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An Update From Joseph Opala.

Anthropologist Joseph Opala lived in Sierra Leone for the past 23 years. In May of this year, the Sierra Leone army staged a coupe and Opala thought he would be safe in the hotel where the Nigerian general was staying. Instead, the hotel became a target and caught on fire from the attacks. Opala had to help other people get out of the country and was eventually evacuated himself. He'll talk about his experience.


Other segments from the episode on July 8, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 8, 1997: Interview with Joseph Opala; Interview with Patrick McGilligan.


Date: JULY 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070803np.217
Head: Joe Opala
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When we last spoke with my guest Joe Opala, he was caught in the middle of a coup in Sierra Leone. It was in the end of May, and we'd called to talk about his work finding cultural connections between this West African country and Gullah culture, the culture of African-Americans on the islands off the Carolina coast.

Opala is an anthropologist who had traced the history of a song from its origins in Sierra Leone to an African-American family that is still singing it. When we interviewed him, the State Department was urging all Americans to evacuate Sierra Leone, but Opala insisted that he was going to stay in the country where he had lived for over 20 years.

If you heard that interview, you probably wondered, as we did, what happened to him? We finally got a hold of him a few days ago, after learning that he's back in the states.

When we spoke in May, he felt confident that he was in the safest place in Sierra Leone's capital, the Mameyoko (ph) Hotel where he had his office. Hundreds of foreigners had taken refuge there, and the Nigerian military elite, who opposed the coup, were headquartered there -- giving him a sense of protection.

Yesterday, I asked Opala when he realized it was a false sense of protection.

JOE OPALA, ANTHROPOLOGIST: Actually, it took quite some time. On Monday morning June the second, at six a.m., I woke up in the hotel to the sound of Nigerian gunboats firing. And it was unmistakable -- you could tell that it was from a big ship.

And actually, I was quite happy. I thought that signaled the beginning of a Nigerian invasion of Freetown that would free us of these hooligans that had taken over the city.

And in fact, I told the guests in the hotel who were really quite frightened that they shouldn't be frightened; that the Nigerians were no doubt landing troops and that we wouldn't be a target because the rebels who had taken over the city would be too busy fighting back the Nigerians.

And I think it wasn't until around noon that I realized that we were in trouble. By eight o'clock in the morning, we were taking a lot of firing -- there was a lot of small-arms fire being directed at the hotel. We got quite a few people into the basement; others seated in the hallway on the second floor.

But it wasn't until about 12 or one that we really started taking a lot of fire. Rockets were fired. I later learned mortars were fired at the hotel; even a helicopter gunship was brought in to fire at us and an anti-aircraft gun.

And when we started taking this very, very heavy firing, and the hotel was shaking -- plaster was coming down; windows were being smashed -- that I began to realize that the attack really was directed at us, and later that was confirmed by some Red Cross people who were staying in the hotel with us; that the full force of the rebels was actually being directed at us in the hotel.


OPALA: The Nigerians had made a very serious error. I think the day before, they had flown some of their jets low over the military headquarters in Freetown, and it really had scared the devil out of these rebels. And I think that they felt that, well, the next step now is to show them that we also have Naval power.

So they fired their guns from their ships at six in the morning. They fired them into the sea, but the army leaders and the rebel leaders who had taken over Sierra Leone saw this as an opportunity to win a propaganda victory against the Nigerians. They claimed that the Nigerians had fired into the town, and sure enough, they were able to show bodies on the television and destroyed houses.

I don't know if they deliberately destroyed those houses and killed those people, or if they were just simply killed in the cross-fire. But they took an opportunity to say to their people that the Nigerians have attacked and we're going to protect you.

And they turned their full force on the unprepared Nigerian troops who were around the hotel. There were about 200 of them, but they weren't prepared to fight a major action, and for 10 hours, the Nigerians surrounding the hotel had the full force of the army and rebels against them.

GROSS: Well, you had your office in this hotel. There were a lot of foreigners who were staying in the hotel or taking refuge there. Do you think anybody on either side cared about your safety?

OPALA: I really feel that the Nigerians did care about our safety, and obviously we would not have been targets had the Nigerians not been there. But, I really think that they were trying to protect us as best as they could with the limited resources that they had.

We had International Red Cross people inside the hotel. I think they were -- most of them were Swiss. And they tried repeatedly to get the rebels and the soldiers to back off and declare a truce long enough to let 700 civilians out of the hotel. And they wouldn't agree, or they would agree and then they would break their promise and the firing would go on.

So the Nigerians certainly would have been very happy to allow us out of the hotel to escape, and then go on with their fight. But it was the people who were attacking who weren't concerned about the civilians.

GROSS: Meanwhile, how badly hit was the hotel?

