Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Rogue Director: A Spy-ography of Fritz Lang

THE ROGUE DIRECTOR: a Spy-ography of Fritz Lang

By Wesley Britton

The history of movie spies is full of famous names, and not all belong to the stars that have fascinated us for generations. For but a few examples, Bond fans know well the names of Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the first producers who brought 007 to the screen. Bond directors like Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert also put their stamps on the spy mythos in films with and without 007. In recent years, Philip Noyce looked to literature and directed such projects as Patriot Games, The Saint, and The Quiet American. Without question, no director in film history can claim more impact on the genre than Alfred Hitchcock who created more templates for espionage movies than anyone.

But, to be fair, Hitch wasn't the first to do so. (note 1) One director preceded, and influenced, Hitchcock and many other directors by making secret agent movies in the era of silent films before going on to make espionage projects through World War II and the dawn of the ‘60s spy renaissance. Before Ian Fleming was old enough to drink, this German director was seducing women by making special martinis for them. He was a movie-maker who carried his Browning revolver with him everywhere he went. On film sets, he used his gun to shoot live ammo into car wind-shields and doors over the heads of his running actors.

And, like real agents, this former World War I reconnaissance operations officer knew something about keeping secrets and creating "legends" for himself. It's certain a bullet from his Browning killed his first wife. But no one knows if it was suicide, a quarrel, or murder to this day. Did Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels frighten him into leaving Germany taking few possessions with him? So Fritz Lang claimed--but there's room for doubt. When he promoted his 1946 film, Cloak and Dagger, he claimed he'd volunteered to serve for the O.S.S. during World War II but was turned down for his age. Certainly, this was mere Hollywood publicity. So the resume' of Fritz Lang is worth some exploration, both for his film work and its connections to actual espionage.


Director of 50 films over 44 years, Fritz Lang was born in Vienna on December 3, 1890. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, it was an unprecedented time of technical and scientific growth in the great Austrian capital. The then modern marvels Lang witnessed as a young child likely influenced his interest In futuristic technology which his films would predict like television -like devices, criminal, police, and spy gadgets, and rocketships (15).

One new technology that changed the life of Fritz Lang was the then new-fangled form of
entertainment--movies. Apparently, it was while he served the Austrian army during
World War I that he saw his first short films and began dreaming of his own stories. One
director with a major influence on Lang was Louis Feuillade who made films full of
secret societies, gambling clubs, trapdoors, peepholes, and heroic avengers.
(McGilligan 33). While its not known what specific films Lang saw, other fantastic efforts
of the era demonstrating popular interest in science-fiction and mysterious characters
included The Black Box (1915) in which a detective invented a device allowing
him to see who is calling him on the telephone. The Secret of the Submarine (1916)
showed the hero and heroine cheating the Japanese out of a device that could extract
oxygen out of water (Baxter 70).

In this milieu, Lang followed current trends and made Die Spinnen (The Spiders) in 1919, an elaborate adventure featuring a sportsman explorer (Carl de Dogt.)
He had the finest wines at his disposal while fighting the secret organization, “The Spiders." Trying to steal lost Inca gold, they left tarantulas behind as calling cards. Like the popular "Clubland" novels of the period (which included John Buchan's The 39 Steps also in 1919), this film showcased sports clubs, hypnotism, cliffhangers, and underground tunnels. In one reviewer’s opinion, the serial “displays its folding mirrors, peepholes and spyglasses as the tools-of-trade of femme fatale Lio-Sha . . . It is as if Lang had decided to let the whole tragedy hinge on a trick taken straight out of Georges Méliès' box of movie magic, but played out on a stage that foreshadows the looking-glass worlds of . . . John Le Carré's Cold War double crosses." (“Fritz Lang”)

