Cinema and Media Studies Fritz Lang
Kristin Hole, Philip Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0340


A visual artist who studied architecture, Viennese-born Fritz Lang (b. 1890–d. 1976) began his career as a scenarist for UFA before moving into directing scripts cowritten with his eventual wife, Thea von Harbou. During this period, Lang made several masterpieces of Weimar cinema, including Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), The Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), and his first sound film, M (1931). The second major period of Lang’s career was during the golden age of Hollywood. Lang had a tendency to self-mythologize and told many versions of a story in which Joseph Goebbels invited him to be the head filmmaker for the Nazi regime. Lang claimed he fled Germany the same night. While this narrative is largely disproven, Lang (whose mother was Jewish) did leave Germany in 1933, a departure that severed both his marriage and professional relationship with Harbou. Lang journeyed to Hollywood, where he would spend the next twenty years working studio to studio, directing twenty-two films with intermittent critical and commercial success. His first film there, Fury (1936), dealt with themes of law and justice, which carried through to his final film in Hollywood, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Perhaps his greatest contributions in Hollywood are his films noir, such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Lang’s Hollywood period has been the subject of major critical debate. In the 1950s and after, French critics (both in Cahiers du Cinéma and elsewhere) argued for his status as an unappreciated auteur working in the Hollywood system, whereas other critics had argued that the quality of Lang’s output dramatically dropped after he left Germany. The New Wave filmmakers’ love of Lang perhaps reached its apogee in his being cast as a character called Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). These critical reappraisals resulted in attempts to link Lang’s Weimar and Hollywood periods. He would return to Germany in the late 1950s to direct his final three films, all of which were related to his earlier Weimar-era work. Although Lang is now regarded by many as an auteur in the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock, until more recently he received considerably less (in quality) scholarly analysis than the British director. Lang continued granting interviews and sharing his own thoughts on his work and career until his death in 1976.

General Overviews

The year 1963 saw the release of the first two French book-length studies devoted to Lang (the other is by Francis Courtade). Moullet 1963 is most indicative of the French interest in Lang and reappraisal of his work in Hollywood. Reflecting almost a decade of French criticism on the director in Cahiers du Cinéma and other French periodicals, Luc Moullet offers an auteurist discussion of the continuities across Lang’s entire career. Jensen 1967 is the first book-length study of Lang’s work in English. Although not highly regarded as a critical text, it is exemplary as an early attempt to establish more recognition for the director, who was at that time less critically appreciated outside France. At the other end of the timeline, Gunning 2000 offers what is widely recognized to be the definitive work of Lang scholarship. Armour 1978 represents another historical attempt at unifying Lang’s American and German periods, here under the theme of the “dark struggle,” perhaps at the expense of more-generative frameworks. Eisner 1977 offers an overview of Lang’s work that includes many details from conversations with Lang, and Bogdanovich 1969 is essentially a collection of interviews with Lang about each of his American films. Humphries 1989 offers readers an example of French theoretical trends with respect to Lang in the middle to late century. It is a semiotic/psychoanalytic analysis of some of Lang’s American films, which are held up as equal to, if not superior to, their German predecessors. As an example of genetic critical analysis of Lang, Eisenschitz 2011 draws on Lang’s archives to give needed insight into his working methods and the production histories of his films. (See also Bertetto and Eisenschitz 1993, cited under Anthologies, for an anthology rooted in Lang’s archives.) Bourget 2009 is somewhat methodologically unclassifiable, adding to the biographical and thematic discussions of Lang’s oeuvre. Routt 2006 offers an analysis of the intellectual history of Lang scholarship itself. For English readers, Bill Routt work is useful for tracing earlier French criticism of Lang, by critics such as Moullet, Georges Franju, Raymond Bellour, and others. See also Grafe, et al. 1976, cited under Anthologies.

  • Armour, Robert A. Fritz Lang. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

    Analyzes Lang’s films through the theme of “the dark struggle,” man’s interior psychological neuroses or difficulties. Armour includes a discussion of plot devices and formal techniques that work in service of this theme. The book is not comprehensive but includes chapters on The Nibelungen, the Mabuse films, and Hollywood films categorized under the themes of social protest, westerns, war and espionage, and criminality.

  • Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. New York: Praeger, 1969.

    Bogdanovich includes an introduction based on the themes of “Fate, Murder, and Revenge” in Lang’s work. The rest of the book comprises interviews with Lang about his American films. Annotated filmography.

  • Bourget, Jean-Loup. Fritz Lang, Ladykiller. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3917/puf.bourg.2009.01

    This unconventional book examines Lang and his work from a number of angles, often drawing on anecdotes and Lang’s biography. The many topics explored include Lang’s love of women; his interest in certain biblical themes; his relationship with other artists such as Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, Luis Bunuel, and Salvador Dalí; his rivalry with Hitchcock; and his influence on the New Wave. There are also closer discussions of a handful of some of Lang’s major films.

  • Eisenschitz, Bernard. Fritz Lang au travail. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2011.

    This book documents and analyzes Lang’s working methods on the basis of archival research into his shooting scripts, production materials, and other ephemera. Eisenschitz discusses Lang’s films from his Weimar period through his American films noir chronologically. The book includes production photographs, movie stills, posters, drawings and annotated scripts, and storyboards from global archival sources.

  • Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    Synopses of all of Lang’s films with some analysis and commentary, often based on conversations with Lang. A more personal perspective on his work. Includes a partial autobiography by Lang.

  • Gunning, Tom. Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI, 2000.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781838710903

    Gunning’s book is regarded as the definitive work of Lang criticism. Offers a close analysis of nineteen Lang films, developing a theory of Lang’s authorship in the introductory sections that involves the concept of what Gunning calls the “destiny machine.” Engages with (German) theory on modernism and modernity throughout.

  • Humphries, Reynold. Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    Focusing on Lang’s American films, Humphries reads Lang’s work through a psychoanalytic and semiotic/linguistic perspective. Theorizes the way Lang’s use of film language implicates the spectatorial gaze. Humphries argues against readings of Lang’s work as having a social message.

  • Jensen, P. M. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. London: Zwemmer, 1967.

    Jensen’s book is the earliest written on Lang’s entire oeuvre. Goes chronologically through his films and offers biographical discussion. This is generally considered to be less strong as a critical work, but it does contain a significant amount of detailed information.

  • Moullet, Luc. Fritz Lang. Paris: Seghers, 1963.

    This work is an auteurist reading of Lang’s career, dividing his work into specific periods, while highlighting continuity across his output. As is typical of the French reception of Lang, Moullet does not see a decline in Lang’s films after leaving Germany. One of the first book-length studies on Lang in French (or any other language), this book also has a useful bibliography for researchers.

  • Routt, Bill. “Misprision.” Screening the Past, 2006.

    An editorialized bibliography discussing Lang’s place in film history and criticism from the 1930s to the first few years of the 21st century. It is particularly interested in the productive possibilities of omissions, tensions, and disjunctions across this intellectual history of writing on Lang.

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