OPALA: It was devastated. Rockets went through the windows. At one point, the rebels went and they got a civilian Russian helicopter pilot and ordered him to fly his helicopter and fire very large rockets into the hotel. And he had to do it -- he had no choice. They virtually had a gun to his head.

And he missed -- he deliberately missed, otherwise I probably would be dead. We'd all have been dead. But they did fire their small rockets and their mortars and their anti-aircraft gun. They burned out a large part of the fifth floor, I believe.

Later on, after we did escape from the hotel, they went into the hotel and looted every single room. They took out all the television sets and the beds and just everything -- the food -- I mean everything -- desks, FAX machines, Xerox machines -- everything.

GROSS: When the hotel was on fire, at least one of the floors was, did you try to put it out?

OPALA: That's right. I think it must have been -- it all ran together. I mean, you can imagine 10 hours of this. We've got no food and no water for 10 hours, and the firing is continuous. But I think it must have been at about two in the afternoon or three in the afternoon that the upper floors began to burn, and I was later told that's when they brought in the anti-aircraft gun.

And the mattresses were burning, and we had very thick, black smoke coming down from the upper floors. And we were faced for a time with the prospect of either dying there of smoke inhalation or running and escaping outside into the firing. And that was the one moment where I thought -- or I should say, one of two moments -- where I thought I might die.

But we were able to put the fires out. There were some very brave young men in the hotel who helped. I did what I could as well. A number of us had grabbed fire extinguishers from the lower floors and ran up the stairwell to the upper floors, but they were firing through the windows in the stairwells, and you had to take your life in your hands just to get the fire extinguisher up to the upper floors. But we did manage to put the fires out.

GROSS: How did you finally get out of the hotel?

OPALA: That was a rather difficult situation. At about six o'clock -- remember, the firing began, the firing on the hotel began at about eight in the morning -- and at about six o'clock in the evening, the International Red Cross people in the hotel finally managed to negotiate a truce.

The rebels outside the hotel agreed to allow the civilians to go through the front door of the hotel and out onto the street, and they said they would allow us to walk into the city.

But we were on the phone with the United States ambassador to Sierra Leone, who was in the neighboring country of Conakry, and to the British ambassador to Sierra Leone who was still there in the city. And both of them warned us not to go out the front door. These people have a history of taking hostages. They advised us to go out the rear door of the hotel and onto the beach.

The International Red Cross people were alarmed immediately. They said that's not what we negotiated, and we will not go with you out the back door, and if you go out the back door, they may very well shoot at you.

The American ambassador told us from Conakry that there would be American Marine helicopters overhead, and that if they fired at us, that the helicopters would do their best to protect us.

We had then to present these options to the 700 civilians: go out the front door into the hands of the rebels or go out the back door into the hands, hopefully, of the American Marines. But we really couldn't tell these people that they may very well shoot at you if you go out the back door. It would have created panic.

I think fortunately, most everybody decided to go out the front door. There were a lot of African civilians there, and they went out the front door, and ultimately they were not harmed. The expatriates, I think almost all of them went out the rear door, and I went out the rear door. When I left, I thought: they're probably going to shoot, and you just have to run and just keep running for your life.

We went out the back door. The Nigerians had run out of ammunition and were in the process of surrendering. There was this deadly silence, and you kept walking and walking expecting to be fired at from behind. We walked right out onto the beach. There was no firing. We were totally exposed on the beach, and there were no Marine helicopters.

GROSS: Well, the ambassador didn't make good on his promise?

OPALA: Later, when I reached Conakry, an American embassy official told me that they were there. They were two or three miles off -- that with their very sophisticated equipment, they could see us, and that they were prepared to move in at top speed if we were fired upon, but they didn't want to be there to draw fire onto us. I hope that's true. I'd like to believe that Uncle Sam was there to protect me, but I couldn't see anything.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you -- what a decision to have to make, to go out the front door and get risk -- and risk being taken hostage; or the back door and risk getting shot at.

OPALA: We got out onto the beach, and walked to the neighboring hotel. And I was expecting -- you know, after having been inside that pressure cooker for 10 hours, I was expecting that the neighboring hotel had also been looted.

And yet when I got to the hotel, I walked in -- the electricity was working; the staff was there; it seemed normal. I walked up to the bar and I -- a very hesitating voice, I said: "a cold beer?" And the chap pushed a cold beer right in my face. It was -- it was a completely normal situation.

They did not have Nigerians protecting them, and therefore they did not draw fire the way we did at the Mameyoko.

GROSS: That quote "normality" must have seemed really surreal -- at the moment, after what you'd just been through.

