Ever since Warner Bros. split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts – released eight months apart in 2010 and 2011 – other fantasy franchises have milked their fan bases in similar fashion. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn was broken in two and released a year apart in 2011 and 2012. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay did likewise in 2014 and 2015. Even Marvel got in on the act, making fans wait a year between 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and its Endgame. And the tradition continues with last year’s Dune, which isn’t getting its Part Two until 2023.
While such long waits have become commonplace, this wasn’t the case a century ago when Fritz Lang was mounting his two-part epics. Inspired by Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, Lang invented his own flamboyant criminal gang in The Spiders, the first episode of which (The Golden Lake) premiered in October 1919. The intent was to turn out four feature-length installments at regular intervals, but the production company pulled the plug after the second, The Diamond Ship, was released the following February, bringing the story to a premature end. (In the interest of clarity, I’ll be using the English titles for Lang’s German films.)
Undeterred, Lang and his future wife, novelist and screenwriter Thea von Harbou, embarked on a sprawling adaptation of her 1918 novel The Indian Tomb, which was to be directed by Lang until producer Joe May claimed the project for himself, releasing the resulting film in two parts in October and November 1921. Lang and von Harbou didn’t sit idle, though, collaborating on the screen version of Norbert Jacques’s serialized novel Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, releasing the two-part saga in April and May 1922.
Dr. Mabuse spins the breathtaking tale of a criminal mastermind and master of disguise (deliberately patterned by Jacques after Fantômas) who deftly manipulates the stock market with the aid of his network of underlings on one hand, and uses his hypnotic powers to make individuals lose at gambling on the other. To move against him is to risk ruination, as a number of people find out over the course of its four and a half hours, but even Mabuse can be caught off-guard when love enters the equation, as it does when he abducts a countess whose interest in spiritualism proves her undoing.
When interviewed in 1975 – one year before his death – Lang said of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, “The film reflected the demoralized atmosphere of Germany at the time, with the despair and vice attendant on the loss of the war. It was the kind of atmosphere in which a man like Mabuse could thrive.” The period was also one where an ambitious director like Lang could thrive and be given license to make grand statements about society in the guise of pulpy entertainments.
Having thoroughly dissected Weimar-era decadence, Lang and von Harbou turned their attention to Germany’s past and an enduring Teutonic myth. With its dedication “to the German People,” Die Nibelungen is Lang at his most unabashedly fantastic, fashioning a story of national pride out of bold heroes, dragons and dwarves, and warrior women who won’t back down from a fight. Die Nibelungen also makes a virtue of its bifurcated structure, with the first part, Siegfried, bookended by scenes that mark the beginning and end of the title character’s hero’s journey.
Early on, Siegfried encounters in a wooded glade a dragon (a full-size prop, not a miniature) and slays it when it stops for a drink. Similarly, Siegfried is himself slain when, on a hunt with his in-laws, he takes a drink from a stream, exposing the one vulnerable area on his body untouched by the dragon’s blood he previously bathed in, believing it would render him invincible. This act of treachery, carried out by his brother-in-law’s most loyal vassal, sparks the quest for Kriemhild’s Revenge that fuels the tale’s second half, which builds to a suitably apocalyptic finale as Siegfried’s widow single-mindedly pursues his murderer. And since just two and a half months separated the release of Siegfried (in February 1924) and its follow-up, Lang trusted audiences wouldn’t need the kind of recap he had been obliged to include at the top of The Diamond Ship four years earlier.
While Lang didn’t lose his taste for super-productions with expansive running times, his last three silents – 1927’s Metropolis, 1928’s Spies, and 1929’s Woman in the Moon – were singular events, running between two and a half and three hours (though all were shortened considerably when first imported into the U.S.). In fact, decades would pass before he was given the wherewithal to produce another two-parter on the scale to which he had been accustomed, and the opportunity came just as his time in the director’s chair was drawing to a close.
A quarter century after he left Germany in 1933 – not wishing to stick around after the Nazis came to power – Lang was enticed back by producer Artur Brauner, whose offer to underwrite a remake of The Indian Tomb was one Lang found hard to refuse considering he’d burned just about every bridge he could during his turbulent tenure in Hollywood. Simultaneously fulfilling a long-delayed dream and marking the return to his roots in fantasy adventures, Lang used the opportunity to one-up Joe May, whose version was entirely studio-bound. In contrast, a major part of Lang’s was shot on location in India and had the benefit of being filmed in color to accentuate the pageantry and spectacle.
Lang’s Indian epic is also a throwback to the serials that inspired him, with the first part, The Tiger of Eschnapur (released in January 1959), ending on a cliffhanger resolved in The Indian Tomb (as the second part was titled) a month and a half later. The films entranced West German audiences in spite of the critical barbs lobbed at Lang, but his vision was poorly served by the heavily truncated version put out in the States by AIP in 1960. Hacked down to 95 minutes (less than half the original running time) and retitled Journey to the Lost City, the result was, to quote film historian David Kalat from his audio commentary on Tiger, “doomed to find an appreciative audience.” Echoing this in a 1965 interview, Lang bemoaned that “We are completely without defenses when our work is broken into pieces.”
In spite of their cultural impact in their country of origin, where they continued to be revived and shown on television for decades, American viewers didn’t get to see The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb in their proper form until Fantoma Films restored and released them on DVD in 2001. (Those discs are long out of print, though, making Film Movement’s 2019 Blu-ray upgrade an essential pick-up for Lang completists.) Meanwhile, Lang’s one true modern-day equivalent may very well be Lars von Trier, whose two-volume Nymphomaniac, completed in 2013, was designed to be watched two weeks apart. Whether Lang would claim von Trier as a descendant is another matter.