Could you imagine living out your golden years without your favorite stuffed animal? Well, the most eccentric filmmaker of the 20th century, Fritz Lang, certainly couldn’t! He had Peter the monkey with him everywhere, night and day. If you don’t believe me, just ask Peter Bogdanovich: the damn monkey was present during his famous interview with that legendary enigmatic cinematic ‘Master of Darkness’. But while Lang’s curious fetish for Peter the monkey was blatant and his affection for him was bizarrely and tenderly cute, his other fetishes were more secretively creepy and downright perverse!
Yes, this is a sweet picture, indeed! Peter was able to tame the beast because if you read ‘Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast’ by Patrick McGilligan, you’ll learn about all the dark sides of Lang the Fang. Fritz preferred the company of ‘ladies of the night’, had a foot fetish and a reputation for organizing Hollywood orgies, and collected macabre objects like tribal shrunken heads and weird masks from around the world. Lang wore a monocle like fellow director Erich von Stroheim, a fashion that could be perceived at the time as aristocratic Nazi, and his Germanic accent didn't help matters. He was sadistic to some of his actors, in particular the 18-year-old Brigitte Helm who played the hot robot in his 1927 masterpiece, ‘Metropolis’. By the way, that movie cost 7 million German marks (which would be $200 million today) and kick-started the science fiction genre. Even by today’s standards of super- duper special effects, ‘Metropolis’ remains a mind-blowing cinematic experience.
But getting back to poor Brigitte, during the making of ‘Metropolis’, the ordeal she experienced and the physical pain she felt (her robot armor left her with bruises and scars, and the heat of the fire scene was real) for her first role reminds me of what Tippi Hedren went through on the set of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Did the Masters of Suspense or Darkness want to destroy what they couldn’t have? Well, let just say that reading ‘Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast’ gave me an eerie idea for a sordid story for my book Sinemania!
Lang wasn’t really understood in the Hollywood community and the Austrian expatriate was far from a saint. To illustrate what I mean, in my story, Fritz orders the company of a prostitute to show her his movie scrapbook and describes its pictures in his own peculiar way. I had read that towards the end of his life he paid prostitutes, not for sex, but simply for some female company to avoid loneliness.
I’ll let you discover the twist of that creepy tale on your own, but I’m gonna use this post to open the curtain on the real scandals and murders that plagued Fritz Lang’s life. Yes, dear reader, life can copy art and Fritz and his monkey could be to blame! Move over, Polanski!
Lang was born in Vienna in 1890 from a Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism when Fritz was ten. He was raised in that faith and cherished it until his death in 1976. The first scandal and enigmatic mystery to involve the ‘Master of Darkness’ was the death of his first wife, Lisa Rosenthal. She is now known as ‘Lang’s suicidal first wife’ who found the idea of being replaced by a hot new mistress too hard to take. The facts are that in 1921, Lisa died from a gunshot to her chest while she was in her bathtub. Lang’s mistress, Thea von Harbou, moved in with him not long after. Was it suicide or murder? Only Fritz, Thea, or Peter the monkey knew for certain.
Lang made several excellent film noirs in the US. My favorite is ‘Scarlet Street’ from 1945. Joan Bennett played a manipulative femme fatale who took the character portrayed by Edward G. Robinson for a sucker. Dan Duryea played her loser con artist lover and it’s a pleasure watching the evil couple up to no good and sucking their victim dry! This movie is a must and the experience of seeing it is even more powerful knowing that Bennett was Fritz Lang’s American muse (they made a few films together). On top of that, Joan Bennett was a femme fatale in real life!
On the fatal day of December 13, 1951, Bennett, Lang’s film noir bitch, made a rendezvous with her Hollywood agent of twelve years, Jennings Lang (no relation to Fritz, just a bloody coincidence) in a parking lot at the MCA offices. Little did Bennett know that her jealous husband, Walter Wanger, was following her with a gun. He shot what he assumed was her secret lover twice. Her words after realizing that her hubby was a murderer were: “Get away and leave us alone!” Wanger tossed his pistol into his wife’s car. Lang survived, Wanger pled insanity and served only four months in prison. Was the ‘Master of Darkness’ doomed with a plague of crimes of passion? Well, I’m definitely starting to see a pattern here.