OPALA: It was a very strange situation to go in there and just find that all of a sudden I was safe, or appeared to be. That hotel, by the way, drew -- started drawing refugees from the town. There were scores of expatriates whose homes had been looted, and whose shops had been looted, and they came -- packed into that hotel that night.

There was no place for me to sleep in the hotel. I slept on the grounds of the hotel. And that night, the rebels were looting the Mameyoko, just two blocks away.

And they came over to us, dressed in women's dresses with wigs that they had looted from the hotel; lipstick painted on their lips; smoking marijuana -- and they danced for us with their machine guns. I think they were trying to tell us that they are absolutely out of their minds, and I think we all believed them.

GROSS: My guest is Joe Opala. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Joe Opala, an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra Leone for 20 years. He recently fled the country to escape the military coup.

Here, to Americans who aren't closely following the story in Sierra Leone, it sounds like, you know, another coup in another small African country where there is chaos that is hard to explain or understand. Would you give us a context for understanding the coup?

OPALA: Yes. You know, Sierra Leone, sadly, had really been moving toward democracy. In 1996, thousands -- tens of thousands -- of Sierra Leoneans poured into the streets to vote in a democratic government, the first democratic government in about 25 years.

And in some cases, they had to battle soldiers in the streets just to defend their ballot boxes. And the international community was very impressed with the elections, and Sierra Leone was getting a lot of assistance.

So, we thought things were improving. But sadly, there was an army coup on May the 25th. The army struck again, but they did something worse than in previous coups. They brought into their so-called government the "RUF" -- the Revolutionary United Front -- a group of terrorists who have been plaguing people in the countryside since 1991.

These are terrorists. These are people who go from village to village, looting and maiming, raping, and killing rural people, farmers. So you have the worse, now, of all possible worlds.

You've got this army that's out of control and you're bringing these terrorists into the capital city. And for the first few days that they were there, they looted the whole capital city -- everything; all the shops; homes of all the expatriates; the international agencies; the food stores. They burned government buildings. They burned the national bank. They went right through the city like a plague of locusts.

And the soldiers who took over are simply not able to control the situation now. So you have enlisted men and you have these RUF rebels who are continuing the looting right up to the present moment. So it's not really been a coup. It's just been a complete breakdown of law and order.

GROSS: You know, when we spoke to you a few weeks ago, at the beginning of the coup, you said that you had no plans to evacuate because you'd been through coups there before and you felt that you needed to stay -- and you needed to stay to help preserve the infrastructure of the culture, so that when things returned to normality, you'd be there to remind people about the history of the culture.

What made you decide to evacuate?

OPALA: Well, I wouldn't say that I was staying for such a noble purpose. I mean, that has been my goal, to contribute whatever I could over the years to the cultural development of the country. But my experience has been in the past, in these situations, that the expatriates, the foreigners living in the country tend to panic.

And that really the situation, if you know the country from the inside, the situation is generally not as drastic as your embassy tells you it is, or that other expatriates tell you it is.

And I have to tell you that even after experiencing that 10-hour attack, I was the one white person there who decided not to go with the Marine evacuation. There was a Marine evacuation the next morning there at the hotel, and I helped organize it.

I received -- took the passports and had to make some very tough decisions as to who went and who couldn't go on the helicopter, 'cause there was room for only the people who were in the greatest danger.

And of course, I would have been one of the first to go on the helicopter, and I elected not to do it, even at that point, for two reasons: one reason was that my office was in the Mameyoko and all of my books and academic notes and field notes were there. And even though they had looted the hotel, I felt likely they would not have destroyed those things. So I had to get back in that hotel and to try to retrieve my materials.

But I also stayed because I felt that although I was in a pressure cooker environment there -- everybody was afraid; everybody wanted to leave -- I felt that if I got into the city, it would be more normal. And I was still, even then, determined to stay.

And indeed, later that day as the helicopters were flying off, taking my friends to the American aircraft carrier, I made my way back to my house in town. The hotel was still being looted. I knew it was very dangerous, and I waited three, four days.

And then I sort of took my courage up and went to the main military headquarters and asked to see the head of military police, to see if they could help me get into the hotel and see if my books were still there.

I was almost shaking. It was very frightening, and I -- but again, it shows you that you do become a part of a country if you stay there long enough. I went up to the desk and I was about to tell my tale, when the soldier looked up at me and said: "aren't you Joe Opala?"

And I said: "yes." And he said: "aren't you the chap whose done all of this interesting research connecting us to our brothers in South Carolina -- the Gullah?" And I said: "yes." And then he looked at me and he said: "if I call my fellow soldiers over here, would you mind taking a group picture with us?"

And that's the way I entered the military headquarters. I took the group picture. They gave me a vehicle. They took me into the looted hotel. The rebels had shot their way through a plate glass window into my office, and my books were strewn all over the floor. But I found everything -- they hadn't destroyed them -- and the soldiers helped me pack my books up and they even took me to my home.

