Fritz Lang is one of those directors who is largely known for a single film. For him, that’s Metropolis. Like many other directors, he had a much wider and deeper body of work than that one film implies. Where Lang is different is the direction his career had to take when he fled Germany in 1933.
Unlike others who fled Europe in the Interwar period, people like Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang had real trouble finding how to make life in Hollywood work for him. He worked consistently for the twenty years he was there, averaging a little less than a movie a year while he was there, but he became a studio director in the fullest sense of the phrase. He took assignments and made the best movies he could out of them. He rarely seemed to tinker with scripts, focusing mostly on the physical production. This obfuscated his voice as a storyteller. He was clearest while working in Germany, both before and after his Hollywood years.
Still, having gone through the whole shebang, it’s become clearer what a Fritz Lang movie is. The physical production is key, but not in a self-indulgent sort of way. He uses the physical elements (production design, lighting, frame composition, etc.) to help enhance the story being told. He could suppress it if necessary (like in movies such as Western Union) or bring them up (like in Scarlet Street). In addition, his thematic focus is on what film scholars have deemed the “destiny machine”, the idea of an large, oppressive force weighing down on the free will of an individual. This can get manifested visually through things like clocks and other mechanical things (such the spy mechanisms of The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), but it’s always about something pushing men down. Such non-visual things can be the treatment of ex-cons like in You Only Live Once and You and Me or the Empire of Crime as described in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. His films tend to be heavily individualistic as small men meet larger forces. They don’t always win, either.
As a whole, I’m impressed with his career. He was obviously uncomfortable working in America, but he made it work for two decades. He couldn’t establish himself early like Hitchcock and then build a cult of personality around himself while riding from one success to another. Instead, he did the best with what he got, and he often hit home runs.
So, here’s the required listicle. All forty of his surviving feature films, ranked. And don’t forget to check out the other definitive lists to bask in the cumulative definitiveness.
40. American Guerrilla in the Philippines
“It’s mostly just boring. There’s nothing to grasp onto in terms of character, theme, or even plot. It’s plodding and dull, but at least the final action sequence is decent.”
“The incompleteness doesn’t help the film, but I also don’t think it really hurts it either. The film simply isn’t that good.”
38. The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship
“This isn’t exactly the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it is a surprisingly ineffective mystery and thriller. It feels like a young filmmaker getting ambitious and working too quickly to iron out important narrative details.”
“I really don’t see what Cahiers du Cinema saw in this. Its second half is better than its first, but it culminates in a mostly lackluster overall experience that doesn’t excite all that much, which is not a great thing to say about a boy’s adventure movie.”
“It’s not enough to make the movie good, but it’s enough to have convinced me that I hadn’t completely wasted my time. That, plus the set design, are really what gives the film what little strength it has.”
“Uneven with sparks of genuine interest, it effectively descends into complete parody in its finale, feeling more at home in Mel Brooks‘ High Anxiety than an earnest attempt to replicate the Hitchcock touch.”
“Instead, it still feels like a series of events just placed next to each other. However, the character work around these people elevates what would have been lesser material into something decidedly okay. It’s not worthless, but it’s much less than it could have been.”
“Lacking any real narrative energy while anchored by a half-drunk Dana Andrews who practically sleep walks through his performance, While the City Sleeps has some charms here and there (mostly George Sanders and Thomas Mitchell), but not enough to recommend the whole thing.”
“However, as a whole, it’s just something I can’t really get into. It’s something of a mess of a film, and it feels like a real artistic stumble from such a promising director of sensationalist spectacle.”
“Fox didn’t want morally complex, though. They wanted cheap, quick, and simple. Lang seems to have tried to introduce what kind of complexity he could, but the limits on oversight from wary executives afraid of James descendants and production led to something less.”
30. The Spiders Episode 1: The Golden Sea
“Is this deep stuff? Not at all. Is it built on a fair bit of coincidence and convenience? Very much so. Is it amusing and fun? Yes, it is. It is completely unchallenging, but a fun adventure story that works well enough in the realm of spectacle while it’s on. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, but as a very early attempt from a director in the nascent German film industry, it does its job.”
29. Cloak and Dagger
“There’s something interesting here, but the movie’s story is too fractured to come together to focus long enough to have an effect. Its brightest spot doesn’t appear until halfway through the film, and that bright spot doesn’t really seem to coalesce with the point the movie had from the beginning. That point has been rubbed out after the film was shot. It’s not great. It’s not really good. It’s sort of okay as a whole.”
“It’s better than While the City Sleeps, but this is Fritz Lang ending his career in Hollywood on a minor note, at best. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is somewhat clever, but it doesn’t have the depth of something like Scarlet Street or The Big Heat. The small budget is unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter when your main actor is largely a non-entity and the ending is something of a mess.”