Doktor Mabuse and Spione

None of these early films, of course, were intended to be great art but rather visualized fantasies to bring in the viewing public. Another example of such fare was Lang's four-hour 1922 Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler), his adaptation of Norbot Jacques' 1921 novel. As the title implied, the story involved a Gambler who was a master criminal with a gang of terrorists stealing state secrets. Typical of stories of the period, the plot included an assassination of a courier and victims were hypnotized into overextending themselves at the gambling tables (McGilligan 82). (note 2) According to an unsigned critic at Sight and Sound:

“Doktor Mabuse was Lang's breakthrough film in Germany, as well as an early example of a marketing ploy in which the serialised novel and the film became each other's mutual selling points. Announcing itself in its title as a `portrait of its time’ (part one: The Gambler) and `of its men and women (part two: The Inferno)’ it was loosely based on motifs from Norbert Jacques' tabloid opus, peppered up with topical material by Lang and his then wife, the successful novelist and Germany's top screenwriter Thea von Harbou. The four-hour film starts at a furious pace, with a meticulously timed train robbery leading to a stock-exchange fraud. It then concentrates on Mabuse hypnotising a young American industrialist into running up large debts at gambling, after which the master criminal wins the favours of an aristocratic lady, drives her husband to suicide and eventually kidnaps her. Time and again outwitting the public prosecutor by a mixture of brutality, practical jokes and agent provocateur demagoguery, Mabuse is finally cornered in his secret hideout and either goes mad or feigns insanity when he is finally captured.” (“Fritz Lang”)


But Fritz Lang grew beyond these early endeavors. In a number of ways, Lang’s Spione (Spies, 1928) can be considered the first significant spy film ever made. Still highly regarded as a silent film classic, Spione was filmed in 15 weeks between 1927 and 1928 after Lang formed his own company to have control over every creative aspect of his project. Based on a von Harbou novel, Spione was a movie built around Lang's leading lady, Gerda Maurus, an actress Lang was in love with so she enjoyed warm and romantic photographic work. Maurus played a superspy named Sonja assigned to track and destroy opposing Agent No. 326 (Willie Fritsch). He's the good guy, she was manipulated by an arch-sinister financial wizard wanting to rule the world. In the book, the heroic agent only had a number--a common device for decades--but was given the name Tremaine for the film. Again, like "Clubland" heroes in British literature, Tremaine lived alone in one of the best hotels in Europe. He loved boxing, has a manservant, and drove a handsome car. Clearly, he would have been comfortable sharing an evening with his descendent, James Bond.

The villain of Spione, Haeha (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), also had typical characteristics and foreshadowed future adversaries during the Cold War. A master of disguises, he looked something like Soviet leader Vladimer Lenin. He had a city within a city with a network of secret passages. (haeha was based on an actual Russian spymaster who gave information to Russia at the beginning of WW I.) Of course, the agents who defeat him fall in love. Critics of the day said the movie was full of flashy effects, but was a noticeable step ahead of Lang's earlier juvenile adventures. In retrospect, Lang had also created a formula that would be repeated in many ways for decades.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933) was Fritz Lang's Final Film Before Fleeing Germany. Again based on a Norbert Jacques novel, the plot involved a Berlin police inspector investigating a case in which all clues lead to a man who's in a mental hospital, the infamous Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). For some critics, the movie reflected continuing themes in Lang’s social vision. “. . . Lang's Mabuse films are indeed essays on the social symbolic represented by the new technologies of surveillance as dissembling machines at once fascinating and frightening . . . The social dimension emerges at the very beginning of the sound-film period Lang singles out the human voice via loudspeaker and gramophone to demonstrate
how readily it lends itself to the manipulation of presence (a dummy Mabuse, wired up to perform sinister deeds of simulated authority, issues commands
and bellows instructions, intimidating his gang into believing him to be the more powerful for being heard but not seen).” (“Fritz Lang”)

In the view of Lang himself, the film was an intentional commentary on the rise of Nazism. He claimed, "I have been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans. When the picture was finished, some henchmen of Dr. Goebbels came to the office and threatened to forbid it." He was summoned to Goebbel's office where The Nazi Minister of Propaganda wanted the ending changed. According to Lang, he wanted the doctor destroyed by the people. Goebbels told Lang Hitler had seen the film and wanted the director to supervise Nazi films for the Fuhrer (Sarris 312). While some doubt much of this story, it's certain Lang fled to America as he considered that meeting his last opportunity. Hitler's government censored the film and the production was not seen in its full form in Germany until many years later.


