2018 Film Essays

Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang and German Expressionist Fury

The Classic Hollywood period of the 1930s is nearly schizophrenic in its response to the world outside Main Street movie houses. The cinema of the Great Depression era is alternately characterized by escapist musicals from the MGM dream factory, or tough gangster films from Warner Brothers that are often read as radical economic challenges to a failing system. These twin pillars offered audiences a chance to disappear into a fantasy land where everything works out fine, or vicariously express righteous anger at an unfair reality. In short, 1930s Hollywood offered both dreams and nightmares to a public suffering through terrible economic times.

The time was right for some filmmakers to hold up a distorted mirror to American culture. Based on the strength of his work in Germany alone, director Fritz Lang would be a towering figure in cinematic history. But, like many other German filmmakers, Lang became an exile in Hollywood in the aftermath of the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, and there embarked on a lengthy, prolific and impressive career in American film. When Lang made the journey to the United States, he brought with him the influence of German playright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, whose ideas and methods he would draw upon to make his first American film, the anti-lynching drama Fury (1936).

Fury was released by MGM. Starring Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson and Sylvia Sydney as his fiancée Katherine Grant, the film concerns Joe’s wrongful arrest for the rape and murder of a child, his subsequent imprisonment and apparent death at the hands of a vengeful small-town mob of irate citizens bent on executing vigilante justice. They attack and burn the jail where Joe is held after storming past the local authorities, and Joe seemingly perishes in the fire. Joe reappears in secret to his brothers, who help him conspire to hold those who participated in the mob responsible for their actions in a public trial. The film is a powerful statement against mob justice and was made specifically as a critique against lynching. That it was released by MGM, the studio whose brand was built upon stars, spectacle, musicals, and soon, the Andy Hardy films, makes Fury all the more remarkable.

For a film released in 1936, the politics of the moment were highly fraught. Cinema itself is not without responsibility here. The release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 is rightly blamed for inflaming racist attitudes across the American south, most consequentially leading to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The subsequent decades saw an increase in vigilante lynchings of black Americans by the Klan and other persons, primarily, but not exclusively, in the south.

There were of course limits to how far Lang’s film could push the envelope, especially with the newly created production code being more strictly enforced beginning in 1934. In an interview conducted in 1970, Lang clarified the constraints of the studio era: “The victim, accused of having raped and killed a child, was an innocent white man. He really hadn’t done it. But at least I could say something about lynching. If you want to make a real lynching picture, though, it should be about a colored man who rapes a white woman, which proves that lynching is wrong, but in America, I was forced to use a white man who really was not a rapist.” Though Fury might have been a film more at home at Warner Brothers, where social-issue dramas were a key part of the studio’s slate during the 1930s, it is hard to imagine that any studio this side of poverty row would have allowed Lang to make a film with a black protagonist in the manner he describes.

Despite the obvious racial constraints placed upon him, Lang did test the limits where he could. In a 1969 interview, Lang claims that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer forced him to remove a scene that would have made his lynching critique more overt. In the scene, according to Lang, which showed “a group of Negroes — an old man, a very beautiful buxom girl, and a young Negro with two children — sitting in a dilapidated Ford car in the South listening on the radio to a transcription of a lynching trial. As the state attorney spoke about the high incidence of lynchings in the U.S. each year, I had the old Negro just nod his head silently without a word. Mayer had this scene, and others like it, removed because at that time I think even he was convinced that Negroes could be shown only as bootblacks, or carhops, or menials of some description.” A vestige of the scene remains near the film’s outset featuring black characters, Katherine’s neighbors. A black woman sings as she hangs laundry on a clothesline, and other black men look on, taking pleasure in the sound of her voice. Even the radio remains, but instead of a news report about lynchings, Katherine switches it off, and listens instead to the woman singing outside her window. As his camera pans across the black characters outside Katherine’s apartment, it is as if Lang is telegraphing the film he would have liked to make, but was unable to, but also asking the audience to go along with him in his critique anyway.

