© 2012 William Ahearn

Fritz Lang finally settled in Paris sometime in 1933 and was far better situated than other émigrés who had fled Germany with the clothes on their backs and what they could carry. Lang had moved his money, his library and his art collection, among other things, and was living in a far grander hotel than his storm-tossed brethren.

Erich Pommer, now working for Fox-Europa in Paris, had two scripts purchased by the studio and two directors to work with: Max Ophuls and Fritz Lang. One script was a detective story – “On a volé un homme” (“Man Stolen”) – and the other a romantic fantasy (“Liliom”) and oddly, Lang ended up with “Liliom,” Ferenc Molnár’s 1919 stage play of the same name that would eventually morph into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel.” Ophuls got the detective story.

“The reverse decision should have been made,” Max Ophuls once noted, “Lang would have certainly made a remarkable detective film, and as for me, I probably would have succeeded in making a good romantic comedy.”

As with “Woman In The Moon,” biographers and critics get utterly flustered when trying to put “Liliom” – a romantic fantasy – into the context of Lang’s work. Robert A Armour in Fritz Lang, mentions the film twice, both times in passing. Frederick Ott in The Films Of Fritz Lang recaps the plot with some notes on Lang adapting to the working style of the French and quotes a 1934 New York Times review (the only review he offers). Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang, mentions the similarities and differences to Lang’s “Der müd Tode” yet doesn’t even mention Thea von Harbou. The story behind “Der müd Tode” is that von Harbou wrote it for Lang after Joe May absconded with “Das indische Grabmal,” a film Lang had set his heart on making.

There was another afterlife-based story that Lang was interested in making into a film and like so many of the stories surrounding Lang, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it occurred. The story is of the last coachman (or fiaker) in Vienna who dies of a broken heart when no one comes to use his coach due to automobiles and buses. Shortly thereafter his horse dies and when both appear at the pearly gates the coachman is told that the horse can’t enter. The coachman refuses to enter heaven without his horse and god saves the day by making the man his official coachman and man, horse and coach enter heaven.

Eisner states that Lang was interested in the script in 1933. Patrick McGilligan states that the only extant copy of a script is dated 1962. Since the film was never produced it’s an academic pursuit although it would be interesting to find out when Lang was interested in a screenplay that asserted the existence of god. Neither “Der müd Tode” nor “Liliom” makes mention of god although both deal with the notion of an afterlife.

“Liliom” is the first film that Lang directed that he hadn’t written or co-written since “Harakiri” in 1919. Lang did do some uncredited writing on the script of “Liliom” and it isn’t possible to know to what extent he changed the screenplay. Ferenc Molnár reportedly wasn’t happy with the end result – and some reports state that is because his name wasn’t on the poster – and neither were the French critics although the only 1934 US review I can find is from the New York Times that doesn’t even mention Fritz Lang by name in the body copy:

“By making good use of the power of illusion inherent in the film the director has added much interest to the action, especially in the scenes representing Liliom’s flight to heaven and his interview with a celestial commissioner of police who is just like the one he knew so well on earth.”

According to Patrick McGillian in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, “Liliom” wasn’t released in the US and the earliest US reviews cited by Lotte Eisner are from 1969. Actually, the film had a limited US release in 1934 and had its first Region 1 DVD release in 2004, or that’s what I’ve been able to find out so far. Apparently, the film was shown in Los Angeles in 1969 and Eisner quotes three reviews, all of them positive. Kevin Thomas writing in the Los Angeles Times gets to the heart of the matter:

“Yet it is the very embodiment of Lang’s major theme, the struggle of the individual against an unjust, omnipotent fate. For once, however, that individual succeeds in beating his nemesis to a draw.”

It could be argued that the woman in “Der müde Tod” also wins a draw of sorts against Death as she and her lover are reunited. Whether Thomas knew of this film or not and is relying on Lang’s Hollywood films as a reference isn’t something that he makes clear. Whether Lang’s German films represent “the struggle of the individual against an unjust, omnipotent fate” is highly questionable.

Neither Hans Beckert or Inspector Karl Lohmann are struggling against an unjust fate in “M” and Inspector Karl Lohmann and Dr Mabuse clearly don’t represent that struggle. One could argue that Siegfried dies unjustly, yet there is no struggle there and Kriemhild doesn’t struggle with her fate, she embraces it. The only film where this struggle against an unjust fate exists in the German films of Fritz Lang is in “Harakiri” that he didn’t write.

Thomas seems to be taking the mythology that Lang was generous in spreading way too seriously and these notions of “the struggle of the individual against an unjust, omnipotent fate” simply don’t exist for the most part in his European films.

“Liliom” is the story of an unrepentant cad and bounder who gets fired from his carnival job for taking up with a domestic whom he shacks up with and impregnates. He refuses a concierge job as beneath him and ends up engaged in a robbery where instead of allowing himself the indignity of being captured by the police, he commits suicide.

The afterlife is as bureaucratic as the real world and he’s sentenced to purgatory for 16 years and then he may get one day on Earth to see his daughter. On Earth, he is as unrepentant as ever and learns that even though he was a good-for-nothing wife beater, the wife still loves him.

It’s pretty hard to make a case that Liliom was the struggle of “the individual against an unjust, omnipotent fate” when he makes the decision to kill himself. Unlike the hara-kiri in the film of the same name, this isn’t a culturally acceptable response. This is far more an example of Liliom’s weakness and furthers the notion that he’s a charming reprobate but a reprobate nonetheless.

Over the years, Fritz Lang would go back and forth as to whether “Liliom” or “M” was his favorite film. Since Lang is so unreliable as to his own history that should be taken with a grain of salt since the film has not been available until recently. According to McGilligan, Lang had a copy of the film and would screen it for preferred guests at his home in Los Angeles.

One story about “Liliom” that Lang liked to tell is how he “discovered” Antonin Artaud among the extras. Besides Artaud’s writings – that were highly influential in France – Artaud appeared in Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” as well as a major role in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of St Joan” and almost a score of other films before he appeared in “Liliom.”

“Liliom” is the last of the purely “Langian” films. That a wife-beating suicide cad could play god to a draw, as Kevin Thomas noted, wouldn’t fly in Hollywood and “Carousel” – made from the same source material – makes that completely clear. Affairs become marriages, suicides become accidents and a bureaucratic afterlife becomes Heaven.

Lang had several offers from Hollywood and he signed with MGM – David O Selznick was in Paris in 1934 to act as closer – for several reasons. For one, MGM had been part of a deal with UFA and the Hollywood studio knew Lang’s work. MGM would also allow Lang to pick and develop his first Hollywood film.

Critics and others will try and find Fritz Lang in his Hollywood films but all that comes from ticking clocks and other superficial styling that they associate with his work. As we’ll see most of the time they get it horribly wrong. In the heart of the films he will make in Hollywood are moral landscapes and other values that never appear in his European films. Lang will go from being a god in Germany to a director for hire in Hollywood and while he plays no small role in that future, it really couldn’t be any other way.


Liliom was produced by Erich Pommer for Fox-Europa and directed by Fritz Lang. Robert Liebman wrote the adaptation of the Ferenc Molnár play. Cinematography by Rudolph Maté and Luis Nee. Music by Jean Lenoir and Franz Waxman. Starring Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Pierre Alcover, Roland Toutain, Robert Arnoux, and Antonin Artaud, among others.