Fritz Lang, that great Teutonic genius, is usually characterized by critics and historians as having not one, but two careers. The general consensus seems to suggest that his prewar period working in the German film industry was his most fruitful. In a period of 14 years, he directed a series of films whose bombastic themes and concepts were matched only by the size, scope, and visual splendor of their production values. From the Wagnerian apotheosis of Norse legend with the Die Nibelungen diptych (1924), the vertiginous vistas of Metropolis (1927), the ground-breaking psychological nightmare of M (1931), and the clairvoyant condemnations of the rise of fascism with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Lang proved himself as both extroverted showman and introspective thinker.
But with the rise of Nazism, Lang’s Jewish heritage forced him to flee to Hollywood where he languished for decades. Eternally at war with American sensors and studio execs, Lang’s output veered from forgettable trash to respectable pulp. But even at his best, his American work paled in comparison to his European.
At least, that was the general consensus.
In the decades following Lang’s death, his American work has undergone serious critical reappraisal. Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) have (rightfully) been retroactively labeled as essential works of proto- film noir while his later films The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) have been valorized as pinnacles of that quintessentially American genre. These later films may labor under studio-prescribed happy endings and ham-fisted moralization, but they demonstrate a depth of psychological nuance rarely seen by America’s homegrown directors.
But if Fritz Lang was truly a genius who underwent a dramatic artistic and intellectual transformation precipitated by his sudden flight to America, his later films should not be interpreted as being in conflict with his earlier work. Instead, they should be seen as (mostly) natural and organic extensions of a man constantly at war with himself and the world around him. If one sought proof that his pre-war and post-war work were both products of the same mind, one need look no further than his 1941 film Man Hunt.
Man Hunt centers on the character of Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a world-renowned big game hunter who is captured by Nazis while trying to shoot Adolf Hitler at Berghof in Germany. He tries to explain to his captors that he wasn’t actually trying to assassinate Der Führer, but was merely taking part in a “sporting stalk” where the object isn’t to kill the target but to put oneself in a position where one could kill it. Unimpressed and unconvinced, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) tries to force Thorndike to sign a confession saying that he was operating under orders from the British government. Realizing that the Nazis would use it as justification to begin a “preemptive counterattack” against Great Britain, he refuses and escapes.
The rest of the film follows the international cat-and-mouse game between Thorndike and German secret agents. Along the way he is aided by Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), a young woman who is almost certainly a prostitute (the American censors wouldn’t let the specifics of her “job” be revealed). They fall in love and, in a twist that comes as no surprise to anyone, is captured by Quive-Smith and used as leverage against Thorndike. It all leads to a tense stand-off where Quive-Smith traps Thorndike in a tiny cave and gives him a chilling ultimatum: sign the paper or suffocate. But of course Thorndike escapes, kills Quive-Smith, and patriotically signs up for the R.A.F. before parachuting back into Germany with his rifle to “finish the job.”
It is the protagonist Alan Thorndike who is the most interesting aspect of Man Hunt. He represents an intriguing compromise between the central characters of Lang’s European and American films. The latter were usually average people thrown into extreme situations revolving around such things as greed and revenge (e.g. Spencer Tracy in Fury; Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once; Glenn Ford in The Big Heat). But the former were arguably Nietzschean Übermensch that commanded their fates instead of simply letting themselves be subjected to it (e.g. Dr. Mabuse; Siegfried; the Master of Metropolis).
Thorndike demonstrates an almost superhuman capacity for stealth and hunting when he manages to successfully infiltrate the Berghof, a location which Quive-Smith mentions is one of the most highly guarded in the world. He spends most of the film successfully evading the Nazis, even killing one of them that pursues him into the London Underground. But his struggle is essentially an existential one. In the final moments of his stand-off with Quive-Smith, Thorndike realizes and reveals that he really had intended to kill Hitler and that his claiming otherwise was his conscious mind trying to override his subconscious desires. This surrendering of the superego to the demands of the subconscious proved to be a constant reference point for many of Lang’s American protagonists.
Visually, Man Hunt found a comfortable midway between the expressionism of his European work and the more controlled, staid compositions of his later American output. The best word to describe the cinematography here is claustrophobic. Notice how he composes shots of the German forest, the foggy night streets of London, and the Underground tunnels to emphasize darkness and closed spaces: branches and trees force the edges of the frame towards the center; only tiny peaks of the cloudy sky are visible through layers of concrete and steel; the tunnels gape open like maws of pure blackness.
For his interiors, he uses long shots extensively which, in a Gregg Toland-like flourish, cram both the ceilings and the floors into the same frame. Even in large, empty rooms the actors seemed sandwiched and cramped:
Though many of his interior dialogue scenes also rely on static medium and medium-close-up shots, Lang manages to subtly subvert these emblems of Hollywood’s traditional visual grammar by either tilting his camera slightly up or slightly down towards his actors. It may not be as blatant as Robert Krasker’s Dutch angles or John Alton’s chiaroscuro shadow paintings, but they were never meant to be as overtly obvious. To explicitly spell out the technique would have been too telling.
And that was never Lang’s game.