Many will remember director William Friedkin’s long and exciting interview with the great Fritz Lang, which took place in 1974 and is still today considered a precious document in film history. During this interview, then, we cannot fail to notice an enthusiastic and passionate Fritz Lang recounting some of his fundamental vicissitudes. Like, for example, when, after a meeting with Goebbels, he decided to expatriate.
Like in a maze
Many will remember director William Friedkin’s long and exciting interview with the great Fritz Lang, which took place in 1974 and is still considered, to this day, a precious document in film history. During this interview, then, we cannot fail to notice a Fritz Lang at times reticent in talking about his own cinema, but, frequently, also enthusiastic and passionate in telling of some of his fundamental vicissitudes. As, for example, when he told of the time when, after a meeting with Goebbels, he decided to expatriate. And it is precisely the tale of the director’s escape to Paris in the focus of this article: a tale that almost has the flavour of a detective story, perfectly in line with what the great Austrian naturalised American director has staged on the big screen during his long and prolific career.
It all happened in 1933, when Lang had just finished shooting The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. A film, this one, which immediately proved to be controversial for certain specific elements within it. In fact, at the moment when Mabuse himself – a dangerous criminal mastermind – is about to appropriate the body of another human being, he utters a series of sentences taken directly from the most famous Nazi slogans. This, of course, did not please the authorities at all and one day, at Lang’s studio, some men in yellow shirts showed up (as Fritz Lang himself specified, they did not wear black shirts yet), threateningly stating that the then Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels would never let that film be distributed.
It must be said, however, that they had, in fact, underestimated Fritz Lang, who – even more arrogantly – invited them to seize his film if only they had the courage. They, of course, did not take it twice. The Testament of Dr Mabuse, then, would not be released. What could be done, however, to at least refund the production company that had financed it? The only solution, at this point, seemed to be to go and talk to Goebbels himself. And so, a few days later, Fritz Lang received the invitation – or, as he himself jokingly recalled, the order – to present himself at the Ministry of Propaganda, in order to meet the minister.
So it was that – according to the filmmaker himself – the director – dressed, unwillingly, to the nines – went to the ministry and, after passing through long corridors where strict men in yellow shirts and armed with pistols were keeping watch, he finally arrived in a huge circular room. After a few moments, an extremely polite man appeared: Minister Goebbels would be available few minutes later. And finally the moment came when the two met: Goebbels was sitting behind his desk in a huge rectangular room. He, too, was polite in a very unnatural manner and went up to Lang, welcoming him. The suspense was high. Fritz Lang was now almost resigned to withdrawing his film from distribution. But this, surprisingly, did not happen. Goebbels, for his part, exclaimed: “Herr Lang, the Führer has seen some of your films. He greatly appreciated them and claims that you can give us the best National Socialist film.”
So this was how it was: Goebbels was inviting Lang to become a Reich filmmaker. And while the director kept telling the minister how honoured he was, in the meantime he was staring at a huge tower with a clock outside the window, thinking that he would have to get away as quickly as possible. To be exact, he thought: “As soon as I get out of here I will get some money and leave Germany forever.”
Goebbels, for his part, kept talking and talking. To the point of offering Lang the job of supervisor over all German cinema. Of no use was a pseudo objection from the director when he confessed that – although he had been Aryan on his father’s side for generations and his mother had received a Catholic baptism – his maternal grandparents were Jewish. Goebbels, with extreme politeness, merely stated: “Mr Lang, we decide who is Aryan and who is not.”
Fritz Lang, at this point, really seemed hopeless. And, in the meantime, the hands of the tower clock were getting closer and closer to bank closing time. The conversation between the two went on for hours and by the time they finally said their goodbyes, it was too late to go to the bank. Upset by the encounter, Lang decided to return to his house on Breitenplatz: a small square bordered by houses with large empty spaces behind them. Once inside, he asked his servant Hans to pack the necessities for being away for about a month and a half in a suitcase. He put five thousand dollar banknotes in his pocket and prepared to leave. But things immediately turned out to be very complicated: the moment he looked out of the window, he realised that the house was surrounded by dozens of men in yellow uniforms. Goebbels had probably not trusted him at all. So what to do?
Fritz Lang asked his servant to take the money and to go to the station near the zoo, arranging to meet him at 8 p.m. on the dot: at that time the first train to Paris would be leaving and the servant was in charge of buying a ticket for a sleeping car seat. In the meantime he met with his fiancée, Thea von Harbou, who was once married to a man of Jewish origin. Lang, warning her that she would be taking various risks by staying in Germany, asked her to give him some of her jewellery so that he could take it safely abroad. Everything seemed to be going well and, towards the end of the day, the director managed to arrive at the station five minutes early. He took his ticket, jumped on the train and gave his servant an appointment directly in Paris. Now he had to do one more thing: hide both the money and the banknotes, so that if someone arrested him, they would not realise he was going to be away for a long time. So he moved to a coach away from his own, went to the bathroom and taped the jewellery with white tape behind the toilet, while the banknotes were hidden inside the complaint book placed on a shelf in the dining coach. Now all he had to do was to return to his sleeping compartment and spend the rest of the journey there quietly. But the troubles were not entirely over.
As they arrived at a station, a few men in yellow shirts, in charge of checking passports and luggage, boarded the train. Fritz Lang began to worry, locked in his carriage, as he heard the men knocking on the doors of the other couchettes as they came closer and closer to his. Suddenly, just before they came in to check his couchette, the director had an idea: he started snoring as if he were really asleep. After the door of the carriage next to his was closed again, he heard, however, the men pass by. No one checked his passport or his luggage. Fritz Lang, at this point, was certain that everyone was aware of his escape and that he would soon be arrested. But this was not the case: no one went looking for him. So it was that, shortly afterwards, he retrieved the jewellery and banknotes and, once in Paris, started a new life. No one from Germany ever tried to find him again.
Lang never knew why no one went to check his carriage. The fact is that from then on he was a free man. Free to live his own life and make his own films. It was still another year, however, before he left for the United States of America, where his career continued equally brilliantly. But that, of course, is another story. Or, better said, this is History.