In 1990, Fritz Lang’s centenary went scandalously uncelebrated in these parts. Born in Austria, his compelling fantasies of the past, present, and future made him a giant of the German silent cinema; the rigor and economy of his Hollywood films contributed to his reputation as one of the most perennially modern of American sound-era directors. Amends are currently being made with a monthlong 18-film retro. AMMI-Anthology’s series features several magnificent restored prints—the work of Enno Patalas, former head of the Munich Film Museum—and what appears to be the American theatrical premiere of two fascinating early melodramas, The Wandering Image (1920) and Fighting Hearts/Four Around a Woman (1920). Considered lost, both turned up in Brazil in 1986. Image is the deliciously nutty story of a woman who bears a philosopher’s child, marries his twin brother, then follows the thinker to his new mountain home. A happy ending somehow emerges from an avalanche and a miracle—a statue of the Virgin Mary comes alive and walks on the snow. A few scenes are missing, but it’s a great-looking movie, with spectacular Alpine cinematography; this was the first Lang film written by the redoubtable Thea von Harbou, budding Nazi, who married the director in 1924 and collaborated on Lang’s scripts until his departure from Germany in 1933.
Four Around a Woman is a beautifully designed, labyrinthine tale concerning stolen jewels, mistaken identities, and sexual blackmail starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who later played Lang’s super-fiend, Dr. Mabuse. Both parts of Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang’s gorgeous medieval picture-book epic (a monument to Germania, it was one of Hitler’s favorite movies) run an hour longer than the standard release prints; the restoration enriches the film without transforming it. Spies (1928) is another matter. Made on the cheap after Metropolis lost a fortune, its sets were cut to a minimum—characters move through almost abstract compositions in the closer shots dictated by the reduced decors. In its restored form—which introduces new characters and fleshes out others—Spies is a masterpiece of pulp fiction, a forerunner of Hitchcock’s British thrillers, worthy of being ranked with M and the Mabuse films as one of Lang’s major pre-Hollywood accomplishments.