In this manner, Lang’s social critique places Fury firmly within the confines of the theatrical ideas of his contemporary, playwright and theorist Brecht, with whom Lang would collaborate on a later film, Hangmen Also Die (1943), while Brecht himself was a German exile in Hollywood. Brecht’s “epic theatre” was an effort to destabilize Aristotelean dramatic structures for the purposes of confronting audiences with social problems in which they were themselves complicit. This theoretical approach led Brecht and his cohort of German collaborators, including Peter Lorre, to develop a set of theatrical techniques meant to achieve a radically alternative theatre experience for audiences. According to John Brooker, in a piece written for the Cambridge Companion to Brecht, “The artistic devices which we know by key words in Brecht’s theoretical vocabulary were means to this end: their desired effect, one might say, being to trigger change in the material world by changing ‘interpretations’ (‘human feelings, opinions, attitudes’, as Brecht might have put it) in the analogous, experimental world of the theatre.”

In Brechtian theatre, this goal was often furthered through the application of what Brecht termed the “verfremdungseffekte.” As explained by Brooker, Brecht’s verfremdungseffekte, usually interpreted imperfectly in English to mean “alienation effect,” “was to be communicated in a dialectical, non-illusionist and non-linear manner, declaring its own artifice as it hoped also to reveal the workings of ideology.” In practice, such tactics included “direct and indirect use of a narrator, the conspicuous use of songs, masks, placards and images set in a montaged narrative sequence [which] would help maintain this level of wonder and alert self-criticism.” In the context of the cinema, some of these techniques may also be employed by filmmakers to achieve a similar alienating perspective, but many of them are also inherent signifiers of the cinematic mode of storytelling. In other words, filmmakers often use these narrative tactics in the furtherance of traditional cinematic storytelling, thus limiting their effectiveness in alienating audiences.

During the Classic Hollywood period, however, some other cinematic techniques were much harder to find in traditional storytelling, and stand out for their rarity. One such tactic is the use of direct camera address, wherein the actors break the invisible fourth wall enforced by the camera lens. In Fury, Lang makes use of this method not in having the actors address the audience by breaking the diegesis, but appearing to — they do not directly speak to the audience by disrupting the narrative flow, but lock eyes with the camera lens, which becomes a surrogate for other actors within the scene, and by extension, the audience itself. Speaking with a journalist in 1963, Lang discussed the inspiration he took from Brecht in general terms: “Did Bert Brecht influence me? Of course. Which of his contemporaries did he not influence? Can you simply ignore a genius such as Brecht? Which is, however, not to say that one must simply adopt his views as one’s own.”

Lang’s qualified acknowledgment of Brecht’s influence speaks to the fusion of Brechtian ideas with Lang’s own cinematic impulses. Fury is an excellent case study in how Lang both adopts Brechtian theatrical techniques and adapts them for the camera, yet also infuses the film with the humanist focus on empathy that Brecht often minimized, but was the stock in trade of commercial Hollywood cinema both then and now.

Throughout the film, it is Lang’s camera that does most of the Brechtian lifting. He flexes technical prowess in from the opening shot, a moving tracking take searching through a small department store window display that demonstrates how unfazed Lang was by the coming of sound. Many Hollywood films of the early 1930s, owing to the additional complication of factoring for capturing dialogue through microphones, feature a rooted, stationary camera that undermines many of the visual advances of the late silent era. Lang had no such trouble adjusting. Early in the film, Lang employs several such long, acrobatic camera moves, each of which emphasize the ease with which Joe and Katherine move through the world. Their privilege is to be untouched, as of yet, by the cruelty of lynching. The real effect here is to set up a contrastive image pattern, so that later, when Lang’s camera is anchored to the ground, the dynamic freedom of its earlier movement is conspicuous by its absence.

