Lang liked to grumble that he was informed in advance by a certain professor what the essay topics for his Matura were going to be. But the topics were switched on him, with the result that he failed "miserably." This was the first of many real or imagined treacheries he would experience in his life, attributed by Lang to the fact that it was considered good policy to fail a certain percentage of students. The youth went out and got drunk for "the first time in my life," his first overt act of rebellion. It was early summer of 1907, with Vienna in the grip of a punishing heat wave, and Lang was just seventeen.
Realschule failure did not augur well for a career as a businessman; indeed, Lang would always be a failure as a businessman. But the teenager did not really care. Lang was already budding as an artist, and determined–as rigorously determined as Johanna Lang, his grandmother–to pursue his own high-minded aspirations.
Lang’s love of beauty and artistry, his penchant for aesthetics, was certainly a trait inherited from his mother. The Lang family owned not only a spacious home in Vienna, but villas in the Salzkammergut and the valley of the river Kamp in Lower Austria–a vacation retreat, northwest of Vienna, for the affluent merchant and industrialist class–where the family could hike and ride horses. (The latter residence was affectionately referred to, inside the family, as the "Villa Lang.") It was Paula Lang who supervised the decoration of these various Lang dwellings with furniture, art, wall hangings, and elegant appointments–all that money could buy.
There were chandeliers, Persian rugs, wood carvings, and porcelain vases everywhere. There were, at one point (as documented in Paula Lang’s will), some twenty-one paintings in the parlor, another twenty-four watercolors in the study (which also contained a billiard table), and twenty-three oils in the living room, as well as numerous ivory and Japanese statuettes.
Lang’s mother also organized the family social life and hosted a salon in their Vienna home, as was the custom among the new bourgeois (particularly the Jewish bourgeois). The at-homes were attended by musicians, artists, and writers of modest stature. Here Lang as a boy caught his first glimpse of the artistic life, and his insistence on pursuing similar goals was at once a glorification of his mother and a condemnation of his thrifty, practical-minded father.
Starting in Realschule, Lang was reading more adventurously–Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare, Heinrich Heine, and Hans Sachs (not so well known outside Germany, but a serious Meister-singer who wrote poems on moral and religious subjects, medieval dramatic tragedies, and moral comedies). The Lang family owned deluxe editions of these authors as well as all the classic plays and books.
Then Lang discovered, at the Richard Liany Bookstore on Kartnerstrasse, vulgar works–"a secret selection of censored books," in his words, including the works of the Marquis de Sade, which Lang said he "devoured but somewhat without appetite." One series he enjoyed were the comically erotic tales sometimes referred to as Mutzenbacher, after the candid memoirs of a prostitute named Josephine Mutzenbacher–so widely read when originally published in Vienna in 1906 that the author’s name entered the vernacular.
Outside influences began taking over. Cafes and cabarets became Lang’s, as well as many other young people’s, home away from home. Anton Lang had invested in a cafe at one point; Lang’s father’s regular spot was the Landtmann, a landmark even then, where stuffy types and government officials collected. His son’s was the Cafe Dobner, on a busy corner where the Getreidemarkt cuts the Linke Wienzeile. With its billiard tables and cabaret performances, the Dobner was well-known as a meeting place for theater artists, opera stars, journalists, and beautiful prostitutes.
Every Viennese had two or three such favorite cafes. Lang liked to say he knew a man who had his business hours printed on stationery in the following fashion:
From 2 to 4 o’clock–Cafe Landtmann.
From 4 to 5 o’clock–Cafe Rebhuhn.
From 5 to 6 o’clock–Cafe Herrenhof.
Cafes were for loneliness, commiseration, misanthropy, deep thought, loud argument, and creativity. Cabarets supplied cheap entertainment, but, more than that, they were the underground of nonconformity. The cabarets in Vienna, as well as elsewhere in Europe, provided food and drink accompanied by satirical and topically charged songs and sketches. Some of the foremost writers, artists, and musicians of the day–such as the playwright Frank Wedekind, Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka, and the writer Peter Altenberg–enlivened Vienna’s cabaret scene with presentations of their work.
One of the most lustrous cabarets was Die Fledermaus (The Bat), which was run by Egon Friedell, "a strange mixture of journalist, humorist, scholar, and actor," in Egon Erwin Kisch’s words. There, amid Jugendstil decor, Kokoschka mounted his Indian fairy tale "Des getupfte Ei" ("The Dotted Egg") on slides, writer Alfred Polgar–the future translator of Liliom–read his short prose and caustic commentary, and Friedell and other authors of rising repute presented their sketches and short plays. (After Lang directed Der mude Tod in 1921, Friedell would perform a sketch entitled "Mudes Obst," or "Weary Fruit," satirizing the film’s portentousness, and remembered by all who saw it as a high point of his parodic skills.)