Silents Please: ‘Fritz Lang: The Silent Films’ on Kino Classics Blu-ray

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)

Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of Metropolis. Fritz Lang: The Silent Films collects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.

Kino Classics

Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.

Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.

No supplements with these films.

The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.

Lang had his first big popular success with The Spiders (1919), an exotic, globe-trotting thriller featuring hidden treasures, criminal gangs, daring robberies, and expeditions to the jungles of South America and India. It’s actually two short silent features that were the first of a proposed quartet of self-contained serialized chapters, the adventures of high society adventurer Kay Hoog (Carl De Vogt, whose gaunt, expressionless face resembles a younger William S. hart) and his arch-nemeses, a secret organization known as The Spiders, a crime syndicate ruled by femme fatale Lio Sha (Ressel Orla). Full of secret passages, coded messages, treasure maps, double crosses and death defying escapes and driven with breakneck-paced direction, Lang’s pulpy action fantasy borrows from the crazy serials of Louis Feuillaude but the exotic locations (suggested by impressive sets) and dark undercurrent of death and doom (which transforms his gallant hero into a brooding, vengeful spirit) are pure Lang

It shows some age-related damage. No supplements, features a synthesizer score by Ben Model.

Destiny (1921) is Fritz Lang’s first masterpiece. Even Lang thinks so. Technique, sensibility, cinematic vision, and story all come together in this epic drama of love, death, myth, and sacrifice, a mix of supernatural drama and mythic parable produced in the shadow of World War I.

A young woman (Lil Dagover) finds her fiancé (Walter Janssen) suddenly gone, dead before his time (as were many young men in the war), and Death (Bernhard Goetzke) gives her three chances to stop the candle of life from going out, which play out in an anthology of stories of love and death through the ages with Dagover and Janssen as the doomed lovers in each story. Lang creates fantastical sets for each story (set in ancient Baghdad, 17th century Venice, and Imperial China) and for Death’s domain, a mythical realm with an epic scale, and his groundbreaking special effects, still awe-inspiring in their delicacy and grandeur, inspired Douglas Fairbanks to create The Thief of Bagdad. But where Fairbanks created giddy adventure with wide-eyed wonder, Lang’s baroque designs and spectacular magic are put to a story of regret, sacrifice, and somber poetry.

Features an orchestral score, commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, and a featurette on the restoration.

From exotic fantasy to crime thriller, Fritz Lang’s underworld epic Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Norbert Jacques’ literary villain Dr. Mabuse, the hypnotist, master of disguise, and ruthless criminal genius, and Aud Egede-Nissen as Cara Carozza, the Folies-Bergere dancer hopelessly in love with Mabuse.

While Mabuse isn’t necessarily the first supervillain in the cinema (you can trace them back to the glorious Fantomas serials of the 1910s), he is the first modern one, using technology to spy on the powerful and concocting elaborate plots on the centers of power and wealth. He was an evil genius with his own high-tech lair and a vast underground organization, essentially the godfather of the Bond villain. And he is utterly heartless, manipulating Cara like a marionette and discarding her when she’s no longer useful, transforming the Mata Hari into a tragic character. Originally released as two separate films, they were later put together as a vast four-and-a-half-hour epic. That’s the version presented in this restoration.

Features a lively score by Aljoscha Zimmerman for small combo, fast paced and driving in the manner of the era, and German intertitles with optional English subtitles, and includes the 52-minute documentary “The Story Behind Dr. Mabuse.”

Die Nibelungen (1924-1925) is the original fantasy epic, a magnificent silent spectacle based on the German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and a blood and thunder myth of warriors and dragons and brotherhood and betrayal.

In Siegfried (1924), the young warrior prince is both innocent child-man of the wild and the blonde Aryan ideal of German myth, a mortal god in his own right destroyed by the pettiness of human vanity and weakness of his own sworn blood brother. The betrayal of the first part of this mighty diptych is answered in the title of part two: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924). His widow vows vengeance (“Blood cries for blood!”) and it is as enormous and devastating as anything Shakespeare created, practically destroying two kingdoms in a literal conflagration.

Awesome in its scope, both visual and dramatic, Die Nibelungen is simply magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. There’s a half-hearted inclusion of Christianity with a massive cathedral and a few carefully-placed crucifixes, but if there is any religion to this film, it is of the Earth and nature and the old gods, and every set and manufactured landscape serves the grandeur of this primeval, pre-religion world.

