The more World War II history you read, the more you understand not just the evil of the Nazis, but their incompetence. Sometimes you hear variations on the observation that “in Nazi Germany, at least the trains ran on time,” but even that has gone up for debate. It seems more and more that the Holocaust-perpetrating political party got by primarily on their way with propaganda — and in that, they did have a truly formidable apparatus.
Much of the dubious credit there goes to Hitler’s close associate Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda and an anti-semite even by Nazi standards. “Power based on guns may be a good thing,” he said in a 1934 Nuremberg Party Convention speech. “It is, however, better and more gratifying to win the heart of a people and keep it.” He understood the power of film in pursuit of this end, providing not only essential assistance for productions like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, but also attempting to recruit no less a leading light of German cinema than Fritz Lang, director of three Doctor Mabuse pictures, the proto-noir M, and the expressionist epic Metropolis.
Goebbels loved Metropolis, but had rather less appreciation for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, going so far as to ban it for its supposed potential to instill in its viewers a distrust of their leaders. And so, on one fateful day in 1933 when Goebbels called Lang to his office, the filmmaker wondered if he might find a way to get the ban lifted. But Goebbels preferred to talk, at great length, about another proposal: Lang’s employment in artistic service of the Nazi cause.
“The Fuhrer and I have seen your films,” Lang quotes Goebbels as saying, “and the Fuhrer made clear that ‘this is the man who will give us the national socialist film.'” Feeling no choice but to thank Goebbels for the honor and ostensibly accept the offered (or perhaps insisted-upon) position as the head of state film production, Lang went home and immediately told his servant to prepare luggage “for a one- or two-week trip to Paris,” leaving Germany that same evening, never to return until the late 1950s. You can hear Lang tell this story in German in the clip at the top of the post, and again in English, and in more detail, in the 1974 interview with William Friedkin above.
But did it it really happen as he says? In his Film Quarterly article “Fritz Lang and Goebbels: Myth and Facts,” Gösta Werner casts doubt, noting that “even though it is highly probable that Goebbels did offer Lang the post as head of the entire German film production, there is not a word about it in Goebbels’s usually meticulous diary for the year 1933. Lang is not mentioned there at all.” For Lang’s part, his passport’s “foreign currency stamps from Berlin testify, as do the various entry and exit stamps, that between the journeys abroad in the summer of 1933 Lang returned to Berlin, which city he left finally only on 31 July 1933 — four months after his legendary meeting with Goebbels and supposed dramatic escape.”
But then, you expect a certain amount of drama from a storyteller of Lang’s caliber, onscreen as well as off. And despite holding the views of, in Werner’s words, a “fierce nationalist,” Lang clearly made the right choice in reality by not getting caught up in the offices of the Third Reich, whenever and however he made that choice. To this day, cinephiles respect and admire the power of Lang’s filmmaking — a power that we can only feel relieved didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.