Timeless qualities of Fritz Lang’s films withstand changing trends

Enno Patalas’s name is linked worldwide with the reconstruction of the film «Metropolis,» a landmark silent science-fiction movie of 1926 directed by Fritz Lang. In the 1970s, pieces of the original, decaying negative were put back together, the music was rearranged and the new version of «Metropolis» sparked a fresh round of debate on the cinema of the Weimar Republic. Patalas, a renowned 73-year-old film critic, was at the Goethe institutes of Athens and Thessaloniki last week to speak on the work of the Austrian-born filmmaker as part of a tribute currently being held at Athens’s Apollon Filmcenter until February 13 and from February 14-27 at Thessaloniki’s Olympion Cinema. Such a tribute was first held two years ago in Berlin, showcasing a wave of reconstructions of Lang films and charting his evolution as a filmmaker from 1917 to 1960. The contrast between his early, silent German phase and his later years making talking pictures for Hollywood is the first distinction to strike the viewer of the retrospective. This distinction, however, is not absolute when one considers that his masterpiece, «M,» was a German talkie of 1930. One of Germany’s most respected film critics, the director of the Munich Film Museum for 21 years and the founder of the film magazine Filmkritic, Patalas was interviewed by Kathimerini while in Greece about 20th century cinema. On Lang, whom Patalas met in Vienna, he spoke with the moderation that comes from years of involvement. «Lang always said that he was in battle with fate,» he explained. «This was the subtext of all his films. I would argue that in all of his works, Lang placed his characters in a situation of conflict. Indeed, in his silent movies, his hero is always battling with fate. Fate takes on the dimensions of legend, an epic saga, as in ‘Kriemhild’s Revenge,’ and it transcends the bounds of science fiction, as in ‘Metropolis,’ where, however, it is distilled through the narrative. In contrast, during his time in Hollywood, his heroes’ enemy and the root of conflict was society, represented both realistically and symbolically by films such as ‘Ministry of Fear’.» Patalas belongs to the generation of German intellectuals who, in the early interwar years and under the influence of the critical leftist views of the School of Frankfurt, questioned Lang’s films, especially the German ones. Later, their perspective changed entirely, though in the 1947-1950 period, criticism of German cinema was intense. «They considered his early films sub-fascistic and argued that they paved the way for the Nazi regime. The truth is that in the 1920s, Lang did not hold a political stance. The Nazis loved his films. Lang was right-wing, but because he was half-Jewish [from his mother’s side], he never adopted Nazi principles. He left Germany not as a reaction to the regime, but out of fear that he would become ensnared in the provincialism of Nazism.» In Hollywood, Lang made films that were especially admired by the French. «Lang’s noir element,» says Patalas, «was a model for their own cinema of great directors. In Germany, by contrast, Lang’s German films had more prestige, despite the criticism they had received from left-wingers in the period just after the war.» The weight of history Gradually, explained Patalas, and under the influence of French praise, Germany began to warm to Lang’s Hollywood films. «At the time, the French emphasized the structure of a film. It was the time of structuralism and it revealed Lang as a great auteur,» he says. «During the 1950s, we were all politicized. We wrote under the weight of history; we had lived it. We were irritated by the cinema of simple entertainment; we had a neo-realist model. During that period, we were heating the atmosphere for May ’68 and experiencing the rise of New German Cinema – which already belonged to the past.» Patalas, who has made a new interactive and very complex DVD of «Metropolis,» is mainly interested in the dualistic relationship between cinema and history. From this perspective, Lang’s work can be viewed on many different levels and is open to a variety of interpretations. «The interest in Lang has never diminished,» says Patalas. «It’s just that perspectives change.» This interview was translated from the Greek original.