Writing in the Shadow of Fritz Lang

Harald Gilbers, author of Germania, discusses his early influences, the profound impact the movies of Fritz Lang had on him, and the failures that made him the writer he is today.

Before I decided on a literary career at the age of forty I had been a failure. I was a film school reject directing stage plays in Germany and Austria for fourteen years, but there was not much money to be made in this line of business. I had also made a couple of shorts nobody ever saw and written a number of screenplays, all of them unproduced. Now I know that these unsuccessful endeavors had a meaning. They would prepare me for something even bigger.

You could argue that the series of novels with commissioner Oppenheimer represents the culmination of my work so far.  These crime stories are set in Berlin and describe the chaotic period between the downfall of the Third Reich and the beginning of the Cold War. Given my interest in literature and movies of the past it now seems inevitable that my path would finally lead into this particular direction. And the beginning of it all was my enthusiasm for the movies of Fritz Lang.

Lang is considered one of the most important directors of German expressionist silent film, but during this early phase of his career he also repeatedly directed genre movies such as The Spiders and Spies. His science fiction masterpiece Metropolis is today considered to be one of the most important works in cinema history, but when the film was first released it was a mega-flop. This failure ensured that the producer, the UFA group, fell into the clutches of the right-wing media entrepreneur Alfred Hugenberg and finally passed into the possession of Hitler’s NSDAP in 1933.

After the costly debacle of Metropolis, Fritz Lang increasingly turned to making crime movies, which were just as epic in scope. Like many creative minds of the Weimar Republic, he did not want to bow to the cultural-political dictates of the National Socialists and emigrated to the United States, where he brought his unique skills to the shadow plays of film noir.

Two of Lang’s films belong to the nucleus of my commissioner Oppenheimer. First of all, there is M, the movie that catapulted Peter Lorre to international stardom. This film was partially inspired by the real-life serial killer Peter Kürten from Düsseldorf, although the plot is set in Berlin. Otto Wernicke plays detective superintendent Karl Lohmann, who is chasing a child murderer played by Lorre. This commissioner Lohmann also appeared in Fritz Lang’s next film, where he is confronted with the diabolical supervillain Dr. Mabuse.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was to be Lang’s last film before his emigration. And so the obvious question to me was what would have happened to the fictitious detective superintendent Lohmann in the subsequent Nazi-era if he had not been a Catholic or a Protestant, but a Jew. This was the basic premise for Oppenheimer.

In later years Lang reported with gusto about an encounter with Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. He admired Lang very much, although it was public knowledge that his mother was born Jewish. In that meeting, Goebbels offered him to take over the management of the complete German film production, which would ultimately have meant continuously producing propaganda works for the totalitarian Nazi dictatorship. Lang asked for twenty-four hours to think about it, and immediately started packing. He had no money in his pocket because the bank counters were already closed. So he sold his wife’s jewelry and caught the night train to Paris.

That’s a great story. Of course it is because Lang was a gifted storyteller. And like many storytellers, he did not always take the truth literally when it was useful for the dramaturgy. In fact, Lang commuted back and forth between Germany, France, and Great Britain for several months and also had enough time to change currencies.

Did this fateful encounter in 1933 with Goebbels even take place? We cannot be sure. Making a half-Jew one of the most important heads of Nazi propaganda seems like a far-fetched idea. On the other hand, even the Nazis could be surprisingly flexible when they saw advantages. When rumours started in the same year that the father of Field Marshal Erhard Milch of the Luftwaffe was Jewish, his commander-in-chief and high-ranking Nazi official Herrmann Göring possibly even had documents manipulated to protect him. This was the background of Göring’s famous statement: “I decide who is a Jew in the airforce.”

Lang’s anecdote appears in a different variant in my novel Germania. This time the scene is similarly absurd. Here commissioner Oppenheimer meets Joseph Goebbels and is pro forma declared an Aryan—but only as long as he is investigating a criminal case on behalf of the SS.

While the connection to Fritz Lang is very prominent, there are also many other influences. The movies I watched during preparation were not only overlooked masterpieces like Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, but also Nazi exploitation movies—sometimes cringeworthy films that nevertheless showed me what is possible in dealing with the past of my country.

As an author, I make it my task to find unusual combinations. In the first novel, I quote a scene from a Japanese manga. Before I started writing the sequel Sons of Odin, which is about an Aryan cult, I read all of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels. To put myself in the proper mood for the third novel, which describes the downfall of Berlin, I watched zombie movies, because the first-hand accounts available to me reminded me very much of George Romero.

I think that everything I read or watch influences me to some extent. And even then, it is still an open question, which of these influences my subconscious chooses as a source of inspiration. Similar to a love affair, there are many irrational things going on that cannot be explained. But one thing is clear, I love the movies of Fritz Lang intensely.


About Germania by Harald Gilbers:

Berlin 1944: a serial killer stalks the bombed-out capital of the Reich, preying on women and laying their mutilated bodies in front of war memorials. All of the victims are linked to the Nazi party. But according to one eyewitness account, the perpetrator is not an opponent of Hitler’s regime, but rather a loyal Nazi.

Jewish detective Richard Oppenheimer, once a successful investigator for the Berlin police, is reactivated by the Gestapo and forced onto the case. Oppenheimer is not just concerned with catching the killer and helping others survive, but also his own survival. Worst of all, solving this case is what will certainly put him in the most jeopardy. With no choice but to further his investigation, he feverishly searches for answers, and a way out of this dangerous game.

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