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? Read More