So there was still this bit of normality, and I was still determined to stay. But I would say a week passed, maybe eight days passed, and I began to realize -- even though I was living at home now -- I began to realize that this was not like previous coups; that the soldiers who had taken over this time and looted the entire city -- this was not like previous military governments.

This was a government in name only. They had no control over their soldiers. They had brought the RUF rebels from the countryside into the town. Many of them were teenagers on drugs, with AK-47s. The looting went on. It wasn't just in the first few days.

It has, in fact, continued to the present moment. The officers are not able to control their enlisted men or the RUF, and there is looting and killing and raping going on every night.

By that point, I was one of the last white people left in the city, and I knew that sooner or later, they were going to come to me. And realizing that there was no protection; that there was no law and order, I finally realized I just had to go.

GROSS: How did you go when you realized it was time to get out?

OPALA: Actually, I got out by a fluke. I was still a bit indecisive, but we got to the point where, you know, they had -- they burned the national bank. So, all the banks shut down. They had no currency notes. They had attacked most of the shops in the town, and looted the hotels and the restaurants. And so, nothing was happening. People weren't going to work. They had looted a lot of government offices. Things were coming to a standstill.

And I was no longer able to get money. The Lebanese people who had cashed my American personal checks had all fled the country. And I didn't know how to get money so that I could survive and my household. I have an adopted son there, and I have people who work for me. I had to keep them going as well.

So I went to -- I inquired about the Lebanese ambassador -- you know, the Lebanese are the business community there. And I was told that he had fled. But someone said that the Syrian ambassador or consul to Sierra Leone was still there, and he is an ethnic Lebanese, and I went to see him to ask him: do you know any Lebanese merchants who can still cash foreign checks?

And I went into his office, and before I could open my mouth, he looked at me and he said: "thank God you're here." He said, "the last evacuation of the Lebanese people will take place tomorrow, and you just have to be on that."

He didn't think it was safe for me to be there. And I opened my mouth to say "no, that's not why I came," but that didn't come out. I just said: "yeah, you're right." And I went home and packed, and then went out on a fishing boat with about 200 -- the last Lebanese civilians.

GROSS: Did you take your adopted son with you?

OPALA: No. There was no way. In fact, we were taken to Guinea, the neighboring country and the Guineans -- the few Sierra Leoneans that were on board with Sierra Leone passports were given a very, very difficult time and pushed away. That was a hard decision, but I think he will be OK. I think that, you know, I was much more of a target. He can blend in.

And I must say this: if I had been an African-American, I'd probably still be there. I was just too very obvious in that situation.

GROSS: Joseph Opala is an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra Leone for 20 years. We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Joe Opala, an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra Leone for 20 years. He recently fled the country to get away from the military coup, and the soldiers who were looting, raping, and shooting in the streets. But he had to leave behind his adopted son.

What are your concerns now for your son and for your friends who are still in Sierra Leone?

OPALA: I think Sierra Leoneans who know what's going on all are praying and hoping for a Nigerian invasion. The Nigerians have continued to buildup their forces at the national airport across the harbor from the city. They are working as a part of a multi-national group called "ECOWAS" -- the Economic Organization of West Africa. So there are also some troops from Ghana and neighboring Guinea.

And ECOWAS has held negotiations with the thugs who've taken over the city, and at this point I understand they have given them an ultimatum: either they step down or the Nigerian-led force will go in within a couple of weeks. We're praying for that.

I have to say honestly, the Western countries, the U.S. and Britain in particular, have not been very helpful in this. You know, Nigeria is a pariah nation and I can understand that. So the Americans and British have not been very encouraging on the Nigerians going in, but it's the only thing that can save us.

GROSS: Well, it's such a paradox, really, to be praying for an invasion by a country that runs a dictatorship.

OPALA: Yeah, and -- but, you know, a friend of mine, Azana Bangura (ph), a close friend of mine who is the country's foremost human rights advocate, was in London last week speaking to an official in their Foreign Ministry, and he said the same thing, you know: "you want this bloody dictatorship to go in and help you."

And she said: "when you're drowning and a shark takes you to shore, you say 'thank you.'" And then she said: "of course, we'd prefer it not to be a shark, and if the British and Americans -- the democracies -- were to help us, that would be better." And I understand that the gentleman fell silent.

It's unfortunate, but the Nigerians are the only ones who are in a position to save Sierra Leone.

GROSS: Are you feeling very dislocated now?

OPALA: Well, Sierra Leone is home for me, and yes, I do feel dislocated and I've sought out Sierra Leoneans since I've been here in Washington. There are so many of them here, and we shared our grief and our hopes.