“Essentially, this is a film that has the pieces and structure necessary to make the kind of great noir Lang would make next with The Big Heat, but it feels both underwritten and cut short, keeping it from reaching that kind of artistic height. It’s a doll to look at, like almost anything Lang did, especially in black and white, but the desire to accomplish cheaper thrills, especially around its ending, works against the potential, leaving a less than good picture that still has some quality to it nonetheless.”
“Still, I liked it. It was nice. It had a surprising edge around the middle regarding Liliom himself. The heaven stuff is delightful. The very, very end is weird and off-putting, though.”
25. You and Me
“Yeah, it’s a hodgepodge of a film, but I actually quite enjoyed it. It feels like Lang taking lighter material and pushing it his own, more serious-minded, direction while the charm of Sidney and Raft create the balance between the lighter and darker parts of the story. It’s funnier more than moving, making me feel like it would have been better as an outright screwball comedy rather than being somewhere in between.”
“I think the first 2/3 of this film end up coalescing really well and working in a melodramatic/issue movie sort of way that approaches the success of Fury. The final third is less clear and doesn’t work as well. It ends up a serious-minded film that mostly delivers on the promise, overcoming some of the melodramatic convention, and buoyed by Lang’s visual sense.”
23. Ministry of Fear
“So, the film works. It’s conventional and operates in a fairly tight box, but Milland helps to elevate it and Lang’s expert handle of the physical production keeps things interesting visually. I’m going to have to read the book to see why both Greene and Lang felt like it failed, though.”
“This is obviously Lang not making the kinds of movies he wanted to make, only the ones he could. It’s also the kind of adventure that he probably should have started making in Hollywood when he first showed up in the 30s, securing a potential reputation for financial success before pushing his more serious films in an industry he didn’t know. He was good at making these movies, though, and that’s really not something he should have run from for so long.”
21. The Indian Tomb
“It’s not even Lang’s best adventure movie (that would be Woman in the Moon), but The Indian Temple, both as a standalone feature and second half to a two-part film, is an entertaining romp through a boys adventure novel version of India as envisioned in the 1910s and made in the late 1950s.”
20. Hangmen Also Die
“I don’t know if it was studio mandates or Lang just being Americanized into the studio system he’d been working in for more than five years, but the film still works despite it all. It’s not his top-tiered work, but it’s a strong procedural that uses its timeliness well enough.”
19. Rancho Notorious
“Is this a lost gem of Lang’s career? To some extent. It’s a solidly entertaining revenge flick that flirts with something more.”
18. Man Hunt
“It seems like Lang was still trying to find his place in Hollywood, given a certain freedom with a shared hatred of Naziism with his producers while also needing to chase some kind of financial wins. That it still works as a thriller 70 years later instead of straight agitprop is a success on its own as well.”
“So, it’s a fine thriller, something of a minor return to form after the less than successful Cloak and Dagger and Secret Beyond the Door. It’s Lang using his camera to tell a racy story (as Mrs. Ambrose describes the tastes of the masses that Stephen should be appealing to in his novels) to entertain and nothing more. In that, he succeeds.”
16. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
“As Fritz Lang’s final film, it feels very appropriate as a reflection of his work as a whole.”
15. Dr. Mabuse
“I just found some character stuff to be lacking here and there that the film rather heavily relied on. It’s not the elegant piece of art that is Destiny, but it’s also not the loose collection of ill-fitted ideas that was the second Spiders film. It’s solidly good.”
14. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
“The film is a portrait of a nation on the verge of being consumed by chaos and terrorism, obvious fears of a half-Jewish man who was seeing everything he knew either flee or disintegrate. It provides a sharply poignant subtext to the affair.”
13. Clash by Night
“Lang’s predilections tended more towards the melodramatic than the dramatic, so it’s nice to see him tackle something less overbearing while maintaining his style and confidence.”
“The combination of grand adventure with a strong eye towards intimate character detail and movement is really what makes the whole thing work. It’s classic formula that Hollywood was well on their own way to perfecting at the time as well. If this had been made in America, Douglas Fairbanks would have starred with Myrna Loy, and it would have fit in perfectly well with stuff like The Thief of Bagdad or The Three Musketeers.”
“It doesn’t quite fit the rest of his work thematically, a similar distance created in Ministry of Fear, but he entertains well because he was a professional who understood the medium really well.”
“And that’s where the film is really at its best. It’s a marvelous spectacle that appeals to the heart in the most open of ways. Buoyed by a set of very good performances, especially from Helm, it’s a grand entertainment. It is Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou at the height of their powers in Weimar Germany. Its influence is still felt today. It has remarkable staying power. I just wish Joh’s motivations were a bit clearer.”
