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Sing Me a Song of America: Fritz Lang's "You and Me" (1938)

Fritz Lang's 1938 what's-it is an ungainly but immeasurably pleasurable experiment.
Daniel Kasman

Above:  two mannequins stiffly pretend at being a wealthy, happy couple, with a dapper gentleman lurking over the couple's shoulder.

Along with Liliom, which Fritz Lang made in France during his run from the Nazi film studios to those in Hollywood, his 1938 what's-it You and Me is an ungainly but immeasurably pleasurable experiment from a director who, like his quasi-disciple and later model, Alfred Hitchcock, is too often pigeon-holed into making only just one kind of film.

The despair of Fury (1936) and the doomed romantic fatalism of You Only Love Once (1937), Lang's first two films in America, are thrown out the door for...well, what exactly is this film anyway? Whereas most A-list studio films make great efforts to smooth over their variable influences, rip-offs, references, and other post-modern hybridity, You and Me practically basks in its idiosyncratic assembly. Since the film is showing at Anthology Film Archives' One-Eyed Auteurs film series in New York, but is unavailable on video, hopefully some images and description will paint the strange picture.  See if this math adds up:

—It is a redeeming romance, with a flat George Raft and a radiant Sylvia Sydney as two ex-cons on parole trying to make good to themselves and each other. While Raft is honest about his criminal past, Sydney hides hers to maintain their relationship, sowing seeds of distrust. They fight against the forces of suspicion and dissatisfaction in their rocket-fast marriage for a long time, before finally finding happiness.

Below: with a crooked arm and eyes a-slant, a modern city girl lays her aim at George Raft, stoic department store clerk. Why doesn't he respond to such overt sexual advances? We see a moment later in a wonderful scene, perhaps the film's best, on a 1930s escalator: he likes fellow clerk Sylvia Sydney.

—It is part gangster tale, this being Lang, and Lang in America of course. Raft, like Sidney, works at a department store whose owner makes a point of giving paroled convicts an honest chance. But the obvious result of such a policy is a building full of ex-convicts, and it isn't long before old pals start showing up to pull Raft back to the dark side.

Below: While George Raft goes out at night to cohort with old gangster buddies, the forlorn love and tormented conscience of Sydney tosses and turns in an unusually realistic and intimate bedroom scene:

Below: The third and final musical number, gangsters in their gangster's bar reminiscence about jail time, how they communicated between cells with tapping, and how they elliptically learned the story of the escape of the big man, number one gangster, through the prison network.

—It is part early 1930s city tale, close to M and like so many of those wonderful, studio bound stories of life in metropolises like New York and Chicago as told by flatly textured and anonymously decorated studio backlots in Hollywood (see, for example, in the gangster cycle, Mamoulian's City StreetsScarface, and Underworld; or such Borzage as Bad Girl). The effect is of an aliened urban world cut away from the teaming masses that inhabit them; abandoned, eerily empty, plain, transient spaces make up the setting. In such an unfriendly space, lovers, when finally united, seem like they are forced to form forlorn, defensive idylls of heightened and perhaps even forced platitudes of love to combat such an urban abyss.

Below: a rare scene of urban opulence, the public dance hall. Yet our heroine is preoccupied with her guilt, and while in the background there is merry revelry, in the almost abstract and spectator-like foreground, couples, including our own, sit isolated and lonely.

Below: the night of the wedding; the couple is happy but worrisome, the tenement charming (no lights after dark!) and foreboding.

Sylvia Sydney in particular, in an almost forced performance, has never been so gloriously effusive, and comes off as one desperately wishing to build something, perhaps even a fiction of personal security and safety in the empty, suffocating environment. This urban need helps temper the film's awkward contrivance that she would not mutually share her criminal past with Raft as he has done with her.

Below: a characteristic Lang associative overlap, here of the happy couple and the parolee's rule not to marry.

Below: Silvia Sydney begins to sense the distrust in her marriage:

Below: distrust turns to severity.

Below: finally, le mepris.

—Like Liliom, Lang works at romance through musicality, as if his particular brand of modernist drama couldn't really convince anyone of honest to goodness love (see the glamorous but thoroughly hollow male-female relationships in Lang's German work). So You and Me is a musical, sort of. Actually it most resembles a studio-botched musical, one where a whole film was planned around songs, most of which were cut out after test screenings. This is only partly true of You and Me, which did have more music planned for it but was not hacked to pieces as its lurching quality might suggest.

Below: shots from the opening musical number, about needing money to buy all things in American life.

Yet the film does seem to strenuously dedicate itself to erratic musicality, even with few songs. With music by Kurt Weill and an obvious influence from Brecht, the songs are not sung by main characters and are sung at us. The opening number, which introduces the department store setting, is of a bass-heavy voice proclaiming how nothing can be had in America without buying it; a later music hall number is a kind of impressionistic, subjective tangent into the dreamy thought process of the Raft-Sydney couple, who wonder about each other's love in their criminal context, all shot as a very deliberate (and authentic, considering DP Charles Lang's credits) Josef von Sternberg pastiche; and the third and final song a marvelous one of criminal comradery, calling up a gang's past together behind bars, their means of communication and storytelling.

Below: the second musical number, aping Sternberg in lighting and mise-en-scène.

Below: during the song, Lang cross-dissolves between the singer, the sung story, and Sylvia Sydney contemplating (or imagining) the song.

Below: Sydney takes something affirmative from the didactic story, as the next shot suggests that she realizes she wants to marry Raft, though at the moment he is still upset because he thinks he is leaving the  city by himself that very night.

Below: Despite what most of these images suggest, all is not heartbreak in You and Me. Like the scene on the escalator, the one below where Raft runs off his bus to embrace Sydney after she awkwardly proposed to him is deliciously romantic, light and almost giddy, an unusual but remarkably successful tone for Fritz Lang.

While the songs stick out like awkward sore thumbs in the film, it probably bares pointing out that nearly everything sticks out awkwardly. From the obvious fascination Lang has with the gangster milieu (songs, nostalgia, faces, prison, heists) to its abrupt placement next to Raft and Sydney’s desperate, enthusiastic attempts at happiness, everything in the film rubs against everything else in provocative ways. And so it should be, I suppose, for a film trying to teach us something.

Below: gangsters caught in the toy department.

Via Brecht, Lang makes You and Me the formal culmination of all that he works with in his American period but is often ignored in his later, more genre-based work: social address. Here the film even eventually lectures the audience—amusingly and charmingly, to be sure, since it is Silvia Sydney doing the lecturing to a cast of gangster caricatures—about how crime doesn't pay. But more effective is the less over the top educative glimpses: that of foraging an honest life, that of finding and maintaining love, that of simply existing in a city, of existing in an unforgiving society which so seductively mixes capitalism, crime, and happiness in a melting pot.

Below: lessons in American living: crime doesn't pay.


Fritz Lang
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