Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)

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On the surface it is little more than a chase film, but Manhunt, brims with energy, nuance and angst. Set just before the Second World War, and a misunderstanding that leads to the capture of a British citizen by the Nazis, who then attempt to fake his death. Luck, and his knowledge of wilderness and survival allow him to escape, and even to find his way home back to England, but this is not enough. Ideologically, the protagonist is strong willed and adventurous, his rebellion against the Nazis and his unwillingness to lie to save his own life is less a virtue of his patriotism, but his own moral code. It is easy to understand his feelings of freedom as he finds himself back home, but there is something else lying below the surface. Lang seems to be criticizing the “laissez-faire” attitude of the typical westerner, that once something is out of sight, it is out of mind… a truly naïve approach to the world.

 

From this point on, the film becomes a figurative interpretation of the cultural and political impact of corruption, in this case, the National Socialist effect on the world. Obviously, in our era… you don’t get much worse than Nazis, so in a way the film represents a sort of kitsch interpretation of evil. I think though, looking at any of Lang’s films on a literal level is unfair to either his intention or style. Lang’s films do not exist in the world as we know it, but a heightened reality coloured in shades of grey. This film does not fall quite in the realm of noir, though, it certainly shares many elements. Where it lies beyond is the fact that the film’s villains are unmistakably evil, there is no doubt as to the fact that darkness lies in their hearts.

 

Even when Captain Thorndike returns to England, believing himself to be safe, evil exists in the world and now that he has been touched by it, it will continue to haunt and poison every aspect of his life. To ignore the evil is to allow it to grow and corrupt everything. Lang does not want or let his heroes to act n behalf of governments, any outrage they may feel or fight they may make are on behalf of individual values and relationships. It is not about the preservation of state, but the preservation of the human soul. In the world of Lang, there is no heaven and hell, at least not in any religious sense; it all exists within the self. Through your actions, you create your own spiritual afterlife within.

 

The presence of the female character casts an interesting light on Lang’s perception of femininity, which was problematic at best, but still empathetic. There was an understanding that women had a more difficult time surviving in the world, and therefore, any sacrifice they make is of significant value. Joan Bennett, probably his favourite American film actress, is at her most naïve and innocent here, though everyone who looks on her sees a woman of low morals because of her poverty and the implication that she may or may not be a prostitution. This association is essential to Lang’s perception of right and wrong, as his own values are not puritanical. There is nothing wrong or disgusting about her existence from his point of view, or that of Thorndike. She is judged by the merits of her spirit, her own generosity and unwavering system of “noble” beliefs that champion human values. They are still somewhat problematic, as the male character is defending his value system, while she is defending the person she loves. It is a somewhat archaic interpretation of gender relations, but I do truly think, their ideals and sacrifices are meant to be held on the same level.

 

Though far from Lang’s greatest work, Man Hunt is a powerful ode to the strength of the individual and the consequences of complacency. The film’s unfortunate tact on ending doesn’t feel quite right, but at least does not betray the ideological set-up that Lang works so hard to establish. The film is shot in stunning black and white, and is as thrilling as it is uncomfortable and angry. A film well worth seeing, Lang is one of the few filmmakers who have yet to disappoint me.

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