Much of the framing through the film’s first third is fairly traditional by Classic Hollywood standards, but Lang does begin to complicate those individual shots through his lighting decisions. After Joe is initially hauled into the police station under suspicion for the crime, Lang casts bars in shadow against Joe as he stands in front of a door, a visual that would become key to film noir a decade or so later. He also critiques the role of gossip as word spreads around town, convincing more and more townspeople that Joe must be guilty of the crime. Lang achieves this effect through montage, as several citizens pass rumors that escalate the stakes of the story. His most effective, and certainly Brechtian, inclusion in the montage is an image of clucking chickens, which he juxtaposes with a shot of the growing number of gossiping townsfolk.

In this moment, the audience is asked to make the kind of leap that Sergei Eisenstein theorized in his writing and practiced in his films, which is an analog to what Brecht was attempting on the stage. Lang’s argument is that these foolish, prattling people are no better informed than the chickens, which are not connected to the digesis in any way. The shot of the chickens is deliberately inserted specifically for the purpose of comparison, which, like Brechtian techniques in the theatre, calls direct attention to its artifice. There is no other reason to include the chickens other than to make the comparative point about the townspeople, which marks the shot’s presence as identifiably of Brecht’s approach to the “epic theatre.” Lang places a button on the gossip montage, which he concludes with a tracking shot in a local saloon, as the camera passes by a sign advertising “Calves’ Brains” for sale, attacking the townspeople once more for their destructive behavior.

Lang raises the stakes considerably as the film goes on, and Joe’s situation becomes dire. During the attack on the jail where Joe is imprisoned, Lang escalates the use of Brechtian techniques through framing the members of the angry mob in a succession of Dutch-angle closeups, their faces lit from below, in which they appear monstrous. In this sequence, Lang largely abandons the moving camera, in contradistinction to the increasingly frantic emotions of the mob, whose fervor reaches levels of mania, and Joe’s, whose panic leads to shouting for help and railing against the bars of his cell. The stationary camera allows Lang to capture the chaos more fully, rather than disguising it with travelling shots that would typically stoke emotions in the audience.

Lang disrupts the canted shots of the mob members with a straight closeup of Katherine, as she arrives to witness Joe, trapped inside the burning jail, scream for help. In a staggering directorial decision, especially for the Classic Hollywood of 1936, Sidney looks directly into the camera in a shot that instantly recalls similar framing in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of The Lambs, made nearly 60 years later. Just as both Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) are revealed by Demme’s cinematic intimacy with their eyes, Katherine’s horror at Joe’s lynching by this mob of seemingly ordinary people is haunting and discomfiting.

Lang repeats this strategy in the aftermath of the attack on the jail, after it is revealed that Joe escaped when an explosion caused by the mob’s dynamite inadvertently freed him. As Joe surprises his brothers in the living quarters of the gas station they own, he sits, tightly coiled with rage. He describes his escape, staring directly into the camera, the eyeline matching the audience’s as surrogates for Joe’s brothers. He is speaking to them, but he is really speaking to viewers. In moments like this one, Lang externalizes a Brechtian strategy of confrontation, as Joe’s sharp, haunted eyes accuse the audience of complicity in lynching as a social problem. His anger dominates Tracy’s performance, as Joe wags his finger at the camera, pointing directly at the audience. Lang refuses to let the average cinemagoer off the hook at a historical moment where their silence enabled further cruelty.

One of the film’s most powerful sequences occurs during the trial, as the district attorney (Walter Abel) prosecuting the members of the mob uses newsreel film footage, which captured their actions as they happened, to disprove their earlier witness statements given before the court as false. As the accused sit in the courtroom, watching their animalistic behavior play out before them on the projection screen, it is impossible not to think about the comment Lang is making about the power of images. In this case, it is the images that help the forces of the law pursue justice against those who mistakenly and brazenly took it into their own hands. Though many other sequences in the film incorporate Brechtian techniques, it is in this moment that the film’s use of artifice and self-awareness, hallmarks of the “epic theatre,” reach their full potential. Lang’s film becomes a committed act of social justice advocacy, raging against its enforced limitation, and striving to break the formal apparatus that could often be employed to constrain Classic Hollywood cinema. In the end, the overwhelming power of Lang’s images, and especially his images about images to achieve justice, is the final impression.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.