I have two countries, really, and I am very much an American. I love my country, but I also love Sierra Leone, and I'm not going to stop trying to do what I can for it.

GROSS: When you decided that, OK, you'd get out on this Lebanese ship that was leaving, there were more people who wanted to get out than could have fit on the ship. And you were lucky enough to have been taken aboard.

You were in the position earlier of having to judge who gets out and who doesn't, when you were helping decide who would get on the American planes. How did you make those decisions? What were your criteria?

OPALA: Well, it wasn't just me, although there were times when I did have to make that decision. You have to remember that the American embassy was gone, and there was nobody from the embassy who could make those decisions.

We had received some criteria from the Americans, but by that point, I think we wanted to get out people who were going to be in most danger, and that obviously was foreigners and European or Middle-Eastern or Asian foreigners, in particular.

But we also -- there were certain Sierra Leoneans that we did our best for, who had simply suffered so very much that we had to help them and do whatever we could to get out.

One moment that I will never forget -- I was sitting there at the table, accepting the passports, and a lady came up to me -- a Sierra Leonean woman whom I have known for many years. She worked with the United States Information Service at the United States embassy for her whole professional life.

She had retired and she is in her 60s now. And she came to me, broken, stood there with two small grandchildren. The soldiers had gone into her home and looted everything she had, and then her poor neighbors came in and took the rest of it, right down to the cups and spoons.

And she wept when she told me that the lady down the street who came in once a week to braid her granddaughter's hair -- that she had seen her looting her kitchen. And she had an envelope, a manila envelope, and she said: "this is all I have left in the world."

And she took out a plaque that she had received upon her retirement from the American embassy, congratulating her on 25 years service. And she had one birth certificate from one of her grandchildren who had been born in England. She had no documentation on the other child. She didn't even have a passport for herself.

And she begged me to put her on that helicopter which, of course, I did, and the American embassy in the neighboring country of Guinea did what they could for her. But there were so many people like that, who came up and just looked me in the eye and said: "I have nothing left." Old people who'd worked their whole lives -- it was -- it was just what I'm wearing.

GROSS: I just have one more question for you. I know you want to go back to Sierra Leone. Do you think you could face another coup there?

OPALA: Oh, absolutely. I have a tremendous faith in the country. This may sound strange, but knowing the country as I do, I don't feel the country has fallen apart.

I feel the government has fallen apart. I think Sierra Leone is a viable country. There's not a lot of ethnic hatred or ethnic conflict there. Sierra Leoneans know who they are and that country really could work.

The problem is that its government has gradually eroded until it's completely collapsed. The problem now is trying to figure out how to build a viable government in Sierra Leone. But it's a country that can work, and I still believe in that country and I still want to be a part of the process of helping put it together.

GROSS: Joe Opala, I really wish you good luck, and I'm glad you're safe.

OPALA: Thank you.

GROSS: Joe Opala is an American anthropologist whose lived in Sierra Leone for 20 years. He spoke to us from Washington, DC. He plans to do research in the Georgia sea islands until he can return to Sierra Leone.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Joe Opala
High: Anthropologist Joseph Opala lived in Sierra Leone for the past 23 years. In May of this year, the Sierra Leone army staged a coupe and Opala thought he would be safe in the hotel where the Nigerian general was staying. Instead, the hotel became a target and caught on fire from the attacks. Opala had to help other people get out of the country and was eventually evacuated himself. He'll talk about his experience.
Spec: Africa; Violence; Military; Science; Anthropology; Travel; Sierra Leone
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
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End-Story: Joe Opala
Date: JULY 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070802np.217
Head: The Nature of The Beast
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This is a good time to consider the career of German director Fritz Lang. His 1931 film "M," which launched Peter Lorre's film career, has been re-released. And so has Jean-Luc Godard's film "Contempt," in which Lang plays a film director.

One of Lang's first films was the silent classic "Metropolis." One of his last was the 1950s gangster classic "The Big Heat." Lang is inarguably one of the cinema's visionaries. It's his life that's controversial. Lang made his early movies in Germany.

He fled the Hitler regime in 1933, although Hitler and propaganda chief Goebbels were great fans of his work, and Lang may have had closer ties to them than he let on. Lang's wife, who was also his screenwriter, Theovan Harbo (ph) was a Nazi sympathizer and remained in Germany.

Lang made many crime films. He was obsessed with the idea of the innocent man falsely accused, perhaps because his first wife died of a bullet mysteriously fired from his own gun.

Patrick McGilligan examines Lang's life and work in the new biography "Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast." Lang's interest in crime stories and his brilliant use of shadows influenced the film noir directors.

