The great tradition of paranoid cinema began with Fritz Lang. Conspiracies, treachery, vengeance, cabals — the fear of omnipotent, invisible, malignant powers controlling everything behind the scenes — pervade nearly all of his films. Currently you can enter that dark, twisted, mirrored world at the Harvard Film Archive, which is presenting a comprehensive retrospective, “The Complete Fritz Lang,” through Sept. 1. In addition to familiar masterpieces such as “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931), both of which screened earlier in the HFA series but are available for free on YouTube, there are many lesser-known films that should be seen.
Almost all feature devious plots that seem the products of external forces beyond mortal control, but which prove on second glance to be the projection of an unconscious, self-sabotaging megalomania. This world is a vast pathetic fallacy, an externalized tumult of passion, fear, loneliness, and rage, in which the war between love and death — “Eros” and “Thanatos,” as Lang’s fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud put it — is waged for possession of the human soul.
In “Destiny” (screens Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.), Lang takes on the ultimate conspirator, Death. Reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s multi-period moral fable “Intolerance” (1916) and prefiguring such disparate films as “Death Takes a Holiday” (1934), “The Seventh Seal” (1957), and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991), “Destiny” (released in 1921 Germany as “Der müde Tod,” or “The Weary Death”) takes place “some time and some place,” as the title card puts it, where an unnamed pair of lovers glow with delight. But a stranger who looks like Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter” (1973) arrives in town, buys a plot of ground next to the graveyard, and builds a huge wall around it that looks like it came from Griffiths’s Babylon set. The wall has no discernible entrance — or exit.
One of the first to end up behind the wall is the young man, but, touched by her devotion, Death offers his lover a deal. If she can rescue just one of three doomed souls from his clutches, he will grant her wish to reunite with her love. Each soul lives in a different time and place — the medieval Caliphate, Renaissance Italy, Imperial China — and in each episode the woman tries to outwit Death, in vain. Ever the softie, however, the weary reaper gives her one more chance to vindicate her faith that, as the Song of Solomon would have it, “love is as strong as death.”
A nice guy after all, Death; just another working stiff doing his job. Not so the title fiend in Lang’s four-hour, 1922 film “Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler” (July 27 at 5 p.m.). Like Death, he’s a gambler who never loses, a Dr. Caligari-like master of disguise and mind control whose enterprises range from bilking billionaires at casino tables to undermining governments and economic systems.
Lang relates his antihero’s antics in a breakneck series of episodes enacted on sets that look like a collaboration among Busby Berkeley, Tim Burton, and the Sergei Eisenstein of “Ivan the Terrible” (1945). But, diabolical as his talents may be, Mabuse depends on the fanatical devotion of his minions, who are drawn to his charisma as would the German people soon be to Adolf Hitler. As Siegfried Kracauer put it in his classic film text “From Caligari to Hitler,” Mabuse offered the desperate nation the “alternative of tyranny or chaos.” Those choosing the former little knew that both options would ultimately amount to the same thing.
Though deservedly hailed as one of the masterpieces of world cinema, Lang’s monumental, much discussed dystopic allegory “Metropolis” has eclipsed the brilliance of his more composed, equally brilliant “Die Nibelungen” movies (both screen Aug. 3 at 5 p.m.), “Siegfried” (1924) and “Kriemhild’s Revenge” (1925), adapted from the 12th-century epic poem. The first features the towheaded scamp of the title who vows to win the heart of Kriemhild, the beautiful sister of Gunther, dour king of Burgundy. In short order Siegfried kills a dragon, bathes in its blood (which grants him Achilles-like invulnerability, though with an Achilles-like flaw), slays Alberich, the king of the dwarves, and steals Alberich’s treasure trove, invincible sword, and net of invisibility. Then he shows up at Gunther’s gate to claim Kriemhild as his prize.
Having begun as a precursor to “Lord of the Rings,” “Die Nibelungen” becomes more like “Game of Thrones” as vengeance and ambition pervert all virtues. Siegfried is murdered, and in “Kriemhild’s Revenge” the previously ditzy Kriemhild transforms into a terrifying fury. She marries the grotesque Etzel, king of the Huns, and plots to turn his troglodytic hordes against her own duplicitous kin.
Lang expresses this conflict in part through set design and costumes, as the geometric symmetry of Burgundy gives way to the eldritch squalor of the Huns’ domain. Kriemhild, meanwhile, is encased in increasingly ornate, restrictive costumes, intricately and radiantly patterned, until she appears like a gilded portrait by Gustav Klimt.
Thus, décor determines fate; as a demented architect would note in Lang’s 1947 Hollywood-made noir “Secret Beyond the Door . . . ” (Aug. 25 at 7 p.m.), the design of a building or room will shape what happens to those who inhabit them, because those places are, in fact, manifestations of their minds.
With his first sound film, “M,” Lang turned from fantasy to the inky desolation of then present-day Berlin. Responding to the threat of anarchy, criminals and the police, equally rational and organized, form an alliance to bring down a ruthless, pathetic child murderer (played in a harrowing performance by Peter Lorre), whose uncontrollable pathology wanders the claustrophobic and shadowy labyrinth of the city.
“M” proposes a precarious balance between transgression and repression that would collapse in Lang’s 1933 sequel “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (Aug. 2 at 9 p.m.). Though locked in an insane asylum after his capture in the first film, Mabuse somehow revives and executes his schemes, now more destructive and nihilistic than before. A chilling foreshadowing of today’s terrorism, his atrocities serve no other purpose than to destroy and unleash chaos. As Mabuse puts it, his goal is “a state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation.”
This theme might have struck the leaders of the newly established Third Reich as a bit too close to home. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, though a big fan of Lang’s work, withdrew the film from release. As a consolation, Goebbels asked Lang to head the state-run studio UFA. Lang responded by fleeing the country, first for Paris, and then Hollywood.
Though Lang never became comfortable with the Hollywood studio system, his expressionist style and obsession with inner derangement and outer persecution helped establish the genre of film noir. Released in 1936, his first American film, “Fury” (Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.), picked up where “M” left off. As in that film, a criminal suspect (Spencer Tracy) faces vigilante justice, except in this case he is innocent. The experience, however, transforms him into an avenger no less ruthless than the mob that attacked him, until he, too, is consumed with irrational fury and the lust for violence.
This theme would also consume Lang; years later in the noir classic “The Big Heat” (1953), he is still exploring it. Here a police detective (Glenn Ford) seeks vengeance for his murdered wife. A Dirty Harry prototype, the hard-boiled, lawless cop wages a one-man war against the mob kingpin responsible for her death — a two-bit Mabuse who has corrupted the police force and who seems all-knowing and all-powerful. But the detective perseveres, and in the process risks becoming the same as the evil that he opposes.
In 1959 Lang left the creative frustrations of Hollywood for the limitations of Germany. Threadbare in production but still potent in its resurrection of his protean, immortal bad guy, Lang’s 1960 film, the James Bond-like “The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” (Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.), pointed the way to a future of government surveillance and weapons of mass destruction. It was the last film he directed.
But he would have one final fling on the screen in 1963, playing a version of himself in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” (Aug. 29 at 9 p.m.). A once mighty filmmaker reduced to directing a kitsch version of The Odyssey, Lang says at one point, “I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.” After “Contempt,” Lang would remain idle until his death in 1976 at age 85. He was embittered and disappointed, his best friend a wooden monkey, but he had become a deity in the pantheon of auteurs.
“The Complete Fritz Lang” continues through Sept. 1 at the Harvard Film Archive in the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge. For ticket prices and additional information, see hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.