In Lang’s 1931 classic, ‘M’, Peter Lorre played a child killer or, between the lines, an active sexual predator/pedophile. That was a very taboo subject for the time. But three years earlier, Germany was really shaken by the gruesome murders of child serial killer, Peter Kürten, who became known as the Monster of Düsseldorf. Lang’s depiction of this unthinkable true story and Lorre’s quirky childlike performance made that film mandatory for the curriculum of any Film 101 university course. Peter Lorre became Peter Kürten and I believe Peter the monkey was around at that time, too. Or his murderous spirit was… Peter Kürten was executed in 1931 after nine murders and seven attempted murders, 1931 also being the year ‘M’ hit the theatres. Mmm… Could Peter the monkey have previously belonged to one of Kürten’s child victims and taken as a trophy? And did Lang adopt him as a good luck charm after the mega-success of ‘M’?
Peter Lorre delivered a magnificent tormented portrait of Kürten’s evil and, fortunately for him, that wasn’t a curse. Hollywood warmly opened its doors to his vivid and undeniable acting talent. In 1935, his movie ‘Mad Love’ (fuck, not another M!) catapulted him to the top and he became a household name as a scene-stealing creepy character actor. If you watch a flick with Peter Lorre in it, his presence is what you’ll remember most about the film ten years later. Besides being known for his huge bulging sad eyes and distinctive slimy voice, he was a complex individual in real life, addicted to morphine to deal with gallbladder problems. During his ‘Mr. Moto’ years (enough with the goddamn M’s already!!) he managed to kick his ‘M’orphine habit, but put on a hundred pounds in return. In 1964, Peter Lorre died of a stroke at the age of 60.
The serial killer Peter Kürten inspired the beginning of Lorre’s fantastic career. Weirdly enough, his role in ‘M’ saved the life of his daughter when she almost became the victim of two other serial killers, ‘The Hillside Stranglers’! In 1977, the diabolical duo, Buono and Bianchi, confessed that they spared the life of Lorre’s daughter, Catharine. After giving her a ride in Los Angeles (while dressed up as cops), they intended for her to become their next victim until she happened to mention the name of her famous father to them. ‘M’ could in this case also mean ‘Miracle’. After seeing the faces of Buono and Bianchi on the TV news, Catharine realized that her dad saved her life and she was also grateful that those two lowlifes had some knowledge of the history of sinema and admired ‘M’!
Was Peter the monkey really buried with Fritz Lang in 1976 like he had requested? I doubt it. I suspect that in 1988, the king of zombie films, George A. Romero, hired that ‘M’other fucker’ without even auditioning him for the main role in his film, ‘Monkey Shines’!
Where is Peter the monkey now? Who knows, but if I were you I would lock my door, day and night! I certainly do.
Is he real or not? Is he guilty or not? All I know is that he gives the letter ‘M’ new meaning!
That’s my conspiracy theory, but I know that other movie and art lovers have their own perspective. In May last year, I had the pleasure of seeing an exhibit by two fabulous artists, Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, at the Crypt Gallery in London. They had a totally different and valid version of the meaning of ‘M’.
‘M’ for McDonalds! The ‘meat is murder’ sin can also fit the bill, but then Hitler was a vegetarian, so who knows? Anyway, I’m up for a debate! But McDonald’s sure is a monkey business, they got that right!
In their exhibit, ‘Berlin: The Forgers Tale’, Broughton and Birnie’s art is a pure delight for any lover of German culture of the 1920s and ‘30s. Their spoofing of Fritz Lang’s movies of that era is simply magical and the mix of contemporary icons and vintage visual aesthetics is brilliant. See for yourself here:
If I was rich, now you know what I’d do with my monkey… I mean my money! I’d buy their art and follow their exhibits from town to town! With a triple shot of pure absinthe! I can’t wait to see what that wonderful duo comes up with next!
Alright, I should stop monkeying around and conclude this silly post about the ‘M’aster of Darkness’. Fritz Lang’s life and personality are as interesting as his cinematographic art, his vision, and noir tales. Discovering the fact that his real life was surrounded by actual ‘M’urder, ‘M’ayhem, ‘M’ystery, M’orphine, and ‘M’onkey was ‘M’agic for ‘M’e and I thought that sharing that with you could be ‘M’arvelously entertaining! Mmm… 'M’azeltov!
(Lang made a cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Le Mépris’ with Brigitte Bardot. Godard was a huge fan of the director and this is a sweet and tongue-in-cheek scene from that movie, followed by a great Lang tribute in French with English subtitles. Enjoy!)