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Usually, though, he was stingy with the facts of his life. It was Lang himself who dictated and edited the brief autobiographical essay (some 2,600 words–six pages of text, as set against more than four hundred pages of appreciative gloss) in what has been widely regarded as the definitive book about the director, Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang, first published in 1976. Lang emphatically told his old friend Eisner, with whom he had been acquainted since the late 1920s, “My private life has nothing to do with my films.” He uttered the same sentiment in interviews more than once.
Did Herr Lang realize that mountains of contradictory records and sources would survive him: journals, home movies, immigration papers and interrogation files, studio and government archives, even the memories of trustworthy friends and acquaintances? That not all of his associates could be trusted to disremember, or remain discreet?
Did Herr Lang realize–was it a private joke?–that his films themselves offered a kind of autobiography, revealing perhaps more than he intended of his own life story? That, in fact, his films had a great deal to do with his private life?
Or was the subconscious–that inner cacophony of voices that in his best-known films always cried out to be heard, triggering crime and entreating punishment–working a dark magic on Fritz Lang all along?
Certainly life began auspiciously for Fritz Lang, born to favorable circumstances in the Golden Autumn of Vienna, Austria–the last decade before the nineteenth century was rolled away to make way for the new.
Austria, under the benevolent and seemingly interminable reign of “der alte Herr,” Franz Josef, emperor from 1848 to 1916, was enjoying an era of unprecedented confidence and revitalization; tolerance and liberalism in politics; a renaissance of the arts and sciences that established the names of Klimt, Schnitzler, Mahler, and Freud.
Vienna, the pulse and soul of the nation, grew and prospered. The capital, in Lang’s memory, was like “a confectionery city in a fairy-tale time,” whose lucky citizens lived untroubled by what was happening in the world beyond its limits. In 1890, it was one of the world’s five largest cities, with a mushrooming population that included not only native Austrians but immigrants and intellectuals from all over eastern Europe and the rest of the world. No city was more cosmopolitan. No city offered greater cultural riches, or was more splendid to behold.
The architecture of the city towered in Lang’s psychology. The director’s unique visual style, especially in his epic silent films, was nurtured by his boyhood experience of dwelling in the shadow of gargantuan statues and massive stairwells, steepled churches and huge public buildings. The baroque of the old Kaiserstadt, with its exaggeration of detail, insinuated itself into many Lang films. The characteristic shots from high places, the extreme upward-slanting low angles, the lingering emphasis on the size and structure of massive buildings, the people dwarfed by walls or doors–these were a legacy that was distinctly Viennese.
The dome and spire of the St. Stephansdom, the magnificent imperial palace known as the Hofburg, the imposing cluster that included the Opernhaus, the Rathaus, the Burgtheater, the Universitat, and the Parlament–these and other civic edifices were within walking distance of the house where the future film director, Friedrich Christian Anton Lang, was born on December 5, 1890. His parents, Anton and Paula Schlesinger Lang, at that time lived on the narrow lane of Schonlaterngasse in the Innere Stadt, or First District, inside the Ringstrasse, the wide beltway around the inner city.
The shadow cast by Vienna’s architecture is rendered all the more germane to Fritz Lang’s life story by that of his father. Anton Lang was thirty years old when his son was born, and city records attest that he was a Baumeister and part owner of Honus and Lang, a prominent construction enterprise located in a three-story building along the east side of the imperial park, the Augarten.
In latter-day books and articles about his world-famous son, Anton Lang is usually described as an architect. In fact, Baumeister, a German word often confused and translated as “architect” in English and French, means more precisely that Lang’s father was a builder or executor of architectural plans. He had the additional honorific, in city archives, of Stadtbaumeister, which simply meant that he was licensed to appear as a project manager before Vienna municipal boards.
Architects were college-educated; they were designers, not merely contractors. They moved in higher social circles. Fritz Lang always described his father as an architect in interviews; once, drafting a press release eventually published under his byline in the United States, he even tried “famous architect.” The fancier word put a gloss on his father’s occupation, just as Lang would also stretch the truth when it came to his own fleeting studies in architecture, claiming, for publicity’s sake, to have studied for “several years in the best architectural schools.”
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