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Ironically, according to Friedrich Steinbach, it was Lang’s mother, the convert, who took responsibility for indoctrinating her son in the catechism and rituals, while Lang’s father, busy with work and more ambivalent about religion, skipped Mass on Sundays and acted almost heretically upon occasion. Steinbach told this anecdote: As a young boy, Steinbach was standing on the balcony of the Lang summer home in Gars am Kamp with Anton Lang, who was his godfather as well as his uncle. A storm was brewing. Thunder rang out, lightning flashed across the sky. Suddenly, Anton Lang opened his arms to the heavens, and, to his horror, cried out, “Hit me! Hit me now! Send a bolt for me!” Then, turning to the boy, who cowered before such blasphemy, Anton Lang asked with a malicious grin, “Do you really believe everything they tell you?”
Young Fritz Lang was probably present at the “double conversion” in 1900, and likely blocked it out of his memory. Georges Sturm made an interesting comparison between that family incident and a scene in Secret Beyond the Door, a film Lang directed in America in 1947. In the film, an heiress recollects her marriage to an architect. A flashback shows the wedding taking place amid the twinkling gloom of a Mexican cathedral, four centuries old. The occasion is photographed from extreme low-to-the-ground angles, “which isn’t justified in the continuity of the other shots in the sequence, unless it is seen, for example, by a child,” in Sturm’s words.
Fritz Lang’s older brother, more intriguingly, would have been present for the occasion–the brother Lang never acknowledged in public. Adolf Lang (named in honor of Adolf Endl?) was born on March 19, 1884, less than a year after the marriage of Paula and Anton Lang. A full six years older than Fritz, Dolf (as he was called) was a few inches shorter than his brother, who grew to five feet eleven. With his dark-blond hair, Dolf resembled his father, while Fritz Lang, with his deep-brown hair, gray eyes, long face, straight nose and pointed chin, took after Paula. Dolf’s character and personality were more like his father’s, too. He took no interest in artistic pursuits, and in time became a staid businessman like his father–a bank manager; in fact, utterly middle class.
Dolf, the oldest boy carrying the family surname, ought to have been the favored son, but the opposite was true. Dolf was disadvantaged within the family, treated almost as a leper. The reason, as Steinbach remembered–and Austrian military records confirm–must have carried with it a devastating personal humiliation. Adolf Lang had a rampant psoriasis that resulted in scabs and rashes all over his body. When guests came to call, Dolf was actually hidden away in the Lang household, like the boy whose father cannot abide him, who is closeted in one of the mansion’s many rooms in Secret Beyond the Door. The ugly, embarrassing Dolf was hidden away, while the handsome Fritz–with his intelligent face, his shock of tawny hair, his creamy complexion–was paraded in front of visitors, his ego petted and pampered.
The brothers, as a result, had a terrible relationship, a lifelong violent antipathy to each other. It wounded their mother, Paula Lang, even though she helped spur their lopsided rivalry. Fritz Lang learned superiority and domination, even over his older brother, from adolescence. Throughout adulthood the brothers communicated with each other only when absolutely necessary. Not once, when expounding on his past in the dozens upon dozens of published interviews he gave, did the film director ever mention his older brother. Even Lotte Eisner, in her authorized book about Lang, presents the man she knew as well as anyone as an “only child.”
There is a surprising number of brothers represented in Lang’s films. To name but a few, the outlaw brothers James in The Return of Frank James the dichotomous brothers of Western Union (their blood bond a secret until the end); the mildly sparring upper-crust brothers of Man Hunt; the hateful and complicit brothers of House by the River; the cutthroat siblings of Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal.
The brother-characters were sometimes Lang’s contribution to a scenario, more often not. But he could seize on such characters in a film’s story line and make them vivid. In life as in imagination, he understood weak and bothersome brothers.
The Lang family lived a “thoroughly bourgeois” existence, according to the director, whose childhood (if not his brother Dolf’s) was blessed by comfort and indulgence. Vienna might be a cold and drab, not to mention inhospitable, place to some, but Fritz Lang led a boyhood of modest privilege, and his earliest memories of the place would be almost paradisical.
The Langs moved several times before settling down, in November of 1900, in a stone fortress at Zeltgasse 1, in the Josefstadt, or Eighth District. The family occupied the first floor of a massive five-story, U-shaped building, which was surrounded on three sides by narrow streets and opened onto a cramped square. It was situated near the Piaristen Church, short blocks from the Josefstadt-Theater and a place that must have loomed in the psyche of a boy destined to make his mark as a crime-story filmmaker–the Landesgericht, or Criminal Court Building.