“Great to look at, solidly built narratively, and an extension of Lang’s own thematic ideas, Woman in the Moon is a very entertaining adventure tale that may not quite hit the heights of something like Die Nibelungen: Kriemheld’s Revenge, but is very much of the same school of filmmaking as Metropolis.”
8. Human Desire
“The focus on Vicki ends up feeling like, if this had been made and released today, it would be called a deconstruction of the film noir genre. She’s the cornerstone on which the film is built, and I think she’s a very strong cornerstone. The rest of the film shines because of her.”
“Well produced, well directed, and surprisingly affecting in its final moments, Western Union may be Fritz Lang reacting to his financial disappointments and John Ford’s financial successes, but he does it quite well. He doesn’t make it his own, twisting and turning the script to fit his own thematic obsessions, but he does make the best of what he has.”
“This is the complete package of a Lang film that we haven’t seen since he left Germany. He has made very good work pretty consistently (Fury is still great, even if there is a compromise that makes it less Lang’s work), but this is purely Lang.”
“Lang came to Hollywood and made the most of his new location, language, and production environment. He made a film that fits really well in with his German work while declaring his presence in Hollywood with style, intelligence, and strong control over his actors.”
“I’d been a bit lukewarm on Lang’s output up to this point, but this is the work of a filmmaker who needs to reach beyond the lowest common denominator. This is still firmly a melodrama, but the tackling of the complex storytelling structure along with the strong emphasis on well-executed fantastical visuals, elevates it above the earlier melodramas or adventures like Four around the Woman or The Spiders films. This is really great stuff.”
3. Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge
“Lang’s silent career is dominated by Metropolis, a science fiction film of unquestionable influence, but I think it may be the second part of Die Nibelungen that is his greatest silent triumph. The physical production is impressive, and the emotional impact is strong. This is great.”
2. The Big Heat
“This was a movie that kind of snuck up on me. I never had anything less than high quality expectations, but I wasn’t really expecting the emotional connection with the characters that Lang and his actors manifested. This really is a great film.”
“It’s Fritz Lang’s best American movie, the best combination of the kind of movie he wanted to make and the kind of movie Hollywood would let him make.”
“M is a triumphant entry into the sound era made all the more impressive by the complex sound design and change in genre focus from Lang’s previous work. It pushes the technical limits while also finding emotional and thematic complexity in a stripped-down story that retains the best visual features of the silent era while sacrificing surprisingly little in the transition to sound. This movie is awesome.”
20 thoughts on “Fritz Lang: The Definitive Ranking”
This was an interesting one, some literal hidden gems (hidden to me, I had no idea Fritz Lang made some of these). I didn’t get through his full filmography, due to life and time constraints but I had a good time following along while I could.
M, for me, is the standout. Then Metropolis, I actually enjoyed Western Union more than The Big Heat or Scarlet Street, though I acknowledge those are very noteworthy Noir…heck the Big Heat is one of THE Noir films. I guess I was charmed by Randolph Scott just like the citizens of Rock Ridge.
I appreciated his framing and the way he used the Expressionist elements as flair, but not as style for style’s sake. His use of mirrors was also very creative and used for a narrative purpose and not just for showing off.
But I was surprised by how few of his films FELT like a Fritz Lang film. He really was a gun for hire and rarely seemed to be able to make what he wanted to make, at least in the US.
Also…I don’t get the Destiny Machine business. It feels like a thesis paper that’s been slapped over Lang’s films to have a talking point as opposed to a serious analysis of his work. I’d make similar arguments about how some critics talk about Kobayashi’s pacifism, when his films and writing are not pacifistic, even by Japanese standards…but I digress. There is SOMETIMES a theme of man vs fate or man vs oppressive systems, but that’s far from universal in his films.
Anyway, he deserved better but he did make some real art. Not a bad run.
I think the Destiny Machine has some merit. Like most “grand unifying theories” of a director’s work, there some fitting square pegs into round holes, and there’s a fair amount of work that simply doesn’t fit at all. He’s not Scorsese or Gilliam who were gifted with or worked hard to maintain artistic independence. He became a company man, and that prevented him from telling the stories that he wanted to tell first and foremost.
However, that being said, I think there are some examples where it’s crystal clear, and there are some examples where it’s pretty clear, and there are some examples where if you push hard enough on the square peg it goes through the round hole. It’s not a grand unifying theory of Fritz Lang, there can’t be one with him, but I think it helps highlight what he was trying to say across his films where he seemed to have his strongest voice.
I think that if he had approached his early career in Hollywood like Hitchcock did (working well with a powerful producer to make a handsome film that the producer wanted) instead of gunning it out of the gate with Fury, he could have had the career in Hollywood that gave him the freedom and resources to make almost whatever he wanted. He didn’t do that, and he just had to make whatever they would let him or assigned to him for 20 years.