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Fritz Lang: The Early Works (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

November 29, 2012 by  



Before “Die Nibelungen”, “Metropolis” and the “Mabuse” films, there were five earlier films in Fritz Lang’s oeuvre that was considered lost.  Three of them were found a few decades ago and were restored.  Now these three films will be released on DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber.  For fans of Fritz Lang, “Fritz Lang: The Early Works” is a fantastic early glimpse of Fritz Lang’s directorial career!  Recommended!

Images courtesy of © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden. 2012 Kino Lorber, Inc. All rights reserved.

DVD TITLE: Fritz Lang: The Early Works

DATE OF FILM RELEASE: (1919) Harakiri, (1920) The Wandering Shadow (Das wandernde Bild), (1921) Four Around the Woman (Kampfende Herzen, Vier um die Frau)

DURATION: Harakiri (87 Minutes), The Wandering Shadow (67 Minutes),Four Around the Woman (84 Minutes)

DVD INFORMATION:Black and White, 1:33:1, German with English Intertitles

COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber Inc.

RATED: NOT RATED

RELEASE DATE: November 6, 2012

Harakiri

Directed by Fritz Lang

Based on the play “Madame Butterfly” by David Belasco and John Luther Long

Written by Max Jungk

Produced by Erich Pommer

Cinematography by Max Fassbende

Production Design by Heinrich Umlauff

The Wandering Shadow

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou

Produced by Joe May

Cinematography by Guido Seeber

Art Direction by Otto Hunte

Four Around the Woman

Directed by Fritz Lang

Based on the play “Florence oder Die Drei be der Frau” by Rolf E. Vanloo

Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou

Produced by Erich Pommer

Music by Aljoscha Zimmerman

Cinematography by Otto Katurek

Art Direction by Hans Jacoby and Ernst Meiwers

Starring:

Harakiri

Paul Biensfeldt as Daimyo Tokuyawa

Lil Dagover as O-Take-San

Georg John as Buddhist Monk

Meinhart Maur as Prince MAtahari

Rudolf Lettinger as Karan

Erner Huebsch as Kin-Be-Araki

Kaete Juster as Hanake

Niels Prien as Olaf J. Anderson

Herta Heden as Eva

Loni Nest as child

The Wandering Shadow

Mia May as Irmgard Vanderheit

Hans Marr as Georg Vanderheit

Harry Frank

Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Georgs Vetter Wil Brand

Loni Nest as Irmgards Tochter

Before he gained worldwide renown for such films as DIE NIBELUNGEN, METROPOLIS, and M, Fritz Lang crafted a series of feature films that embody many of the thematic and stylistic trademarks that would come to define his work. Virtually unseen in the United States until this release, the three films in this collection were mastered from 35mm elements preserved by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, in association with numerous international archives.

An adaptation of Madame Butterfly, the tragic romance HARAKIRI indulged Lang’s fascination with Asian culture and Orientalist design. Filmed on the outskirts of Berlin, Lang strived for authenticity, and obtained sets and costumes from the Hamburg Anthropological Museum.

Rich in symbolic imagery and striking location photography, THE WANDERING SHADOW was the first collaboration of Lang and Thea von Harbou. It follows a woman who, in the wake of a sex scandal, seeks solitude in the Bavarian Alps. There, she is continually haunted by her past, but soon stumbles upon the one thing she never expected to find: the chance of redemption. Anticipating such films as DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER and SPIES, FOUR AROUND THE WOMAN involves a society woman who must navigate through a complex web of criminal and emotional intrigues.

Fritz Lang, the legendary filmmaker who will be known for epics such as “Metropolis” and “Die Nibelungen”, films such as “M” and “Fury” and most notably, the “Dr. Mabuse” films.

But for every filmmaker, before they accomplish success, their is that beginning where they have directed films that have not received much attention and are literally forgotten.

In November 2012, Kino Lorber released the 3-DVD set “Fritz Lang: The Early Works” which feature his 1919 silent film “Harakiri”, the 1920 silent film “Das Wandernde Bild” (The Wandering Shadow) and his 1921 silent film “Vier um die Frau” (For Around the Woman).

What makes this set quite appealing for cineaste is that many of Lang’s earlier films did not survive and the only way people know of these earlier films was through reviews on publications such as “The Kinematograph”, “Der Film” or “Lichtbildbuhne”.  And while his first two films “Halbblut” and “Der Herr Der Liebe” may not be accessible, fortunately films such as “Die Spinnen” (The Spiders) and “Harakiri”, “Das Wandernde Bild” and “Vier um Die Frau” have been released in the U.S. on DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The first film featured in the set is titled “Harakiri”, a Japanese word for ritual suicide (by disemboweling ones self).  Shot between “Die Spinnen” (The Spiders) in 1919, the film was a loose adaptation by Max Jungk of American writer John Luther Long’s short story “Madame Butterfly” (which was published in 1898 in the publication, “Century Magazine”).

