Strange Butterfly: Fritz Lang's Harakiri (1919)

by John Mucci and Richard Felnagle
In 1920, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang began an extraordinary thirteen-year collaboration, which produced some of the most memorable films of the German silent and early sound era. In fact, the films they produced together outshine all of the films they made separately after their partnership dissolved in 1933.

One way to understand how they complemented each other so well is to look at the films Lang worked on before their collaboration began with their screenplay based on her novel The Indian Tomb. Sadly only five of Lang’s early films are known to survive. The first one dates from 1917 (an early screenplay Lang wrote while recovering from war wounds in Vienna), and the rest were all made in 1919, Lang's freshman year at Eric Pommer's Decla Film Company:

Hilde Warren and Death (Hilde Warren und der Tod ) , a lurid melodrama directed by Joe May from a scenario Lang wrote in 1917 while recovering from injuries received as a soldier in World War I.

The Plague in Florence (Die Pest in Florenz), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang's screenplay written early in his employ as a “dramaturg” for Pommer.

The Golden Sea (Der Goldene See) , written and directed by Lang, the first part of his two-part serial adventure The Spiders (Die Spinnen).

Harakiri , an adaptation (of sorts) of the opera Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Lang from a screenplay credited to Max Jungk.

The Diamond Ship (Das Brillantenschiff) , written and directed by Lang, the second part of The Spiders.

Of those five films, the one that provides the most insight into Lang before von Harbou is Harakiri. One reason is that Lang was a completely absurd choice to direct this film. Lang's biographer McGilligan insists that Lang didn't particularly care for music and may not have previously known the opera. Lang's other films attest that he was better suited to stories of adventure or murder, intrigue, and the supernatural. His later American films would be signature works of film noir (The Blue Gardenia, The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, While the City Sleeps, etc.) His early films—particularly his two-part serial adventure The Spiders—do reveal a predilection for exotic locales, but otherwise, Lang seems a thoroughly inappropriate choice to direct a film about an abandoned, single mother in turn-of-the-century Japan—as inappropriate as Alfred Hitchcock directing Lassie Come Home or Guillermo del Toro directing Sex and the City.

So, Lang took the Butterfly story—which had already appeared before in several iterations—and overhauled it completely to suit his taste and, we presume, his values. In the following article, we look at the various iterations of the story that preceded this film, and then we analyze how Lang added to and subtracted from them to create his strange Butterfly, Harakiri.  

But first, how did Fritz Lang get this assignment in the first place?

Original theatrical release poster for Fritz Lang's Harakiri, produced for Eric Pommer's Decla company in 1919. 

Does that look like your idea of 
Madame Butterfly​?

Part 1: The Reluctant Director

A German website provides a partial answer. (This following text from that site is in English on the site; what follows is not a translation.)

In the 1918 / 1919 season, the Decla Film Company announced a film called Madame Butterfly, directed by Otto Rippert, to be shot in September 1918. But the film was not finished, and Rippert was hired to shoot the "World Class Series" films of Decla's ambitious 1919 programme. When Rippert got behind schedule on the shooting of Decla's most ambitious film of 1919, Die Pest in Florenz [the actual first film in the “World Class” series], Decla announced Butterfly again, now to be directed by Joseph Coenen, director of Decla's "Women Class Series." The Japanese settings were supposed to be shot on Decla's new lot at Carl Hagenbeck's zoological garden in Hamburg-Stellingen. Finally, the film now named Harakiri was shot by newcomer Fritz Lang, who was busy at Hagenbeck's zoological garden anyway, shooting two parts of Decla's "Adventurer Series" The Spiders.

Why Pommer put Madame Butterfly on hold in 1918 and waited for more than a year to revive the project is not known. However, the fact that the title of the film was announced as Madame Butterfly and a year passed before the film resurfaced as Harakiri suggests that Pommer might have announced the film before he had secured the rights from Ricordi, Puccini's publisher.

The problem could have been entirely a matter of money, but there may have been other reasons as well. Three years earlier, Paramount had released a film called Madame Butterfly, which was billed as a “picturization” of the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long—not Puccini's opera. In the process of making the film, the story was altered significantly to accommodate the needs of a motion picture. Among those changes, though, was a significant deviation from the original ending of Long's story, and even assuming Long had authorized Paramount to make that film, he could not have been happy with the changes. We can easily imagine that if Ricordi or Puccini had seen that film, they would have been equally appalled and refused to authorize Pommer’s film.

At that point, Pommer might well have abandoned the project entirely, but he needed the film to fill out his “World Class Series.” He apparently then instructed his screenwriter, Max Jungk, to alter the story to try to get around Ricordi and Puccini, and the film was retitled Harakiri. All of the character names were changed, too. For example, Cho-Cho-San is renamed O-Take-San, and Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton became Olaf Johnson (the Scandinavianization of the outsiders' names may be a result of the extant print being a Danish copy). 

However, the delay seems to have created another problem for Pommer. According to the German website, neither Otto Rippert nor Joseph Coenen were available to direct, so Pommer gave the assignment to Lang, still a relative newcomer in the director's chair.

Or more probably, Pommer may have forced it on Lang because Lang could not have been pleased with either the subject matter or the timing of the assignment. Lang was just finishing up the first part of The Spiders, an Indiana-Jones-type serial adventure. The logical thing would have been for him to make the second part immediately after finishing the first part, but as Lang's producer, Pommer could have leaned on Lang to suspend work on Spiders to make Harakiri instead.

We may further speculate that as a concession to Lang, Pommer was probably also forced to give Lang a free hand to rework the screenplay to suit his taste. We cannot know how many of the story and character changes come from Max Jungk, the original screenwriter, and how many come from Lang. Yet, we know that in later years, Lang would become notorious for rewriting other people's screenplays that he had been given to direct, and we have no reason to think that this film is any exception. We also recognize many elements that are quintessentially Lang and nowhere found in any of the sources for the story.

To fully understand Lang's reworking of the Butterfly story, we now examine the essential details of the story’s sources.

Postcard from 1910 showing the entrance to the Hagenbeck Zoological Gardens, which featured large-scale outdoor dioramas. Pommer used some of the land for outdoor sets.
One of many Asian settings in the zoo as it exists today. Note the large Buddha, which Lang may have used in his film.