February 12, 2016 | by Henry Giardina
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s strangest collaboration.
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou weren’t collaborators so much as co-conspirators: they had one of the strangest, most fruitful partnerships in the history of film, an erotic and artistic alliance that helped the new medium establish an emotional and political grammar. In the course of their eleven-year marriage, the pair, who met in 1920, made roughly a dozen films, often with Von Harbou writing the screenplays—adapted largely from her own work—and Lang in the director’s chair. They shared an expressive aesthetic vision, an exacting work ethic, and an almost tyrannical unwillingness to compromise with others. They changed people’s minds about their movies and, in radical ways, they changed each other. Their dedication manifested in odd ways—even though, a year into their affair, the bloom had already gone off the rose, they continued to live together, work together, and keep up the pretense of monogamy for another decade. She looked past his philandering; he looked past her increasingly fascist politics; they kept a full calendar. “We were married for eleven years,” von Harbou said later, “because for ten years we didn’t have time to divorce.”
When they did separate, in 1933, the break was clean: not even a year later, Lang, having only recently claimed German citizenship, had fled the country. He said he’d met with Joseph Goebbels, who asked him to head the Nazified film unit of UFA—an experience that so spooked him he left that very evening. If his story is factually dubious, it makes emotional sense: Lang saw himself as having chosen art over nationalism. Von Harbou, who stayed behind, thought she had chosen art, too. And this is in many ways the problem at the heart of their romance: Who, if anyone, had betrayed whom? When love is so tied up in art, and art so tied up in politics, what does betrayal end up looking like?
In the twenties, Lang and von Harbou adapted the Middle German epic poem Die Nibelungenlied for the screen. It ended up becoming a kind of loose biography of their relationship, not to mention the trajectory of German nationalism. Hitler famously cited Lang’s two-part film as his all-time favorite, an endorsement that cast the film in a darker light for years after the fall of the Third Reich. But the strength of the adaptation is in how completely personal Lang and von Harbou managed to make it—and how it was later, much like their own union, co-opted by the national paradigm, the decline of the country they both, in odd, secretive ways, loved.
The Nibelungenlied, which dates to the thirteenth century, if not earlier, is Germany’s founding myth, a primeval tale of revenge and obsession shot through with paranoia and betrayal. (You know, the usual.) It’s distinguished from other heroic epics by the fact that its hero, Siegfried—widely regarded as a strapping blonde superhuman, a fantasy of the Aryans who revered him under Hitler— dies relatively early on, killed ingloriously by a javelin as he drinks from a brook. Though he had only one weak point, a spot on his shoulder blade, his wife, Kriemhild, had inadvertently revealed it to his killer. Had she betrayed him? Consumed by grief at her mistake and its consequences, she enters into an almost psychotic mourning period and emerges a different person, bent on avenging her husband’s death.
Von Harbou’s screenplay whittled down the epic, conflating the original with a stage adaptation by Christian Friedrich Hebbel from the late 1860s and Wagner’s four-part opera. By a process of extraction rather than invention, she brought a new depth to Kriemhild’s side of the story. The first film, for instance, describes Siegfried’s death in one intertitle sentence, subordinating him to his wife and the plot that will outlive him: “Kriemhild’s husband fell among the flowers.” This statement reminds us of the most important thing about him: that he was loved by someone else.
The second film, Kriemhild’s Revenge, focuses entirely on Kriemhild’s transformative response to his death, through the kind of heightened visual language that Lang and von Harbou perfected three years later in Metropolis. Kriemhild’s Revenge is what Metropolis is not: a character study, with the internal state drawn outward. Kriemhild’s mourning, remarriage, and warmongering become a full-blown revenge fantasy, ending with Kriemhild in an almost literal bloodbath, her enemies at last destroyed. Kriemhild’s transformation—from the innocent maiden of the first installment to the bloodthirsty maniac of the second—is completely visual. We see it in her face, her movements, and, most important, her clothes. The virginal white gown of the first film—
—becomes the expressionistic uniform of Kriemhild’s Revenge, where she’s the Hun Queen, in stark, geometric, sharply contrasting gowns and headdresses:
It’s cues like these that help the film make sense of its otherwise senseless violence. Kriemhild is defined by her mistake, by having brought about Siegfried’s death; her wound is about the impossibility of being equal in love, of not being left behind in some way, of having knowledge of another person and not—eventually, somehow—using it in the wrong way.
Lang, perhaps tellingly, seemed most interested in the script after Siegfried was out of it: that is, only when the story turns completely toward emotional chaos, toward division, toward the themes that consumed his later work. After he left Germany in 1934, his films inhabited fully the terrain that Harbou had only skated around: paranoia, cults of personality, distrust of authority figures. The genius of his own work, as well as his work with Von Harbou, is its total subjectivity. By creating a new, visual language of paranoia, he’d also hit upon a way to capture abstraction visually: to film ambiguity.
After Lang left Germany, he and von Harbou never spoke again. Once they’d severed their creative bond, they didn’t seem to be able to exist in each others’ lives, even in the periphery. Lang went to France and then to America, where he continued to pursue his idiosyncratic filmmaking. After the war, Von Harbou went to a British internment camp, then to prison, where she directed a production of Faust; after that she worked, as unlikely as it sounds, for the Indian Independence Movement. Her love of Hitler and Gandhi was equal—she was apparently interested in strong personalities as much as the principles behind them. If she and Lang missed each other, they didn’t show it. Lang never expressed a desire to disown his work with von Harbou, but the definitive move of his career involved leaving her as far behind as he could.
Was this a kind of betrayal, or was it just the story of two people caught in a historical bind, forced apart by their own country betraying them and forcing them apart? Betrayal becomes a murky thing when it involves an ideology—and Kriemhild’s Revenge suggests that few things are more ideological than romance. You can be hurt just as easily by an idea as a person, and people, in love, become ideas.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Massachusetts.