Well, I think it's his visual style, really, that excited cineasts from the beginning, in Germany during the expressionist era in the 1920s. And then he followed through and made that part of his signature throughout his entire career.

And he was obsessed with darkness and very slight illumination. He would love to do a scene with just a candle, and figure out how to photograph it.

And he was very concerned with visual effects and with creating new visual effects and exciting ones, that would kind of shock people and literally, in the 1920s, there would be scenes that he had sometimes crafted by hand on the actual frame of film, you know, animating something so that it would pop out at the screen and people in the theater would gasp, you know, in shock.

And so he was -- and a lot of people, and I think if you read the book, in a sense his own life story is full of darkness and shadows and murky, strange doings and as I say, intimations of vice and crime. So I think in a way, it was a reflection of his psychology.

GROSS: One of his most famous films and, in fact, one of the most influential of the silent films is "Metropolis," which is about a futuristic city built on slave labor.

The way you describe the making of that movie, it both earned him his reputation as a brilliant filmmaker and also earned his reputation as a sadistic director. I want you to choose a scene from that movie that's visually stunning and tell us what went into that scene that earned him the reputation for being sadistic.

MCGILLIGAN: Yes, one of the most famous scenes in the film is when the undercity is flooded; the subterranean part of Metropolis where all the workers are slaves, is flooded by explosions, when all the workers try to rebel and overthrow the master of Metropolis.

And he had little children there that had been rounded up, you know, from the poor sections of Berlin -- promising them candy and food for the day and teddy bears and this sort of thing, which his wife would be on the sidelines providing, because she was the good heart -- Theovan Harbo, his scenarist and collaborator.

And people said even with the children there, you know, that he would force them to go back into the water and in the cold -- the cold water, and do take after take, where their -- you know, their lives would be virtually in jeopardy.

In fact, there were moments during the making of that film when Birgitta Helm (ph), who plays the Maria -- the sort of Madonna and Frankenstein monster -- she plays two parts in the film.

At the end when she's burned at the stake -- as the Frankenstein monster, the creation, the robot creation -- you know, he kept piling the flames on higher and higher until, you know, I spoke to one eyewitness who was there on the set, Kurt Yomack (ph), who later also immigrated to America -- and he said: "you know, she was being singed." She was -- and she finally, you know, fled from the set in tears. And everybody was just, you know, shocked and angry.

And, you know, but nobody could tell this man "no." He was at the height of his power when he was making Metropolis.

GROSS: Let me move on to M, Fritz Lang's first talking movie, and one of his most famous films. And M has just been restored and there's a few cities lucky enough to have that movie to see. M starred Peter Lorre as a child murderer hiding out from the police.

Fritz Lang wanted an unknown actor. I didn't know until I read your book that Peter Lorre had worked with Berthold Brecht before making M. He played a sex maniac in one of his plays; played a gangster in the Brecht-Wilde (ph) musical "Happy End."

What do you think is extraordinary about Lorre's performance in M?

MCGILLIGAN: Well, Lorre was bullied by Lang into the performance that we see on the screen, and it was really a kind of merciless treatment. And Lorre almost had a quality, even on the stage before M of leaping out at you and having a charisma and a magnetism.

And Lang wanted someone who would project an ordinary person, but also fear, compassion. You know, eventually the trick of that movie is to turn you around into feeling some kind of compassion and pity for this child murderer.

GROSS: As someone who can't help himself.

MCGILLIGAN: Yes. I think partly we feel that pity weakness, because Fritz Lang was, you know, abusing him so strongly in the making of the film -- making him do take after take; in one scene, throwing him down the stairs a dozen times, when he enters into the tribunal of the beggar underworld. So literally, he was again black and blue and begging for mercy from his director. And that's what we see on the screen -- him begging for mercy from us.

GROSS: Do you think that Fritz Lang's sadism actually succeeded in bringing out more drama from his stars? Some actors would probably say they would have given a great performance with or without Fritz Lang leaning on them so hard.

MCGILLIGAN: Some did. Henry Fonda said he would have given the same performance if Fritz Lang hadn't told him how to move his finger every which way, because Fritz Lang really wanted his actors to be puppets. He wanted to control their slightest movement.

In Germany, I think it's true that his -- and sadism might be too strong a word -- but he definitely had sadistic methods. And I think for the kinds of films that he was making, that type of control over people really created the effect that we see on the screen.

I think it's one of the reasons why the performance in Metropolis of Birgitta Helm is still so revelatory, because you really are seeing someone who's being punished, you know, on the screen, by the director. Same with Peter Lorre in M.

In America, it didn't work for him. In America, the star system, to some extent, defeated him. Stars were more powerful than directors in America, and he couldn't mistreat some people who were being paid more than him, who were going -- whose importance to the production superseded his. And he got in trouble when he would maltreat the big stars.