Siegfried – Photo credit: Kino Classics

The Murnau Institute reconstructed the film from original materials and prints found in archives all over the world to its most complete form ever, and the beauty of the visual restoration is even more apparent when seen next to the secondary materials used to reconstruct missing footage. Features a new recording of the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz (which does not borrow from Wagner, surprisingly) and the 68-minute documentary “The Legacy of Die Nibelungen,” on the making and restoration of the film, plus brief newsreel footage of Lang on the set of the film.

Metropolis (1927) is a landmark of science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema. That reputation was based on an incomplete version of his original film, at least until 2010. The miraculous discover of a 16mm print in Argentina enabled the Murnau Institute to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage).

Lang sets his epic in a fantastical world very much like an ancient Roman society in an industrial future. The privileged class lives a glorious city of architectural marvels and aesthetic delights built by a virtual slave class of workers, a literal underground society segregated in a sunless, joyless subterranean existence beneath the city. The visionary leader of this society, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), is an industrial mogul as authoritarian leader determined to keep the lower classes in their place. His golden boy son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is oblivious to the reality of his existence until he meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), the beautiful activist in the workers quarters. Her signature proclamation, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,” is political science as sermon and her vague mix of class conscious empowerment and religious prophecy preaches compassion and non-violence while awaiting the mediator—the messiah who will lead them from bondage—to arrive. Meanwhile, Frederson asks Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), his resident mad scientist of an inventor, to turn his robot creation into a fake Maria—a false messiah—and twist her sermons into a call to action so he can justify a violent repression. But Rotwang, twisted by his hatred of Frederson, has his own kind of vengeance in mind.

Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic. The restored scenes add personality to the narrative with characters and fill out stories that were cut out of previous versions (notably The Thin Man played by Fritz Rasp, who is sent on a clandestine journey and then disappeared in earlier versions, and the worker 11811, the working the hands of the clock-like device spelled by Freder), while the restored rhythms of Lang’s editing make it more of a visual symphony. I respect Metropolis more than I love it, but this restoration is impressive.

The footage from the Argentinean print—washed out, scratched and scuffed almost beyond repair—stands out from rest of the restoration, which comes from the best materials available and looks superb. The digital restoration is amazing and the DVD and Blu-ray presentations feature a newly-recorded performance of Gottfried Huppertz’s original symphonic plus the 50-minute documentary “Voyage to Metropolis” on the original production and the history of restorations, which began in 1970 and, barring a miracle, ends with this definitive edition.

Fritz Lang’s sprightly, adrenaline-driven Spies (1928) harkens back to both the cliffhanger thrills of early twenties adventure serials and Dr. Mabuse with the exotic backdrop of international espionage. Super spy and financial mastermind Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank and controls a vast surveillance and communications network, which he uses to steal state secrets. In fact, Rudolph Klein-Rogge played Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis, making him the greatest supervillain of his day. There’s a beautiful cold-blooded super-spy named Sonia (Gerda Maurus), henchmen (Fritz Rasp), a femme fatale (Lien Dreyers), and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), the “good” spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi/ Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies in the underworld of pre-Nazi Germany for an entire serial into one whizzing feature.

Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage, reconstructed from surviving film materials from archives all over the world. Features a piano score by Neil Brand, the very informative feature-length documentary “Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action,” and the original German trailer.

Woman in the Moon (1929), Lang’s final silent film, is almost two separate films stitched together. The first part plays like sequel to Spies, a conspiracy of industrialists and scientists where experimental rocket plans are stolen back and forth until the ringleader (Fritz Rasp) secures a seat on the inaugural moon flight. The second part is science fiction, romantic melodrama, and a lunar Greed rolled into one. It is madcap and thrilling and pure pulp fun, with a tremendous visualization of space travel and rocketry for its day (Werner von Braun was a scientific advisor). The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight and the rocket science and flight details (right down to the countdown) are startlingly prescient. The story isn’t quite sturdy enough to support the epic production, but Lang’s masterful direction and magnificent sense of design and scale makes this pulp adventure in an epic shell an often thrilling and always impressive feat.

Woman in the Moon – Photo credit: Kino Classics

Features a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and the 14-minute featurette “Woman in the Moon: The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.”

Presented in a hardbound bookleaf case with heavy paperboard sleeves in a thick slipcase with an accompanying 32-page booklet featuring an essay by film historian and Fritz Lang expert Tom Gunning and a complete filmography of surviving silent films directed by Fritz Lang and a list of silent films written by Lang.

Discs provided by Kino Classics for review purposes.

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films [Blu-ray]

Kino Classics

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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