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Fritz Lang: The Silent Films Box Set Shows You a Master of Early Cinema (Review)

The further we get from the creation of cinema (it’s over 100 years old now), the less exposure those crucial early films get. For about 30 years of narrative movies, the only game in town–or at least the most common game in town–was silent movies, which didn’t even have a regulated projection speed a lot of the time. But these are integral films, both for historians and scholars, and for fans who enjoy storytelling in any medium. Luckily there are companies like Kino Lorber out there who have been working tirelessly to restore and distribute movies by silent masters like F.W. Murnau and Buster Keaton.

Their latest endeavor is a collection of all of the silent films by German director Fritz Lang, who would eventually make a bevy of sound films in both Europe and the United States, but who–save for his first sound picture, 1931’s gritty crime movie M–is still perhaps best remembered for his bombastic, visually innovative, and enthralling silent films. Fritz Lang: The Silent Films, released by Kino Classics with aid from the F.W. Murnau Foundation, collects all of the extant silent films he directed (12 of them), plus an extra film, The Plague of Florence, which was only written by Lang and directed by Otto Rippert.

Since there are so many movies, I’m just going to give the briefest overview of them, but suffice to say some of them are rightfully hailed as classics and some of them should be. Even though these movies span only the first decade of Lang’s career, you can see him blossom and his technique refine.

Disc one contains both parts of his 1919-1920 adventure serial, The Spiders. These movies were believed lost for many years until their rediscovery in 1970 and their subsequent restoration. These movies feature the character of well-known sportsman, adventurer, and traveler Kay Hoog (played by Carl de Vogt) and feel very much like what movies like Indiana Jones and The Mummy (1999) are referencing. Globetrotting adventurer, ancient mysteries, crime syndicates, supernatural powers. These movies are great fun.

Disc two has the 1919 film Harakiri, one of the first films to depict Japanese culture, though, being made in 1919 Germany, you can assume not with a single actual Japanese person. It’s also kind of a bummer of a movie for narrative reasons. Additionally, the disc has the 45 minute film from 1920, The Wandering Shadow. Disc three gives us the 1921 contemporary drama, Four Around the Woman.

From disc four forward, we begin to see some of his most important and lauded work, beginning with 1921’s Destiny. A fantasy romance with dark, nigh-horror elements, Destiny depicts a doomed love between a man and a woman, with the specter of Death (Bernhard Goetze) arriving to take the man. We then see three separate stories–one set in a Middle Eastern city, another in Venice, Italy, and the third in the Empire of China–each showing the same sad fate through different circumstances. Death is always there, and ultimately, the woman (each time played by Lil Dagover) has to choose whether to go on without her love, or join him. Amazing movie.

Next is Lang’s 1922 two-part epic, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, which were released one month apart originally, and encompass about four and a half hours. These movies are the first appearance of the popular literary character of Doctor Mabuse, a criminal mastermind, doctor of psychology, and master of disguise, armed with the powers of hypnosis and mind control, who oversees the counterfeiting and gambling rackets of the Berlin underworld. Think of this as if the Joker, the Riddler, and Lex Luthor were all one person. Lang would direct two more films about Doctor Mabuse in 1933 and 1960.

Discs seven through eight give us another of Lang’s epic masterpieces, Die Nibelungen from 1924, in which he adapts some of Germany’s greatest high fantasy legends and myths. The first part is about Siegfried, the hero who slays a dragon to gain immortality, finds and defeats the dwarf king Alberich to gain countless riches, and uses a cloak of invisibility to aid a prince win the hand of Icelandic Queen Brunhild. (If you’ve seen Django Unchained, you’ll recognize this basic plot.) Part two, Kriemhild’s Revenge finds Siegfried’s love Kriemhild going to great lengths to seek revenge for Siegfried’s murder (spoilers). These movies are gargantuan in scope and feature some incredibly impressive special effects and trick photography, for the time but also for any time.

And speaking of impressive special effects, disc nine gives us the big one, 1927’s Metropolis, easily Lang’s most known and influential film. Thought lost and then incomplete for a number of years, this disc gives us the mostly restored version of the film, which is a revelation. Set in a futuristic urban dystopia, the movie follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, and Maria, a poor worker, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes of their city. You’ve no doubt seen parts of this movie, from the massive cityscape models, to the trudging workers underground, to–most famously–the robotic woman designed to replace Maria. This is one of the handful of essential silent films.

Rounding out the collection, we have the 1928 film Spies, which can be seen as a kind of precursor to the James Bond films, in that it features a master criminal bent on world domination, various spies with numbers in addition to their names, and a central hero trying to stop the whole thing; and finally 1929’s Woman in the Moon, which can be seen as the first “serious” science fiction film, depicting a man’s desire to get from the Earth to the moon, and which employs many sequences that at the time were speculation but would eventually become part and parcel to how rockets were launched.

The films are beyond influential, and the discs are full of extras including commentaries and full documentaries. If you’ve never encountered much of German expressionist silent cinema, or Fritz Lang’s work specifically, this set is a must-have for movie lovers. And hey, just in time for Christmas!

Images: Kino Lorber

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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