judge or to criticize another director.
GOULD: OK, we’re back to you. When you look back at the German part of your career and the films you made in America, what do you think?
LANG: About what?
GOULD: How happy are you with the films you made?
LANG: Look, the question comes if you have many children, which one do you like the best? Can you give an answer? You have not many children. We’ll talk when you have some.
CHESLEY: We did a course in our school, which was specifically about European directors, including you, who came to Hollywood and did a lot of films there. And one thing we were interested in in the course was, to put it bluntly, whether they went up hill or downhill on their arrival and . . .
LANG: Wait a minute, wait a minute. “If they went up hill or downhill on their arrival,” what does it mean?
CHESLEY: If their careers took a turn for the better or the worse.
LANG: Ja, OK, OK.
CHESLEY: For example, Bogdanovich’s book is slanted towards the theme that you improved when you came to the States and I was just wondering what you thought about that.
LANG: But wait a minute: I told you at the beginning, it is different when you work for two different audiences. The European audiences are another audience as the American audience. Right?
GOULD: Well, didn’t you make films partly for yourself also?
LANG: That is in a certain way correct, but still you make it for an audience.
CHESLEY: On your arrival in the States—I think Fury is a great film for an American audience, they’ll really like it—and that’s your first film. How did you find out how you wanted to approach the American audience?
LANG: When we wrote Fury, Bartlett Cormack and I, our first hero—the part that Spencer Tracy played—was a lawyer, you know? There were two or three sequences, you know? We had no producer at this time. [Joseph L.] Mankiewicz became the producer much later and he had not very much to do with the film. He was a writer and it was his first job. The so-called supervising producer called us and said, “No, children, that is wrong.” And we said “Why?” Because we felt if we make the hero a lawyer he can talk more, right? And this man said, “No, it must be somebody with whom the audience can identify himself.” Joe Doe. That was the first lecture; and the first direction which I got about American audiences. We were to rewrite the whole first two sequences for a gas station attendant, Spencer Tracy, right? The first very important lesson.
In the German films we would always see that the hero in most of the films was a superhuman being, a kind of a… Superman, you know? In America it should be the average American citizen so that the audience can identify with this man or with the woman, right? First very important lesson.
The second thing was when I made… certain things in German, I don't know and there were gossiping women I dissolved into geese kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa, you know, gossiping; and then the same producer said, “No, it’s not necessary. The American audience … it’s not so dumb that they don’t know that chatting women, gossiping women are like geese.” So we cut this out, too. That’s the second lesson. So you learn, hmm?
GOULD: When you went back to Europe and did The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and The Indian Tomb, all of a sudden after about twenty years you were making two fantasies again. Was this because you were tailoring it to your audience?
LANG: No. They wanted it. That was very peculiar, they wanted me first to make The Indian Tomb and I felt I would make it for them, then I can make films which I wanted to do, you know? I made the film for $1,000,040, the Indian films, with a group of Indians and so on. But as you know, with the German industry going downhill more and more, there was nothing doing over there.
Now we come to one very important thing, maybe. What I have against today’s movies is mostly what I call “special cases.” I’m exaggerating now and I try to make it comic but you will understand what I mean. What happened when Papa made love to Momma and just, you know, when he was ready to come the cuckoo clock said cuckoo-cuckoo and Papa stopped, and Momma said ,“Don’t stop, don’t stop,” and he said, “Now wait a moment, this damn bird is finished, it is midnight.” So after a while they start again and then the child was born. And because the parents were stopped in making love something went wrong in the life of the child, you know. And then this child made another child; there was something wrong with them. These are special cases. This is what I resent in today’s filmmaking. There are never, or mostly never, like in Fury, a case of lynching and so on, or like in M, the child murder, can be of today. It is an eternal problem, you know. If I would have to make a film today, if I could make a film with my eyes, you know what I would do?
CHESLEY/GOULD: No, what?
LANG: I would do a film about a young girl, let me say of fifteen, who is pregnant and how she has to face life. That is something which has happened twenty years ago and will happen in twenty years ago. Do you know what I mean? Do I make myself clear?
GOULD: Yes. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book you mention something about a project you had for Jeanne Moreau.
LANG: Ja, I know, I know, what was it? I know.
CHESLEY: The Diary of a Career Girl?
LANG: Ja, about a career girl who . . . There was a time here in Hollywood where there were career girls who said everything can be sacrificed for a career. And I didn’t have time to follow it up; I wrote an outline and I didn’t have time to follow it up anymore and I wasn’t interested too much in it.
CHESLEY: Sounds like an interesting theme in light of women’s liberation.
LANG: Ja. Maybe you are right, yah. I didn’t think about that. But women’s liberation has something else. I suppose you would have to make long, long research. You see, for example, when I made Clash by Night—have you see it?
GOULD: Marilyn Monroe.
LANG: She was in all my films.
GOULD: It was shown in Hollywood last week [Note: A Marilyn Monroe retrospective in Beverley Hills that week was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her death].