In 1934, Lang made his first connections with Hollywood and began writing scenarios for MGM. His first concept was a script called "Tomorrow" which would have been about an out-of-work man who goes on a steamer thinking he's transporting pianos and musical instruments. Instead, he discovered the ship is run by global arms merchants selling machineguns and rifles. The story involved a Russian secret agent and an all-powerful organization, "the Asian Committee." But American producer David O. Selznick never took interest in the project, so the film never came to fruition (McGilligan 199).

But Lang wasn't done with espionage. In 1937, Lang considered another project titled Man Without a Country which would have involved an international espionage organization stealing secrets from American factories and government centers. A government clerk would have stopped the villainy assisted by a female secret agent protecting secret weapon "W222." Another futuristic comic-book, this project too was never completed (McGilligan 250). However, the scenario helped the director get a contract with Paramount Studios. At the time, his agent was Charles Feldman, later the producer who created the comic 1967 Casino Royale.


When Lang next took on a secret agent project, it was another film of special interest. After a series of Westerns, Lang turned to a project rejected by fellow director, John Ford. Manhunt (1941) was an adaptation of the 1938 Geoffrey Household classic novel, The Rogue Male, a significant book of the period. As reported in my Beyond Bond:

"Another writer to see his works adapted for popular media was Geoffrey Household whose Rogue Male (1938) was filmed, broadcast as a radio drama, and subject of a praised BBC film in 1976. Cited by Lars Sauerberg as an example of a hero seeking personal vengeance before turning professional, the plot involved an Englishmen, Sir Robert Hunter, ultimately given a one-man spy mission to hunt down and kill a dictator Thinly disguised for Adolf Hitler (1984 8). Later, the story was rumored to be the basis for an actual attempt to kill the Fuhrer (McCormick 1977 101) . . . According to Andrew Lycett, before The Rogue Male became something of a sensation, Ian Fleming liked Household's first novel, The Third Hour (1937). He sent at least six copies to friends (1995 86)." (note 3)

At the time, The Rogue Male was an example of speculative fiction about an Englishman who, for the sport of it, tries to shoot a clear literary version of Hitler. After capture and torture by the Nazis, he escapes to England where the tables are turned and he's the hunted prey. The Nazis want to exploit his assassination attempt to help justify their coming invasion of Great Britain (McGilligan 275). The well regarded film adaptation starred Walter Pidgeon, John Huston, and Joan Bennett as the Cockney prostitute who is the hunted man's only ally, although in the film she was toned down into a seamstress pretending to be a whore.

Despite the success of Manhunt, it would be some time before Lang was given another spy project. It was after his quasi-espionage The Hangmen Also Dies (1943) that Lang was assigned novelist Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear (book, 1943; film, 1944). This was marginally a Lang film as his input into the script was minimal. He also had little choice in casting. Ray Mailland was the man who escaped an insane asylum to encounter a group of dowager Nazi sympathizers. The very miscast Marjorie Reynolds was the innocent whose brother was a Nazi spy. The project was said to be a deliberate attempt to be Hitchcockian, but neither Greene nor Lang liked the final result (McGilligan 306).