So eventually, he would end up picking on anybody -- you know, kind of roam the set looking for someone to make, you know, to make his victim. And quite often, it would be an unknown leading lady. You know, quite often it was the leading ladies.

GROSS: One of the stories of Lang's life that was very mysterious had to do with his first wife's death. She died by a gunshot. Some people say that Lang fired the gun; other that it was a suicide. Did you investigate the story and what did you find?

MCGILLIGAN: Well, one legend of Lang's which he never explored in print was the existence of his first wife, which was simply rumored. I had no evidence of it. It had never appeared in print. And yet there was a kind of scuttlebutt in film circles.

It turns out, after much research, that he was married before he was married to Theovan Harbo. And they're literally -- I could find no proof of her existence, except her name scribbled on a family record in the Vienna City Hall. Even that can't be counted on to be her name, because it could have been a stage name.

So I had to reconstruct the story through a variety of sources, the best of which was probably Fritz Lang's own version, told to an actor friend who was one of two people named in his will as someone who might inherit part of his estate. And that was his own version, which pretty much protested his innocence in the situation.

I think there's no question he was married once before Theovan Harbo, and that she died violently in his presence by his gun. Some people thought it was murder. Some people thought it was manslaughter. Some people thought it was an accident -- took place in Berlin in 1920 or early 1921. The police were called in. Because he was already a prominent director, the studios and producers moved in.

He was accused of murder and he definitely faced some kind of police investigation. And what he told Howard Vernon (ph), his actor friend who was one of the people named in his will, so therefore would be a pretty good source, was that it was an accident; that she had come in on him while he was having this affair with Theovan Harbo and she had gotten distraught and hysterical and went into the bathtub and committed suicide.

There are a lot of discrepancies in the story, as I recount it from various points of view in the book. And I think he felt very guilty about it, and I think that he felt guilty, and that's reflected in a lifetime of films that are about guilt, murder -- quite often murder of chorus girls or actresses or young women who have some kid of disreputable aspect about them.

And frequently, you know, frequently the accused are protesting their innocence, whether it be in "Fury" or his last American film "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt."

GROSS: When Fritz Lang came to America from Germany, what are some of the differences he had to adjust to in Hollywood?

MCGILLIGAN: Well, when he came to America, you have to understand at that point in time, he is 45 years old, so he's middle-aged. He's a famous -- he's a legend in Europe. In America, he's only known among the cognoscenti; only the most sophisticated filmgoers have heard of him.

Now, that includes to some extent some producers and some Hollywood people, and that's one of the reasons why he was recruited. But he almost had a psychological complex after that of having to reintroduce himself, and his publicity was constantly reasserting the point that he had been a legend prior to arriving in Hollywood.

Now, also he was a God -- he was a God in Berlin and in Germany at his height. And even though he had trouble with studios and with producers, he pretty much got his way and his whim was an order. Now, in Hollywood it was quite different. There was the star system. There were producers to cope with. There were studios that had styles that must be followed.

And almost immediately, he came a cropper with the studios. He made -- his first film was Fury, starring Spencer Tracy as a man protesting his innocence in the face of a mob lynching; and -- it's a brilliant film which -- especially in its time -- was greatly admired.

And -- but he drove everyone at MGM crazy. He drove the crew crazy. He drove the producer crazy, 'til eventually even though the film was released and got wonderful reviews, he was fired. He was thrown out of MGM.

I mean, one by one, you know, he went through the various studios in Hollywood and was fired or alienated them with his behavior. Until finally, you know, he would be towards the end of his career in the 1940s, he was working at Republic, the lowliest of the, you know, shoestring studios.

GROSS: Perhaps the most admired of his American films is "The Big Heat," a gangster film from 1953. Where do you think that fits in to the larger genre of American gangster films?

MCGILLIGAN: Well, The Big Heat he made at the twilight of his career, and I think he needed a film like that for us to call him great still, because he had gone through some -- a period of time and some inferior films. And I think at -- with The Big Heat, he stumbled into a genre and an area that was perfect for him.

He returned to the crime film and he -- as he was -- because he was older and wiser, I think you see a much more intelligent script which pretty much pre-existed before him, but everything -- every little thing he did to accent it was right.

He brought a wisdom. He brought a grace to it. And I think like M, even though The Big Heat is a very violent film and has some shocking episodes, like Lee Marvin throwing scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face -- scenes that even today, when you see them, kind of take you aback and our a kind of reflection of his previous, you know, sado-masochism on the screen that had really been his hallmark earlier in his career.

It's a tremendously tender and compassionate film, so that by the end he is, as with Peter Lorre in M, you know, asking for forgiveness and compassion towards some of the characters in the film who are very ambiguous.

