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Fritz Lang’s Liliom: Less Catholic, still Christian?

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By:Ray Olson | September 05, 2014

“. . . there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.” 1 Corinthians, 13:13 (The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, 1970).

On February 7, 2011, Art Livingston posted to this blog a discussion of the early Hollywood talkie, Liliom (1930), based on the play of the same name by the popular and prolific early-twentieth-century Hungarian dramatist, Ferenc Molnár. Art points to Catholic elements in the film, attributing them to the Catholicism of director Frank Borzage, “whatever the degree of apostasy in his personal life.” Keenly insightful, Art’s comments remain accessible through this blog and introduce to those who’ve never heard of Borzage one of the very best and most distinctive filmmakers in American cinema.

As Art tells us, Borzage wasn’t the only front-rank director attracted to Molnár’s fantastic melodrama about how a scapegrace rapscallion gets to Heaven. In 1934, German filmmaker Fritz Lang—whose silent science fiction epic, Metropolis (1927), and talkie, M (1931), about the pursuit of a serial murderer in Berlin’s criminal underworld, are his best-known films—made of Liliom his only French film (his next would be made in Hollywood). Decades later, Lang said that, despite its box-office failure, it was one of his films that he most liked. I share his estimate of it while feeling that Lang is a rather bipolar artist, who veers from excellent to execrable almost from picture to picture.

Both film Lilioms are quite faithful to the play, and the dialog of Borzage’s, the English subtitles of Lang’s, and, for that matter, the dialog of the 1956 movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (the foremost if not best reason why Liliom is still remembered) echo the 1921 English adaptation of the play by Benjamin F. Glazer. But as Glen Kenny notes (“Two Visions of ‘Liliom’: Frank Borzage, 1930; Fritz Lang, 1934”, mubi.com), the two films “see” what the story is about differently, and not just in cinematographic terms. Yes, Borzage is more apt to move the camera, Lang to proceed via montage (virtuosically under the credits and throughout the opening sequence of his Liliom); Borzage to guide actors oddly (the rate of delivery in his Liliom is glacial), Lang to focus their performances, often within long-held close-ups. When Liliom goes to the afterlife, Borzage takes him there very fancifully, on a romantically illumined night train, whereas Lang has him floating upward with a dour, plain-clothes-cop-looking angel holding him on either side. And while Borzage’s anteroom to Heaven (and Purgatory) observes Molnár’s rendition of it as a hall-of-justice lobby, Lang’s is a police court just like the one Liliom has earlier been hauled into on Earth—dried-up stamp pads and all!

Differences more consequential to Liliom’s story of a soul’s salvation lie in the characterological foci and salvific agencies of the two films. Borzage’s Liliom, Kenny rightly observes, “could just as well be called Julie.” Art Livingston says, “Almost all the first two-thirds of the movie centers on the love of Julie . . . for Liliom.” Meanwhile, never for an instant does Lang make anyone but Liliom the center of attention. Perhaps this particular difference originally stemmed from Borzage having a relatively weak leading man—Charles Farrell was fine as the good-guy hunk whom Janet Gaynor as a flower of the slums or barnyard falls for in Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929) but not enough of a tough for Liliom—whereas Lang had the electric Charles Boyer, who could play any man, from wastrel to monarch, as long as he was passionate.

Of course, whether Liliom is really capable of love is an open question. He may be a roughly charming ladykiller, but a husband? “He appears at first to have no redeeming (if not redeemable) qualities.  His conceit is unbearable and he treats women detestably, the surest sign of a cad.  One particularly nefarious of his hangers on talks him much too easily into committing armed robbery. When captured he stabs himself and then lingers a short while before dying.” Thus Art Livingston, and he’s talking about the Borzage-Farrell Liliom. In Lang’s version, we actually see Liliom strike Julie, and, in a later flashback from the beyond, we learn that he was knowingly doing it to defend his wounded vanity.

So what saves Liliom at last? Art makes the case that, in Borzage’s Liliom, it is “the efficacy of prayer” by Julie immediately after Liliom’s death, before he is taken to the afterlife—a beautiful thought and a cogent interpretation. But Julie’s prayer is an interpolation by Borzage.

In the play and Lang’s movie, Julie doesn’t pray. She and Liliom aren’t married by the church. God is mentioned only as Liliom and his accomplice chit-chat while awaiting the target of the intended payroll robbery. The other man—the brains, to the extent there are any, of the operation—replies to Liliom’s fear of having to answer to God for his crimes that guys like them never get to see God at all, just as they never see a judge when they’re arrested on Earth. His crony’s cynicism crushes Liliom’s single, timorous disclosure of having any faith at all.

Shortly after, with the cops closing in after the paymaster easily foils the would-be robbers, Liliom stabs himself mortally, consummating the hopelessness that we’ve seen all along in his truculent fecklessness.

Yet this man without faith, without hope, is saved, after 16 years in Purgatory, by an equivocal act that perhaps has challenged all the play’s and movies’ audiences. Allowed to return to Earth to see his daughter on the cusp of womanhood, Liliom bungles the encounter so that the girl becomes fearful. She tries to recoil from him, and he impatiently, heart-brokenly slaps her. Rushing to her mother, she asks whether it’s possible for a slap to feel like a kiss. Julie, recalling the blow Liliom gave her and which, in Lang’s film, we have both seen and critically reviewed, tells the girl, yes, yes, it is.

That slap, recognized for what it means, saves Liliom. In the last scene of Lang’s film, the scale weighing Liliom’s bad against his good deeds—in which the platter full of sins seems insuperably overloaded—tips decisively to the good. Liliom has confirmed that he loves.

Of course, that slap, along with the previous one, has confounded critics, at least, for decades. A boy/man striking a girl/woman at any time, in any circumstances, is always and only a hideous barbarism, say the wardens of political correctness. For more than a century, Liliom has dissented, honorably.

Viewing note: The better of the two DVD editions of Fritz Lang’s Liliom is on the second disc of the two-disc, fiftieth anniversary edition of Carousel issued by Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment, along with several worthwhile extra features about the musical, to be sure, but which help one watch both films with discrimination.

Comments

 

 
Joe Johnson
Philadelphia
9/5/2014 08:16 PM
 

  Ray, what are your thoughts on that movie where James Cagney strikes a woman in the face.

 
 
Ray Olson
St. Paul
9/5/2014 09:08 PM
 

  Joe--The Public Enemy is a very good movie, one of the best gangster films, with one of the most unforgettable and powerful last shots ever made. Tom Powers (Cagney) shoving a grapefruit into his moll Kitty's (Mae Clarke) face is its most famous shot, however, also nothing like Liliom hitting Julie. There's not even lust in it, let alone love. It's an act of pure, callous disdain, and exactly right for filling out the Tom Powers character. Nobody's gonna say any prayers for him!

 
 
JD Salyer
Frankfort
9/9/2014 02:23 PM
 

  Many thanks to Mr. Olson for pointing me to another Lang movie I need to see. I missed Art Livingston's commentary on Liliom and had never even heard of it.

 
 
Cephas Harte
Rockville
10/25/2014 12:32 PM
 

  Hmmm. Interesting story, but as a believer myself, I can only say this: Where is the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah in all of this? Yes, use a sinner for Everyman. But our entry into heaven was won by the Messiah, not ourselves.

 
 
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