Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by Testaccio Press to ask if I wanted to preview their forthcoming book of interviews Herbert Langer, Filmmaker. I was amazed that anyone of consequence had noticed my little blog, let alone think that I had anything to contribute to this important enterprise. The proof copy arrived in March. It is wonderful. I was embarrassed that up until this point, I have absolutely no mention of Langer’s work, even though I am a great admirer, as I imagine anyone who reads these posts is.
I gave my effusive feedback to Testaccio Press and with a modicum of chutzpah I asked if they would mind if I posted some selections on this blog. Understandably, they didn’t want me to use any of the interview material but they were happy to allow me to reprint the introduction by film critic and film historian Iris Walker.
The book is scheduled to come out late Fall 2019. You’ll love it.
Herbert Langer, Filmmaker
– By Iris Walker
When I heard of the death this morning of the director Herbert Langer, I remembered a particular car ride with him. We were in a limo provided by the American Film Federation that was taking us from his home in the Hudson River Valley down to the Archer Brookstone Theater. It was November 25, 1991, and the Federation was finally acknowledging him with their Living Legend Award Retrospective.
“I’m glad for their sake they didn’t wait much longer,” he quipped mordantly, ‘otherwise they probably would have had to find someone else.”
We both laughed at the time, since his longevity hardly seemed in danger. Indeed, of the giants of his generation of filmmakers, he was one of the few still actively involved in the world of cinema. Welles, Hitchcock, Huston were all gone. But Langer seemed to be thriving.
He had recently published The History of Cinema, the Cinema of History, his exhaustive survey of American film. That remarkable achievement behind him, he had finally agreed to the Federation’s request to mount a tribute to him. The original request had come as long ago as 1978, when he was involved in the Wesleyan Shakespeare Trilogy. His refusal to delay what was perceived as a case of cinema pro bono work in order to help the committee prepare for the tribute was not taken kindly by the Federation.
They waited another 10 years before the next offer was made. I was on the committee during that time and I will confess it was no small task to muster enthusiasm for Langer. He fit no easily classifiable genre. He was not an innovative technician like Welles. For all his penetrating observation of cinema as Zeitgeist in the History, his work seems curiously remote from the times in which they were created. Plus, he didn’t fit into any easily digested nostalgia group.
The committee at that time was evenly split between the old guard auterists and what would soon be recognized as the Generation-X sensibility, those putting forth the conviction that if it isn’t of their time it is bogus (to use their overused adjective), and if it is, what is the big deal anyway? The lamentable influx of this group was yet another example of a liberal arts group shooting themselves in the foot in order to be perceived as both relevant and as offending no one.
As Chair of the Committee, I wielded some power over this incompatible group. I insisted, under pain of banishment, that all twelve of them attend a showing of Retribution I scheduled at the Federation’s screening room. I was astounded that only two of the twelve has seen it before.
The screening had a curious result. As that remarkable, unclassifiable film unreeled, the group was utterly silent. There wasn’t even sniggering at Paulette Goddard’s valiant struggle with the pseudo-Biblical language. When it was over, the reaction in the auteurist camp was predictable. A quick scrambling to find clear cases of the Langer signature in the work, drawing makeshift connections with Don Juan’s Last Night. Some fleeting observations fingering influences as far flung as Flaherty (!) and Murnau. Once the ten-minute pigeon-holing was done, the old guard was quiet.
Then Brian Castle, bless his jaded, little 26-year-old soul, broke the silence. “Man,’ he said, ‘where the hell did that come from? I mean, what was that? Iris, can I borrow a copy?” I knew then the Tribute was just a matter of time: the strange atmospherics of Retribution had worked their charms on the most blasé of our members.
Unfortunately, within five days of contacting Langer, he slipped on the ice in front of his home, breaking his arm and five ribs. Knowing that it would be useless and inappropriate to try to mount a tribute for such a completist artist without his full cooperation, we postponed it until we could be assured of his complete participation.
So here we were, finally, after almost fourteen years of trying, in a limo headed toward the Brookstone.
I got to know Langer quite well during the six months of research and compilation leading up to the tribute. Many nights were spent at his house in Irvington over Chinese take-out, listening to the stories of his career. He was never sentimental or morbid.
For that reason, the sudden sullenness after his joke on his mortality struck me as something odd. Were the years catching up with him? Did that somber tilt of the head betray a darker side that he hadn’t let out previously?
“What’s wrong, Herbert?”
“Oh, Iris, it’s nothing. Well, no, it is something. They are going to show that clip from the end of Don Juan at the climax of Castle’s speech.”
‘That clip’, as he so cavalierly described it, is, of course, the legendary final scene of the Don as his is dragged down to Hell. The astounding two minute and forty-seven seconds tight long-take of Dale Hunt’s beautiful, tortured face had permanently altered the way films have ended since it first appeared in 1942.
“But Herbert, of course they are going to show it. It is your single most famous image.”
He looked at me, sighed one of his famous Yiddish-inflected sighs, smiled at me and said, “The camera should have been two feet back.”
I was stunned. A whole world of perceptions turned over in me. That shot, indeed, Don Juan’s Last Night in its totality is generally regarded as a perfect piece of art, complete and absolutely finished. Yet, here was the creator telling me that it fell short of the masterpiece he was aiming for. It was Wagner saying Tristan und Isolde ended on the wrong chord. It was Tolstoy saying Anna Karenina was too long. It was Monet saying that the waterlilies should have been more yellow.
But, suddenly, I was able to see it, too. The shot was more detailed, the devils and flames in the background more apparent. The head shot of Hunt replaced by a torso shot, the open shirt revealing that sensuous neck and chest.
He was right. It was better. But – what if he had shot it half a foot closer, with the incredible intensity heightened even more?
As if he read my thoughts, he said, “Iris, nothing is ever finished.”
As I watched the clip after Brian’s tribute speech, I thought of this. I knew that it wasn’t the accomplishments but the endless creativity of Herbert Langer that was being fêted that evening.
– Iris Walker, February 25, 2019