An upcoming tribute in Mumbai to the renowned director Fritz Lang consists of milestones in his journey from Germany to America. Metropolis, M and The Big Heat are each tales of the present as well as portends of the future, suffused with Lang’s storytelling dexterity, striking imagery and doom-laden worldview.

The three titles will be screened at Mumbai’s Regal cinema on March 11 and 12 by Film Heritage Foundation, the organisation dedicated to archiving and restoration set up by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. All the three films have been hugely influential.

Lang has a tangential connection to India. Several of his early movies were written with his second wife, Thea von Harbou. Lang would go on to make two films based on her 1918 novel The Indian Tomb, which is set in an undefined time period in a fictitious Indian kingdom. After Lang and von Harbou got divorced in 1933, she went on to marry an Indian engineering student.

By the time Lang made Metropolis in 1927, he was already reputed as one of German silent cinema’s pre-eminent directors. Metropolis was written by von Harbou and based on her 1925 novel of the same name.

In 1922, Lang had released the first part of his magnum opus Dr Mabuse, revolving around a criminal mastermind who operates through hypnosis and mind control. In 1924, Lang made the two-part historical fantasy The Nibelungs.

Metropolis revolves around a class struggle between industrialists and workers in a futuristic city. The hero, Freder, gets entangled with the noble Maria and encounters a robot that has been created in another woman’s likeness.

Metropolis (1927).

The remarkable sets bring out the disparity – the wealthy live in towers high above the ground, while the automaton-like workers slave away in an underground factory. The film has a bewitching Expressionistic quality, in which the inner states of characters are projected onto their surroundings. Freder hallucinates about the workers mindlessly making their way into a giant machine whose entrance is shaped like a demon’s mouth.

The production design and visual effects in Metropolis were ahead of its time. Lang and von Harbou collaborated again on Woman in the Moon (1929), yet another pioneering work of sci-fi about a lunar expedition funded by profiteers in search of gold.

Metropolis (1927).

Thea von Harbou’s involvement with the Nazis in Germany was among the reasons given for the break-up of the marriage. Ordered by the Nazi regime to make films that would reflect its fascist ideology, Lang instead divorced von Harbou and fled Germany for Hollywood in 1933. Before leaving, Lang directed two other masterpieces, M (1931) and the sequel The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933).

“The insulted and injured – those warped by life, crippled physically or emotionally by the events in their lives, are Lang’s true concern,” American filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich observed in his interview with Lang in the anthology Who The Devil Made It – Conversations With Legendary Film Directors. A famously complex and truculent personality, Lang denounced Metropolis in the interview (“…actually I didn’t like it very much because it was a picture in which human beings were nothing but part of a machine”) but acknowledged the enduring power of the macabre and mesmerising M.

Lang’s first talkie is about a manhunt for a serial killer who preys on children, played indelibly by Peter Lorre. M is among the films made in the 1930s that was said to have anticipated the rise of totalitarianism in Germany. The movie creates a hallucinatory mood of a city whose compact with order has broken, leading to mob justice.

M (1931).

The Big Heat (1953) was made well after Lang was ensconced in Hollywood. Based on a script by a former crime journalist, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as a police sergeant on a mission to take down a crime syndicate. Ford’s Dave Bannion is motivated by personal reasons too – his wife is among the victims of the venal criminal Mike Lagana.

Bannion’s vendetta is portrayed with diamond-hard clarity and cruelty. The film has superbly sketched characters, including Lee Marvin as a cruel enforcer and Gloria Grahame as the unforgettable moll who helps Bannion’s crusade.

The Big Heat (1953).

While Lang was working in Hollywood, Thea von Harbou was writing and directing Nazi propaganda films. In 1933, she married Ayi Tendulkar.

Their unusual relationship despite the age difference – she was 42, he was 25 – and their continued bond even after their divorce was documented in In the Shadow of Freedom: Three Lives in Hitler's Germany and Gandhi’s India. The 2013 book was written by Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, Ayi Tendulkar’s daughter from his third marriage.

Through interviews and dogged research, Tendulkar Dhaul mounts a defence of von Harbou’s Nazi phase. “I grew up hearing Thea’s name – I was told she was something of a celebrity in Germany, both as a film maker and a writer,” Tendulkar Dhaul writes. “But she was also controversial for having joined the Nazi party, although she claimed she had done it only to defend her Indian friends in Berlin. In my family though, she was just a much-loved and generous friend.”

Von Harbou’s fascination with India and its exotic aspects from afar – she had never visited the country – had already resulted in the 1918 novel The Indian Tomb. The book revolves around a German architect who learns to his horror that the structure he is going to build for a maharaja in India is an intended tomb for the king’s lover. In 1921, German director Joe May adapted the novel as a silent film of the same name.

In 1959, Fritz Lang made his own two-part version of von Harbou’s novel. The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are stuffed with Orientalist elements, elaborate sets, and German actors playing Indian characters. The Indian Tomb is chiefly remembered for a sultry dance sequence in which the American actress Debra Paget writhes around in a suggestive costume like a snake.

These films are among the weakest in Lang’s career. He regained his form somewhat in his final movie, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960).

One of the German-language movie’s key themes is surveillance, with characters being watched behind one-way glass and through concealed cameras. Even in his curtain call, Lang was sending out flares about the inherent unreliability of humankind.

The Indian Tomb (1959).

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