Cloak and Dagger

Lang's next contribution to the spy genre was Cloak and Dagger (1946), a rushed attempt to get in a wartime film before the end, a movie also rushed to be the first film to capitalize on the reputation of the O.S.S. The film was loosely based on a book by Corey Ford and Alastair Macbain, the print version essentially a series of vignettes looking inside "Wild Bill Donovan's organization without a linking storyline. Lang's incarnation used several settings by having Albert Jasper (Gary Cooper) pulled into spycraft in the states before bumbling into secret service in Switzerland and Italy. Oddly, Cooper wanted to be believable as an atomic physicist, so he asked for simple lines because he couldn't be convincing if he had to say anything complicated. This casting was a bit of a stretch as were Jasper's moves from the Manhattan Project into dirty blackmail of a Nazi agent and finally into the love story with an Italian courier he hid out with for half the film. Secret door knocks and codes were added to add spy trappings in between the expositions explaining what the O.S.S. was, the nature of atomic science, and the motives of the various reluctant patriots. The enemy included Gestapo agents who know Jasper must be American because he likes dry martinis.

For the project, actual O.S.S. agents were brought in as advisors. Michael Burke, former OSS officer, had helped smuggle a anti-Nazi admiral out of Italy. Burke and fellow veteran Andreas Diamond met with Lang at his home where they discussed killing with bare hands. One evening, the former agents rolled around on Lang's floor as he tried to envision fights for the film (McGilligan 333-334). Also involved were notable scriptwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr., and actress Lili Palmer, who was cast as Gina, the heroic Italian who falls for Jasper.

Several endings were proposed for the film. In one, Cooper died from a heart attack from the stress of the mission. This was rejected--not a typical Hollywood happy ending. So a new scene was shot of an escape with an elderly scientist. Then, Lang wanted a coda showing Cooper going back to blow up the Nazi atomic bomb stash despite being told the Nazis didn't have such bombs. In the end, Cloak and Dagger wasn't a classic film, but rather an artifact of a time when one war was winding down and the nuclear age was just beginning.

However, it did have scenes foreshadowing the future. Jasper was called into duty when agents found information no one could understand--the O.S.S. learned it needed analysts to make the intelligence useful. Ethics explored in later Cold War dramas appeared in an early speech by Cooper, decrying the quick resources made available for bombs but not cures for cancer and tuberculosis.

Return of Dr. Mabuse

In his later years, Lang's connections with espionage were both limited and real. During the McCarthy era, like many in Hollywood, he endured FBI surveillance. They discovered, no secret at all, that he had a vile temper, screamed at co-workers, and broke things. But he was no Commie. Lang did have a few spy projects he wanted to film. "She Speaks LB2" was an idea about a whimsical spy stunt film with a mysterious voice making radio broadcasts claiming to be Hitler. Then, Lang wanted to do a Revolutionary War story about American spy Nathan Hale (McGilligan 410). But such stories were not to be.

According to Fritz Lang, the director had wanted his 1933 The Testament of Dr. Mabuse to be his final use of the character, but he was talked into one more story about a similar criminal twenty or thirty years later. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) interested him as he wanted to use new film techniques and say new things about the times. After the atomic bomb, civilization could be destroyed and, in the rubble, a new realm of crime could be built up (Sarris 310). In this film, “it is through the array of television screens, video monitors and other surveillance devices that Lang presses home the notion of a
looking-glass world in which sight is not only the sense most easily deceived, but also the one most easily seduced." (“Fritz Lang”)

Starring Dawn Addams, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, and Wolfgang Preiss, this time Dr
Mabuse is running his criminal empire from the Hotel Luxor. His face is unseen as he gives orders leading to the takeover of a corporate empire using murder and blackmail. While most viewers saw the project as mere campy entertainment--it earned bad reviews and closed after ten days in the West End--critics have given the film special attention as it was Lang's swan song. From the opening shots of the film, in Paul Sarris's view, the "plain absurdity, and weird complexity are revealed" (310) As with the later Bond films and the sci-flavored technology they inspired in countless imitations, the mechanical devices show the omnipotence of the evil doctor, especially his surveillance gizmos allowing him to watch his prey. He had seemingly overriding power including TV cameras in every room in the hotel, and can thus regulate as well as survey movement (311). But, as with Bond, this power turned out to be illusory--one good man can overcome a fiend. Still, producers wanted more Mabuse films but Lang declined to participate. A new series using much of the same cast began, a subject for another time. (note 5)