The film revolves around the daughter O-Take-San (portrayed by Lil Dagover) who is pleased by the merchandise brought home to Japan by her father, Daimyo Tokuyawa (portrayed by Paul Biensfeldt).  Unfortunately, the Buddhist Monk (portrayed by Georg John) is a man who is strict on O-Take-San and is upset that the Daimyo would try to corrupt his daughter with foreign things that would upset Buddha.

The reason for the Bhuddist Monk being strict is that he sees her as the next priest of the Forbidden Garden, something she doesn’t want to do.  And her father, seeing the freedom in Europe, feels that his daughter would be best if she can live life with freedom of making her own decisions.

And this upsets the Buddhist Monk to the point that the Emperor of Japan finds out about this and orders the Daimyo to prove his loyalty to Japan and the Emperor by committing harakiri.

The Daimyo does as the Emperor asks and now life for O-Take-San without her father would force her to undergo strict rules under the Buddhist Monk.

But one day, a group of British soldiers talk about how the Daimyo’s home is where foreigners are unable to trespass. But for Officer Olaf J. Anderson (portrayed by Niels Prien), no one tells him what he can’t do.

And sure enough, Olaf meets O-Take-San.  The two fall in love, get married despite the Buddhist Monk’s wishes and O-Take-San is pregnant.

But not long after, Olaf must go back to Europe as his stay in Japan is done. But he vows to come back.

Fast forward nearly four years later, O-Take-San awaits for Olaf to come back, while the Buddhist Monk now feels that if he doesn’t return within the exact date of four years, she will be considered single and must give up her child and forced to become a priestess.

Unbeknown to O-Take-San, Olaf is now married to his European wife Eva (portrayed by Herta Heden) and the two are in Japan for vacation.

For Fritz Lang’s 1920 film “Das Wandernde Bild” (The Wandering Shadow), the film would be the first official feature film that he and his wife, writer Thea von Harbou would collaborate on.

“Das Wandernde Bild” begins with a woman named Irmgard Vanderheit (portrayed by Mia May) who’s husband, the wealthy Georg Vanderheit (portrayed by Hans Marr) has died.  And now his twin brother, John Vanderheit (also portrayed by Hans Marr) demands that she give all his wealth inherited from Georg because he is the rightful heir.

And as Irmgard tries to escape from John, she is helped by a man named Wil Brand (portrayed by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who allows her to stay in his room but also allows her to escape from him up to the mountains.

While climbing up to the mountains, she meets a hooded hermit who is shocked to see a woman in the middle of nowhere.  But John Vanderheit is determined of getting his inheritance, even if it means killing Irmgard.

When John tries to capture Irmgard on top of the mountain, she is saved by the hermit as the two retreat into a house.  When the hermit takes off his robe, Irmgard finds out that it is her deceased husband Georg, who has retired into the mountains and is unable to leave until a statue of the virgin begins to walk.

But why would Georg throw all wealth away and leave his wife to become a hermit in the mountain?

And for the third and final 1921 film, “Vier um die Frau” or “Kampfende Herzende” (“For Around the Woman” and a.k.a. “Fighting Hearts”), the film revolves around a merchant named Yquem (portrayed by Ludwig Hartau) who has bought his wife Florence (portrayed by Carola Toelle) matching earrings.  But the earrings come from a place where fakes and stolen jewelry are sold.

We find out that Yquem’s wife, before she was married, she had a boyfriend named Werner Krafft (portrayed by Anton Edthofer). But because her father wanted to marry a wealthy man, she was arranged to marry Yquem.

On the day before of her engagement party, Werner visited her.  But as she and Werner went to talk alone in her room and she wanted to tell Werner that their relationship is over, Harry and her father went to check on Florence.  Hearing another person in her room, the two break into her room and her father finds Florence tied up in bed, while Harry sees Werner running out.  He finds a photo of Werner and asks Florence if she loves him, but she tells him no.

On the day, when Yqem had purchased the jewels, he sees the man that he saw in Florence’s room long ago from that engagement party.  Still not knowing what truly happened that day, it continues to haunt him and he has wondered if she truly loves him.

Wanting to find out if he can trust his wife, he follows the man to the hotel and writes him a letter using his wife’s style of handwriting and asking the man to go to their home and in hopes to see if Florence is truly dedicated to him and their marriage.  But what Yquem doesn’t know is that the person he gave the letter to is William Krafft, the twin brother of Werner who happens to be a con.

And what was supposed to be a trap to find out his wife’s true feelings, Yquem ends up bringing danger into his home instead.  What will happen to his wife Florence?

