Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast is a mammoth biography, which was first published in 1997 by Saint Martin‘s Press. The University of Minnesota Press have just published a softcover edition of the book, with no changes outside of a fantastic new picture on the cover. It is an intriguing piece of work and remains as controversial as ever. The passage of 16 years has done nothing to tone down the tenor of McGilligan’s perspective on Lang.
No matter who the biographer is, his or her opinion of the subject is going to be evident. This is unavoidable, although most authors attempt to shield their biases as much as possible in the interest of presenting a balanced study. When opinions do come through, many times the tendency is to gloss over the more unpleasant aspects of the story. There is certainly money to be made in sensationalism, but more often than not, when authors devote years to the study of someone’s life, they are sympathetic.
The Nature of the Beast is not a sensationalistic book, but the tone is extremely negative at times. Lang is a legendary director who fled the Nazis, and one would think that his story would be as fascinating as some of his films. It is, but in McGilligan’s telling of it, he comes across as…well, a beast. I thought titling his book The Nature of the Beast was just creative license, but the author seems to really believe it.
There is no question that Lang embellished his story over the years. And there are definitely questionable choices that he made in his version of his life’s story that needed to be straightened out. But McGilligan goes overboard. Lang had painted himself as something of a heroic anti-Nazi who had a monumental confrontation with Joseph Goebbels. The author explains that this confrontation was not quite as dramatic as legend has it. Ok, fine – it was embellished. To take this embellishment as evidence of Lang actually being a Nazi sympathizer is ridiculous though.
A later example of McGilligan embellishing his version of Lang’s life comes during the Hollywood Red Scare of the ‘50s. In this instance, even though Lang was against the blacklist and would not name names, apparently his actions were not enthusiastic enough for the author‘s taste. What was he supposed to do? Even though he was on the “correct” side of the issue, his stance was still deemed sub-par. There seems to be a personal dislike of Lang as a man.
Yet McGilligan’s writing about Lang’s career is fantastic. As a fan of such films as Metropolis (1925), M (1931), and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956), my biggest interest in this book was about Lang as a director. His reputation as a tyrannical figure on set has always been part of his legend, so I was not at all surprised with those stories. The author’s research into the genesis and production of Lang’s films is excellent though, and I found these sections to be the best of the book.
This is the frustration I had. The discussions of Lang as a man almost come off as attacks, yet the film writing is so good that it offsets a lot of this. In the end, Patrick McGilligan’s writing about the director’s career is so good that it makes The Nature of the Beast the definitive Fritz Lang biography.