While the exact origins of film noir are impossible to pinpoint, no director worked within the genre more consistently or more brilliantly than Fritz Lang. Bringing to the screen an obsessive and fatalistic world populated by a rogues' gallery of strange and twisted characters, Lang staked out a uniquely hostile corner of the cinematic universe; despair, isolation, helplessness -- all found refuge in the shadows of his work. A product of German Expressionist thought, he explored humanity at its lowest ebb, with a distinctively rich and bold visual sensibility which virtually defined film noir long before the term was even coined.
Born Friedrich Christian Anton Lang in Vienna, Austria, on December 5, 1890, he initially studied to become an artist and architect, later serving in the Austrian army during World War I and earning an honorable discharge after being wounded four times. He first entered the German film industry as a writer, penning a series of horror movies and thrillers beginning with 1917's Hilde Warren Und Der Tod. In 1919, he and director Robert Wiene teamed on the script of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and although Lang exited in the pre-production stages to begin work on another project, his major contribution to the story -- a framing device ultimately revealing the story line to have been a dream -- went on to rank among the most imitated structural techniques in history.
As a director, Lang debuted in 1919 with the now-lost Halbblut. Upon completing 1920's two-part The Spiders, his early rise to fame culminated with 1922's Doktor Mabuse der Spieler, which marked the full emergence of his striking Expressionist aesthetic and introduced his popular Mabuse character. Another two-part epic, Die Nibelungen, followed two years later, and in 1927 he filmed the science fiction landmark Metropolis. Lang's transition from the silents to sound began with his masterpiece M (1931). Written by wife Thea von Harbou, as were most of his principal films of the era, M documented the crimes of a deranged serial killer (Peter Lorre) preying on the children of Berlin. The film went on to become a tremendous influence on the work of filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, and Jacques Tourneur.
The success of M positioned Lang as a leading figure of the German film industry, but its power may have been too great -- Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels offered Lang the opportunity to direct films for Adolf Hitler, unaware of the director's own Jewish heritage. According to legend, Lang -- already stinging from a government ban on his recent Die Testament des Dr. Mabuse -- fled the country that same evening, leaving without the pro-Nazi von Harbou. After briefly stopping in France to shoot Liliom, he landed in Hollywood, earning immediate acclaim with 1936's Fury, a stinging indictment of mob mentality.
Lang spent the next several decades in America working in a variety of styles and genres, including the Western (among his more notable efforts being 1940's The Return of Frank James and 1952's Rancho Notorious). However, his greatest achievement during the period was a series of grim thrillers which went far in defining the look and texture of film noir; pictures like 1944's Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window, 1945's Scarlet Street, 1953's The Big Heat, and 1956's While the City Sleeps offered bleak, gripping depictions of life on the cliff's edge of desperation, exploring recurring themes of obsession, vengeance, and persecution in haunting detail.
However, by the mid-'50s, Lang had become disenchanted with the Hollywood system, and after completing 1956's superb Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, he briefly stopped in India to film 1958's Die Tiger von Eschnapur before returning to Germany after an absence of decades. Upon completing 1959's Indische Grabmal, he directed one last Mabuse picture, Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, before announcing his retirement from filmmaking. After appearing in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 feature Contempt as himself, Lang returned to America to live out his remaining years. He died in Los Angeles on August 2, 1976.