If Fritz Lang had only directed Spione, his place in the espionage genre would remain important and trend-setting. Like novelist John Buchan, whose The 39 Steps is pointed to as the first modern spy novel despite there being many fictional espionage books before it, Lang's silent classic both pulled together elements popular at the time and established formulas that were inherent in later endeavors. None of the short silents before it can be considered, or were intended to be, major films that viewers today would recognize as part of the "secret agent" tradition, for lack of a better term. Still, as in non-spy films like Woman in the Moon, Lang “invented the countdown when trying to figure out how to create a sense of suspense around the launch. (Which means, the frequent countdowns in Bond pictures can be traced to Lang.)” (“Fritz Lang”)

Manhunt should be remembered as more than one adaptation of one of the landmark literary classics of the genre. Perhaps the book and film were not as trend-setting as some have claimed (the device of a hunter becoming the hunted can, again, be traced to Buchan's The 39 Steps), but both have been pointed to as inspirations for later projects. For but a few examples, Gavin Lyle's The Most Dangerous Game (1964) and Desmond Blakley's Running Blind (1970) have been cited as logical descendents of The Rogue Male (Lindner 61). Manhunt, too, can be seen as a neglected classic worthy of new interest.

On its own, Cloak and Dagger is perhaps of mere historical interest. (Ironically, its one of a handful of spy videos on sale at the International Spy Museum.) As noted above, it was part of a trend at the end of World War II when films about the O.S.S. were a popular sub-genre before the shift towards Cold War efforts in which Reds replaced the Nazis as big-screen bad guys. Like Hitchcock's Notorious, Lang's spy film can also be seen as a harbinger of things to come as fears of the atomic age would dominate more and more of public consciousness. So, from first to last, Fritz Lang can be seen as a filmmaker who looked to the future and helped contribute to one important aspect of the best of spy fiction--speculating about what might be.


1. For an analysis of Hitchcock’s spy films, see “Killers, Traitors, and 007: The Influences on and Failures of Alfred Hitchcock” also posted at this website.

2. When Kino released the DVD version of Doktor Mabuse: The Gambler in 2006, Sound and Vision rated this release with 3 1/2 bullets (out of a possible 5 )saying the film "personified the decadence of post World War I Berlin and the nefarious villain is a triumph expressionist set design, art direction, camera work, and lighting." The transfer, made from 3 existing 35 millimeter prints, is described as "remarkably seamless in its reconstruction of the films nearly 4 hour running time."

3. See Britton, Wesley. Spies in Film and Fiction. Westport, CT: Praeger Pub, 2005.

4. Other films which included participation of the Office of Strategic Services included 1946's O.S.S. starring Alan Ladd and Geraldine Fitzgerald. In the same year, the O.S.S. also provided realism by providing actual footage for 13 Rue Madeleine, a film starring James Cagney leading a group of French fighters battling the Gestapo in Paris. Both films are discussed in detail in my Beyond Bond.

5. A short discussion of the non-Lang Mabuse films is in “NEGLECTED NUGGETS AND OBSCURE CLASSICS: COLLECTING RARE SPY FILMS” also posted at this website.

Works Cited

Baxter, John. Science Fiction in the Cinema: A Complete Critical Review of SF Films from A Trip to the Moon (1902) to 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: Paperback Library. 1970.
“Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery." - 47k -
(Accessed June 2005; article is no longer accessible)
Linder, Christoph. The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader.
Manchester: Manchester UP. 2003.
Lycett, Andrew. Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond. Atlanta: Turner Pub. Inc. 1995.
McCormick, Donald. Who's Who in Spy Fiction. New York: Taplinger. 1977.
McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast.
New York: St. Martins. 1997.
Sarris, Andrew. Interviews with Film Directors. New York: Avon Books. 1969.
Sauerberg, Lars. Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and Len Deighton. New York: St. Martins. 1984.

ROther articles on film espionage can be found at

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