LANG: I was looking through three magazines, women’s magazines, and I found out that over 77% of women had extra-marital relationships even though they were married, you know. So you have to try to find out what’s really going on in life before you make such film. And about women’s liberation I couldn’t, because I have not much experience with young women, I didn’t talk about this, you know? But I see many, many young people and, as I said, I believe in the youth of America.
CHESLEY: Around the same time you made Clash by Night you also made Human Desire and two points about both films struck me, first of all, the parts I like best about both of them . . .
LANG: Excuse me, Human Desire, Human Desire . . .
CHESLEY: That’s Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford.
LANG: Oh ja, I know.
CHESLEY: The things that interested me, first of all the documentary-like opening. First of all the fantastic sequence with the train in Human Desire, and then the cannery sequence . . .
LANG: Ja. What do you want to know?
CHESLEY: Those were the best parts of each film for me, and I wonder if they’re the parts that interested you most?
LANG: Not in Clash by Night. In the other one I didn’t wanted to make. There was a time when there was a standstill in Hollywood and I wanted to step out of this film for reasons which would be too long now. I would have to attack a man who is dead, and so on, and Harry Cohn said, “Fritz, naturally you can get out. You don’t have to do it, but then, according to your contract you are still under contract to Columbia and you can’t get paid and you will not get paid and you have no right to work anywhere else as long as you don’t work.” And you know it was the time when somebody tried to make—three-dimensional film, and you had some glasses, you know, and it was at a time when [Darryl F.] Zanuck wanted to make something new, and French, in winter, with a big screen, so I had to do it; too late. So I made Human Desire. I don’t know any other desire than human desire. [Laughter]
So in this regard I am not very fond of this film at all. But with regard to Clash by Night, Nicholas Musuraca, who is a wonderful cameraman, we went up to Monterrey and we had nothing to do, so we started to shoot a tiny bit. And after three days we had shot 10,000 feet. And I said, “Haven’t we done enough? Let’s stop it.” And we send it back to Jerry Wald and we expected that he said, “You son of a bitches what are you doing with the film,” and then we got a wire: “Congratulations, that’s a wonderful opening.”
GOULD: This is a question that doesn’t have anything to do with movies. I was just wondering what you did to relax?
GOULD: What you did to relax? Hobbies . . .
LANG: I couldn’t relax. I made only movies in my life. That was all.
GOULD: And now, even in the last few years? Do you listen to music?
LANG: A good lecture. And especially now after the operation. Don’t ask me. That’s too personal.
CHESLEY: Do you like Rancho Notorious?
LANG: In a certain way.
GOULD: Which way?
LANG: I tried to make a modern western. Some people liked it. Marlene got younger and younger.
CHESLEY: I liked it a lot. And I must say I like it in spite of what looks like monetary handicaps. I think especially of the scene which you talk about in the Bogdanovich book, where they are up on a mountain—Arthur Kennedy and Marlene—and there’s that painted backdrop which was unfortunate, I will say.
LANG: No money.
CHESLEY: That’s what I thought.
GOULD: Is there a way to get around that sometimes?
LANG: Look . . . you talk with the art director, right? And he says, “Fritz, you will be able to do it.” Now you have the set, you cannot stop it, right? So you try to avoid the artificial things, you know, but sometimes it is not possible. It’s a question of how it’s copied in the lab, you know. I’ll give you ten more minutes. I’m getting too tired.
GOULD: We were just going to end it anyway. We’ve got two more questions. Who did you admire, what other filmmakers, when you were young?
LANG: I don’t talk about film.
GOULD: I committed a sin. I made a mistake again.
LANG: No. It’s not a mistake. Look, I admire all the film which is good. You can learn only from a bad film, not from a good film.
GOULD: I don’t agree with that.
LANG: I will prove it to you. If you are really an audience, not what you said, if you are an audience you go to a good film. Period. If you see a bad film, and you say, "What is this? That is wrong, I wouldn’t have done it,” then you have learned something. But in a good film when nothing disturbs you, you never say that.
GOULD: A film can inspire you.
LANG: You can only learn from a bad film. From the mistakes of a bad film.
GOULD: A good film can inspire you, which is a good virtue.
LANG: Ja, as long as . . . what many studios do when somebody has a success with one film, others want to make films like this. No, this is not good.
CHESLEY: Have you seen the American release version of The Indian Tomb films? The American International 90-minute version?
CHESLEY: Unfortunately, that was the only one we were able to see.
LANG: Look, the films are pretty good; nothing special. Adventure films . . . have an idea in it. Every single one ran one hour and 40 or 45 minutes. So you can imagine what you like when you see both in 90 minutes.
GOULD: And you are happy with the one that you shot?
LANG: About what? About the 90 minutes?
GOULD: No, were you happy with the two parts?
LANG: I told you, I made one picture which made a lot of money.
CHESLEY: One thing that interested me . . .
LANG: Because I wanted afterwards to make films that I really would like to do.