GROSS: My guest is Patrick McGilligan. He's written a new biography of Fritz Lang. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Patrick McGilligan, author of a new biography of film director Fritz Lang.

One of the amazing things about Fritz Lang's career is that, you know, he starts making incredible silent movies -- movies that are still classics today -- and then in 1953, he makes a film that becomes a classic, The Big Heat. That's really quite a span.

I'm wondering what the transition was like for him, from silent films to sound films. And also what the transition was in getting a more contemporary style of acting from the people that he worked with?

MCGILLIGAN: Well, the transition from silent to sound was greatly aggravated, in his case, by the fact that it virtually coincided with his leaving Germany and having to learn a whole new language and culture, eventually, in America.

It also coincided with losing his wife, Theovan Harbo, who stayed behind in Germany and who had written all of his films. And consequently, he lost his voice at the point in time when he needed someone to write dialogue for him, he lost a great -- his great writer; his great collaborator, as well as his wife.

So when he came to America, part of his -- part of his real difficulty in his career, and a real subtext of his problems after arriving in America, was that he constantly was looking for a script. He was constantly looking for a writer who would somehow attach himself to Lang. And he would be constantly alienating them at the same time, so there was never a case of finding another Theovan Harbo for him.

So at the point in time at which he needed to have dialogue and to have actors speak, he really lost and had to constantly attempt to recoup that ground.

GROSS: Two movies that relate to Fritz Lang have been re-released. One of them is M and I understand there's very few prints of this restored version in the states now, but you might find it coming to your city. And also Contempt, a Jean-Luc Godard movie, that Lang is featured in playing a director.

Tell us a little bit about Lang's role in Godard's Contempt.

MCGILLIGAN: Well, the French new-wave idolized Lang, and Godard in particular idolized him. And think how lovely it was, then -- a man who had started his film career right after World War I could end his film career in a French new wave picture playing himself. He's playing a variation on himself. Godard had written the role for Cocteau, who was ill, and instead he gave it to Lang.

And it's a very moving film, partly because Lang is in it. It's a very interesting film anyway because of what it's about. But Lang is treated as a kind of exemplar and as a kind of journey into the profession -- the last of his kind.

Lang would always refer to himself as a dinosaur. He's treated as one of the last of the dinosaurs, and there are very moving moments where Godard just gives the film over to Lang and lets him talk, or even lets him just walk, as the camera follows him and he lights a cigarette.

And the audience watches this man, who can no longer get work in Hollywood; who's appearing with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance in a French new wave film. And I think that's one of the reasons why that film gives audiences such a charge, because of that juxtaposition.

GROSS: Many of Fritz Lang's movies are on video -- silents and sound films. Recommend a couple of your favorites for people to get at the video store -- and I'll remind people to look in your repertory theater for Contempt and for M.

MCGILLIGAN: Yes, well Lang is lucky -- he's fortunate in the sense that his work survives him a lot -- in a more widespread fashion than most directors. You can actually get almost all of his great German silent films in America in video, and everything from his, you know, pre-1920 -- "The Spiders," "Sierralltoo," -- the first very long Dr. Mobusa (ph) film (Unintelligible), to "The Woman in the Moon," to Metropolis, to M -- which is a talking picture, but...

And then by the time you get to America, ironically, some of the American films you can't see, and you have to try and catch them on television if you're lucky, because at the point at which he stopped working to the studios and was really kind of running from low-budget place and independent company to independent company. Some of those films have gone out of circulation, but you can get some of the more famous American films, like "You Only Live Once," "The Scarlet Street." You can get The Big Heat and you can get Contempt.

And in that range, you really have not only the entire range of his career, but really the history of the cinema.

GROSS: Well, Patrick McGilligan, thank you very much for talking with us about Fritz Lang and his films.

MCGILLIGAN: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Patrick McGilligan is the author of Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. Lang's 1931 film M has been re-released. It's currently playing in Philadelphia. Friday it opens in Portland. In August, it begins opening in many cities around the country. You can see Lang in the Godard film Contempt which has also been re-released.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Patrick McGilligan
High: Author Patrick McGilligan talks about the subject of his new biography: film director Fritz Lang. German-born Lang was the director of many films including "Metropolis" and "The Big Heat," and his work has influenced many other filmmakers. During his life, Lang was conscious of his own power to craft his image and his past. McGilligan was able to uncover the truth behind many of the myths in Lang's life. The book, which is called "Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast." (St. Martin's Press), reveals Lang's real connection with the Nazis, his flings with actress and prostitutes, and evidence of his possible involvement in the murder of his first wife.
Spec: Movie Industry; Fritz Lang; Europe; Germany; History; Nazis; Books
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: The Nature of The Beast
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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