The paperwork, far from bringing Lang into focus, makes him harder to read. The most nagging controversies surrounding his life remain where they were. Existing documents relating to the fate of Lang's first wife, who died in 1920 as a result of a "shot in the chest, accident," as noted by the doctor called to the scene, fail to clarify the circumstances of what may have been accident, suicide, or (according to certain slanderous rumors) murder. Lang's alleged participation in a Nazi film organization, hinging on a single item in a 1933 trade paper, can neither be confirmed nor denied; and while his account of precipitately leaving Germany the day after being courted by Goebbels to head the German film industry has been discredited, what really went down remains unclear. (We do, however, have Goebbels's diary entry after seeing M: "Fantastic! Counters all that sentimental humanitarianism. For the death penalty! Well done. One day, Lang will be our director.")
A major concern of the book is to absolve Lang of any ambiguity in his opposition to the Nazis, and here the evidence is compelling. His financial generosity to refugees and to anti-Nazi organizations is plentifully recorded, and the tenor of his private correspondence does not suggest opportunism or clouded motives. To Eleanor Rosé, a close friend of his youth, he wrote in 1945: "I hate Germany so much that I don't want to see anything of this country in my life again. I have become an American citizen six years ago and try . . . to forget that I belong to a race which brought so much misfortune upon this earth of ours." His social world in America remained very German; a snapshot from a Hollywood living room in 1936 shows him in apparently jovial conclave with G.W. Pabst, Joseph Schildkraut, Peter Lorre, and Erich von Stroheim. Subsequently, as this book clarifies, he formed a close friendship with Theodor Adorno, but by many of the émigrés he was not so well loved. His falling-out with Brecht is well known, and Kurt Weill complains in a letter to Lotte Lenya of his collaboration "with this pompous guy, Lang" (mit diesem aufgeblasenen Lang); his former lover Marlene Dietrich later wrote of his "Teutonic arrogance" and called him a member of "Sadist Incorporated." Even the sympathetic Eleanor Rosé could offer only this by way of eulogy: "I hope that he was able to get away from this hypocritical world without a struggle. He had had enoughóor rather, he had always had enough, even at 22óbut his desire for power drove him on endlessly."
That desire for power encompassed, at the very least, a desire to shape his photographic representation, from a 1923 spread of Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou sprawled in a Berlin apartment overflowing with pedigreed pets, satin pillows, and artwork ranging from Asian tapestries to erotic paintings and drawings by Klimt and Schiele, to a 1960 portrait of the director in Germany, his thin smile, monocle, and cigarette holder reinforcing an impression of sardonic dignity. The interiors of Lang's homes in Germany and America could pass for settings in his filmsóthe disposition of objects and spaces has the same elegant yet ultimately cold exactnessóand the portraits and production stills (was any director ever photographed so frequently on the job?) convey an unrelenting attention to surface and gesture. The warmest and most unguarded portraits, interestingly enough, show him with his stuffed monkey, Peter, a toy that became a cherished companion whom (as shown here) he would dress up and put to bed.