VIDEO & AUDIO:

It’s important for people to remember that each of the three films presented in “Fritz Lang: Early Works” were considered lost for many decades.  So, with that being said, the fact that a print of these once lost films of Fritz Lang has been found, is a miracle.  It’s also important for people to know that a lot of silent films at the time were not taken care of.  They were seen as disposable entertainment not mean to be rewatched as the era never realized that people would have an interest in these classic films.

I must first add the preface that these films are watchable.  The do not have excessive nitrate damage but they do have specks and scratches and have been restored to the best quality possible.  But also, there are footage and frames missing and the restoration crew did the best they can to help viewers understand the film through intertitles.

All three films are presented in 1:33:1 and are color tinted.

First, let’s begin with “Harakiri”.   The restoration for the film was done by Nederlands Filmmuseum and Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. While there are some damage, white specks and scratches, the film is watchable.  The beauty of the film, especially the authentic Japanese costumes and decorations supplied by the Ethnographical Museum run by I.F.G. Umlauff is noticeable.  Compared to other silent films of its time, the quality considering its scratches and specks is still very good.  But of the three film presented, this is the weakest of the three.

The film features music by Aljoscha Zimmerman and performed by Sabrina Hausmann (violin), Mark Pogolski (piano) and Markus Steiner (percussion).

For the second film “Das wandernde Bild” (The Wandering Shadow), the restoration was done in 1987 courtesy of Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin and Cinemateca Brasileira Sao Paulo.  According to Kino Lorber, at its premiere at Tauentzien Palace in Berlin, “Das wandernde Bild” had a a length of 2,032 meters.  The surviving edition, edited for release in Brazil, is 1,410 meters in length.  No script or intertitle list is known to exist.  For this edition, explanatory text has been added to facilitate comprehension of the plot where significant footage is missing.”

The picture quality for this film is actually quite good.  less scratches and white specks compared to “Harakiri” but you do see vertical lines, but nothing that would prevent you from enjoying the film.  The film features music by Aljoscha Zimmerman and performed by Sabrina Hausmann (violin) and Aljoscha Zimmerman (piano).

For the third film “Vier um die Frau” or “Kampfende Herzende” (For Around the Woman), according to Kino Lorber, the film was approved by the Berlin censor board in 1921 with a length of 1,707 meters.  The only known surviving original nitrate print comes from the collection of the Cinemateca Brasileira in Sao Paulo and has a length of 1,556 meters.  It is a Brazilian export copy entitled “Coracoes em lucta” (Hearts in Struggle).  It is tined and contains Portuguese titles, intertitles and inserts.  The print is heavily worn.  There are jumps in many scenes.  A censor card with the text of the original German titles is not available.

The source for this video master is the 1987 dupe negative of a reconstruction from the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum for Film and Television, Berlin, and the Cinematheca Brasileira, Sao Paolo.  It is derived from a Brazilian distribution print and contains a reverse-translation of the Portuguese titles.  The most serious film damage was digitally retouched while still maintaining the integrity of the original footage.  The color correction is based on the original tinting of the nitrate copy.  This allowed compensation for variations within a single color.

While the film does have scratches and specks and vertical lines.  The film is still watchable.  There are some frame jumps but compared to “Harakiri”, you can see much more detail in the footage.  The film features music by Aljoscha Zimmerman and performed by Sabrina Hausmann (violin), Aljoscha Zimmerman (piano) and Markus Steiner (percussion).

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Fritz Lang: The Early Works” does not come with any special features.

EXTRAS:

“Fritz Lang: The Early Works” comes with a cardboard case.

I was quite thrilled when I first learned that Kino Lorber would be releasing Fritz Lang’s earlier work for a DVD set titled “Fritz Lang: The Early Works”.

Having followed Fritz Lang’s cinema oeuvre and also reading books about his film, especially the fantastic Lotte Eisner 1976 book “Fritz Lang”, Eisner would write about Lang’s earlier work through German film reviews because these films were considered lost.  And the only earlier work that was accessible decades later was his films “Die Spinnen” (The Spiders) films in order to get an impression of a younger Lang as a filmmaker.

And here we are in 2012, over 90-years since these films were made and these films would receive reviews that would highlight Lang’s choice of shooting outdoors, attention to plot but also earlier work that would showcase the early husband and wife team of director Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou.

For “Harakiri”, for today’s audiences, some may be unnerved to see Caucasian portrayals of Japanese.  What is amazing is how elaborate the costume and set design was courtesy of the Ethnographical Museum run by I.F. G. Umlauff in order to capture the look of Japan.  From the kimonos, the interiors to the outdoor set design, I was quite impressed of how much was put into making the film look authentic Japanese, despite using German talent and shooting the film in Germany.

