The most important figure in the development of the motion picture as an art form was probably D.W. Griffith, but from his debut as a director in 1908 to the premature end of his career in 1931, he remained a child of the Victorian era.
For all of his innovations in film form, his view of the world, as embedded in the sort of stories he chose to tell and the kind of characters with which he populated them, belonged to the 19th century. There isn't much in his work that would have surprised Balzac or Dickens.
After World War I
In a sense, the movies don't really become a modern art until after World War I, when the new medium began to attract creators aware of the new developments in literature and the visual arts -- creators such as Fritz Lang. Born in Vienna in 1890, he studied architecture and engineering at the Vienna University of Technology before he left in 1913 to study painting in Paris, where he became aware of the new currents.
When the Great War came, Lang left Paris and enlisted in the Austrian army, serving with distinction, earning a fistful of medals and citations before his wounds forced him from the field. It was during a medical leave that he began composing scenarios and acting in amateur theatrical productions. Discharged in 1918 with a nervous disorder, he almost immediately began writing scripts for producer Erich Pommer, and a year later made his first film as a director, the "Halbblut" ("Half-Blood"), now lost.
A new boxed set from Kino Lorber, "Fritz Lang: The Early Works," follows Lang through three films from 1919 to 1921, up to the eve of his breakthrough with the international success "Destiny." There aren't any masterpieces here, but seen in succession, the three films give a sense of the incredible speed with which Lang -- and the German cinema in general -- evolved from the moral and psychological certainties of the prewar era toward a new sense of discontinuity, fragmentation and paranoia. Griffith's sunny pastorals give way to an anxious new world of night and the city, the world of future Lang masterworks such as "Metropolis" (1927), "M" (1931) and "The Big Heat" (1953).
The 1919 "Harakiri" offers a direct connection to Victorian melodrama. The film is an unauthorized adaptation of the 1898 short story by John Luther Long, "Madame Butterfly," that would be brought to Broadway by David Belasco in 1900 and turned into an opera by Giacomo Puccini in 1904. Lang has made a few cosmetic changes of names and nationalities -- Cio-cio has become O-Take-San (Lil Dagover) and Lt. Pinkerton is now a Swedish naval officer (Niels Prien). But his most conspicuous intervention lies in building up the role of the Buddhist monk (Georg John) into a malevolent manipulator with almost supernatural powers, a gaunt figure who anticipates both F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Lang's own Dr. Mabuse, both of whom would emerge in 1922.
Like other German films of the immediate postwar era, "Harakiri" ducks the anarchic social reality of the time by burrowing into an exotic past. With the well-publicized assistance of the Hamburg Anthropological Museum, Lang constructed a Japanese village in a suburb of Berlin where he shot both the exterior and interior scenes, allowing for an unusually tight integration of landscape and drama.
Lang continued to work on location with "Das Wandernde Bild" (1920), which Kino has translated as "The Wandering Shadow" for this set but is more usually known as "The Wandering Image." The film was Lang's first with the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who would become his wife. Shot in the Bavarian Alps, the film is a complex melodrama (made even more so by its fragmentary state -- only about two-thirds of the movie survives) centered on a widow (Mia May) who flees to the mountains to escape the scheming of her greedy brother-in-law (Hans Marr).
The "shadow" of the title is in fact a very solid stone Madonna that stands near the hut of a mysterious hermit, whose unlikely identity is revealed through an extended flashback. Several characteristic Lang motifs emerge -- doubling, disguise, claustrophobic confinement -- during a climax that finds the heroine trapped in the hermit's cabin, buried under an avalanche.
The opening shot of "Four Around the Woman" (1921) seems to announce the arrival of Lang's mature, geometric visual style. The camera circles a circular bar, in a smoky, windowless club room populated by sinister, silk-hatted capitalists straight out of George Grosz. One of them (Ludwig Hartau) is a broker subsequently seen putting on a disguise to buy a stolen gem from a fence (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in the hopes of placating his neglected wife (Carola Toelle), herself the object of contention between look-alike brothers (Anton Edthofer in a dual role), one a sleek criminal and the other an unemployed ship stoker.
Again the connections between the characters are revealed in a flashback halfway through the film, but the particulars of the far-fetched plot matter less than its eerie symmetries and elaborate parallelism.
In "Four Around the Woman," truth does have a bottom, and the screenplay (again partly written by Harbou) eventually manages to reach it. Lang has yet to make the great, modernist leap of the Mabuse films, with their understanding that form can exist without meaning, that beneath one pattern lies another, and another beneath that -- a conspiracy of infinite regression without a center and without a purpose. But that fatal insight is just around the corner. (Kino Lorber, $39.95, not rated)