Fritz Lang: The Early Works (2012) – By Duane L. Martin

Fritz Lang: The Early Works, as the name says, is a three DVD collection of his early films, which includes Harakiri (1919), The Wandering Shadow (1920) and Four Around the Woman (1921). You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t familiar with Fritz Lang and his very famous and epic masterpiece, Metropolis, but far fewer people will be familiar at all with these early films. Let’s do a quick rundown of each and what they’re about.

Harakiri (1919) – Harakiri is the story of a Damiyo named Tokuyawa who likes to travel abroad. His travels, and sharing of his love of the western cultures with his daughter, infuriates an evil Buddhist priest who wants his daughter to become a Buddhist nun for his own reasons, which are never made entirely clear, but I’m sure they’re not exactly pure. When he accuses the Damiyo of undermining him in the eyes of the people, the Emperor sends the Damiyo a ceremonial Harakiri knife, and orders him to kill himself as a sign of loyalty. He does, and his daughter, O-Take-San, accepts her fate and submits to the priest’s demands that she become a nun, but before she can leave for her training, she meets a European sailor and falls in love with him. He agrees to marry her to keep her away from the priest, and after he does and gets her pregnant, he has to return home…to his wife. O-Take-San waits for him patiently for four years, and stays completely loyal to him, but that loyalty was misplaced, and when he finally does return to Japan, with his wife…it may be to late.

Review: This film, as with all the films in this collection, was very slow, and rather boring at times. Also, as with all the films, it was full of so much drama, I’m surprised the female lead didn’t have a stroke from it. Seriously, so much drama! That was the way silent films were though. You needed to be expressive with your emotions and physical actions to get the story across since you didn’t have dialog that your audience could hear. For the uninitiated, this can be a bit much, but for someone like me, who’s seen tons of silent films, I’m used to it. All in all, the story wasn’t bad, but the characters weren’t overly believable, and seeing all these white, German people dressed up in Japanese clothes, while the actual Asian people were relegated to the roles of servants and extras, was almost a little amusing. Still, it’s a serious story and plays out as such, but the one thing I really wish Lang had done, was to make the priest’s motives more clear. All in all, it wasn’t bad, and actually had some nice visuals and sets, but again, it was slow.

The Wandering Shadow (1920) – After she becomes pregnant from an author who has written books about how marriage was unnatural and who refused to marry her officially, his brother convinces her to marry him instead, and in the church register they sign her lover’s name instead of the brother’s. When he finds out about this betrayal, he leaves her, fakes his own death and heads off into the mountains to live out the rest of his days as a hermit. In an effort to get away from a cousin who wants to sue her over the estate, and the brother who wants her out of the way so he can have it for himself, she runs off to the mountains to try to get away from everyone and everything, but will she get away, and will she ever find the peace she’s so desperately looking for?

Review: This one was probably the best of the three. Despite it being slow at times, it was a good story and even includes an avalanche that buries a cabin that her and her former lover had taken refuge in, which they subsequently had to be rescued from. The thinking and behavior of the characters was rather hard to relate to however, because I just can’t relate to people thinking or acting that way, but then again, it was a different time back then, and people’s ways of thinking were different as well. While slow at times, the story is told well, and any confusion you have about who these people are and their relationships with each other are all cleared up as the story progresses. The camera work was noticeably better in this film than in Harakiri, and shows a definitely improvement in technique. This one had it’s good points and it’s bad points, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad.

Four Around the Woman (1921) – A woman’s husband, who is a well known broker, and rather famous for the beauty of his wife, gets involved with jewel fencing in an effort to get an expensive present for his wife. She had once had a love affair with a man, before she married her husband, and never stopped loving him. The marriage to her husband was an arranged marriage, and her husband was constantly troubled by the fact that he never really knew the full story of his wife’s former love affair, and was never convinced that she was over it. To this end, he comes up with a plan to send the man he suspected of being his wife’s lover a note asking him to meet her, to find out if he was the man she was still in love with. It turned out to be his twin brother, but eventually the truth comes out, and it will change all of their fates forever.

Review: Of the three, this film was probably the hardest to follow, at least until near the end when things started resolving. While the story itself wasn’t all that memorable, there were other things in this film that were. For example, the scene at the beginning of the brokers sitting around in this club with a really nifty circular bar. The whole look of the place, and the way everyone was dressed was really fascinating. It really is like stepping back in time so you can get a real feel and understanding of how things were back then. It’s funny how little things like that can stick with you so strongly, while others are so easily forgotten. This one wasn’t as drenched in drama as the others, and as such, didn’t feel as heavy or slow.

You know, when you watch these films, you can see bits of Lang’s vision, but you’d never expect him to go on to craft such large scale epics as Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, Krimehild’s Revenge and others. He developed as a film maker in ways that were just amazing, and these three films show the progression of that development.

However, these films all suffer from one common problem. They’re all missing a considerable amount of footage. These films are all taken from prints that were sent in edited form to be shown in Brazil, and each is missing quite a bit of footage when the meter length is compared to what was listed for the original versions of the films as they were registered. This could explain a lot of the confusion you may feel in the different stories, but I have a feeling you’ll be thankful it is missing when you see how slow these stories can be. Still, it sucks, because this is film history, and knowing that chunks of it have been lost…it’s just a tragedy.

Fans of Fritz Lang, or of silent films in general, may be interested to see these films, and to observe how he developed as a film maker. Back then, it was all still relatively new, and new techniques and styles were constantly being developed, and these films will give you a good feel for where Lang came from and where he was headed.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the DVD set from Amazon here, or from any of the other usual outlets.