Inspired by “Madame Butterfly”, while plot was important for a young Fritz Lang, especially in capturing emotion, the film itself suffers from certain explanations of “why?”.  Why does the sailor get married to O-Take and then marries a European and why return back to Japan, to the same village of where his Japanese wife is waiting.  Of course, the focus of the film is about Japanese honor and how far one would commit harakiri to protect that honor.  And because there were not many films about Japanese culture tailored for a non-Japanese audience, the film fascinated viewers because there was nothing like it at the time.

A reviewer in 1919 for “The Berliner Borsenzeitung” wrote of “Harakiri” as “The outdoor shots are quite splendid and very picturesque, particularly those of Japanese festivities. One would not have thought the happy grounds of Woltersdorf could produce all this…a film product of the highest rank”.

As for the second film “Das Wandernde Bild” (The Wandering Shadow).  For modern viewers, watching this today may seemed quite farfetched.  Similar to a ’70s or ’80s horror movie in which a victim would be running but yet the antagonist who is walking at a snail’s pace somehow manages to capture its victim.  For the first half of “The Wandering Shadow”, the film features a chase scene in which a widowed woman is trying to escape the antagonist (her brother-in-law) and travels and climbs mountains and cliffs but yet, the man who should be very far behind, is somehow able to catch up with her.

We are then shown her widowed husband who actually faked his death to live as a hermit in those mountains and is unable to leave until he sees a statue of the virgin walking.  While the film does make one roll their eyes because of how farfetched it was, you can’t help but be drawn in by the landscape of where the film was shot.  From a shot of hundreds in a village near a dock to the icy mountains, there was a wonderful focus of capturing the sense of adventure of its female protagonist Irmgard Vanderheit and trying to create a vile antagonist John Vanderheit.

But because the film gone beyond the typical studio shot and would feature a character in a variety of stunning locations for its time, and because of the film’s ability to capture life outside of the characters through the villages, the film received positive reviews.

A reviewer wrote in 1921 for “Film-Kurier” of “Das wandernde Bild”, “Fritz Lang’s direction is outstanding, particularly the crowd scenes, e.g. the peasant wedding on the Bavarian mountain lake, the peasant dance, the changing group scenes with ever-new types, all very colourful and vivid.  The careful distribution of effects ensures that everyone of the five acts is equally lively.”

Unfortunately, the caveat of watching this film is the true ending is forever lost.  So, the film ends with a summary based off a booklet.

And for the final film “Vier un die Frau” (Four Around a Woman), the film was interesting in the fact that it was an earlier style that Lang would focus on tragedy but also the use of many, many characters.

To tell you the truth, what I found fascinating but also yet frustrating about this film is how it doesn’t showcase the protagonist earlier in the film.  The film starts off with all these shady characters and all of a sudden, these characters are hardly shown when the film’s focus turns to Florence and her husband Harry. So, pacing was a bit off for this film but its strength lies on its theme of a jealous husband trying to trap his wife and uncover a lie of a possible affair.

Uncensored, the film would feature Florence’s friend discussing how her husband is always working but it doesn’t mean she can’t have fun with other men.  And she tries to cajole Florence into having some fun, but Florence is a wife who is dedicated to her husband to the very end.

But an interesting film that shows more of the complexity of Lang/von Harbou’s structure, may it be towards the writing or directing of the film.  And in 1921, a reviewer for “Film und Presse” was quite pleased with the film, the reviewer wrote, “with an original plot, logical and consistent in spite of a host of disparate themes; dramatically well constructed, interesting right up to its tragic ending that could be called a real film ending”.

For fans of Fritz Lang’s work, It’s so fantastic to have these films, that were considered lost, now available and restored on DVD.  One can’t expect the earlier works of a filmmaker to be his best and for Fritz Lang, he is one filmmaker who has done so many different types of films, that there is no doubt that his films from the 1920’s and 1940’s are among his best.

But for any cineaste, it’s that glimpse of how a filmmaker got his start before becoming a well-known filmmaker. For today’s viewer, these films will not compare to films like “M”, “Spies”, “Metropolis”, “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”, etc. but when you put yourself in the shoes of viewers during that era in time, you start to realize why people had a fascination with Fritz Lang’s work.  “Harakiri” was a film about Japanese, but yet not made in Japan, nor did it star Japanese talent but yet was made to look as authentic to Japan as possible.  “Das wandernde Bild” for its cinematography and its outdoor chase scene to the portrayal of sinful characters of “Vier um die Frau”.

They show the earlier style of Lang and these three films did receive positive reviews and help introduce audiences to Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou and not long after, Lang would come back with even better films with “Destiny”, “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler”, the two films of “Die Nibelungen” and “Metropolis”.

Overall, if you are a fan of Fritz Lang’s oeuvre, chances are you may have not seen his earlier films and if that is the case, “Fritz Lang: The Early Works” is highly recommended!

 






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