"This courtship is perfect. Perhaps too perfect . . . "
"This courtship is perfect. Perhaps too perfect . . . "

The films of Fritz Lang take place in an impressively well-organized universe: every detail, no matter how small, seems to reflect a master plan. Lang, of course, directed some of the most paranoid of great movies, such as Spies (1928) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), which imagine vast criminal conspiracies behind seemingly chaotic events. He was also especially adept at tragedy: in films like You Only Live Once (1937), Scarlet Street (1945), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), the heroes seem inalienably tied to their bad ends, as if their lives were controlled by cruel gods.

Yet Lang had an optimistic side as well, and some of his films suggest that groups of people can work together to upend the order of the day. That’s the explicit moral of Metropolis (1927), which concludes with the dawn of something like a socialist utopia; and it’s implicit in the ambiguous finale of M (1931), which concludes just before a vigilante mob can pass judgment on a serial murderer who’s begged for its sympathy. But no Lang movie feels more positive than his sole romantic comedy, You and Me (1938), which Northwest Chicago Film Society is reviving at the Portage Theater this Wednesday night. A commercial and critical flop in its day and Lang’s least favorite of his own films, it’s nonetheless a deeply personal work that illuminates other parts of his career.

It’s also one of the most experimental movies made in Hollywood in the 1930s. An unlikely combination of crime film, romance, and musical theater, You and Me displays the overt influence of Bertolt Brecht, whose renowned plays brought together radically different elements. (In fact, Lang later said he considered the playwright “responsible” for the film.) Brecht didn’t work on You and Me—he wouldn’t emigrate from Germany until 1939—but Lang hired his frequent collaborator Kurt Weill to write the film’s music in hopes of capturing the spirit of their groundbreaking Threepenny Opera. Lang also broke up the story with rhetorical passages that deliberately distance the viewer from the plot—a strategy that Brecht famously innovated.

That might make You and Me sound like an art film, but its story and many of its characterizations are the stuff of screwball comedy. The movie takes place in a department store whose progressive-minded owner, Mr. Morris (Harry Carey), makes a point of giving jobs to ex-cons; and Lang generally presents the situation comically, generating verbal and visual gags from gangster-movie types working in retail. For instance, when we first see the hero, Joe (George Raft), he’s in close-up, averring that “there isn’t a racket I haven’t tried.” Lang quickly changes the tune by pulling back to reveal he’s selling tennis rackets in the sporting goods section.

Joe has become good friends with another employee, Helen (Sylvia Sidney), and soon after the movie starts they realize they’ve fallen in love. They rush into marriage and try to start a normal life together; but while Joe is open about his criminal past, Helen’s too ashamed to admit she’s an ex-con herself. Worse yet, she’s still on parole and isn’t allowed to marry. Helen’s efforts to hide her past from Joe and her marriage from her parole officer lead to some very funny complications, such as a scene in which Helen tries to keep the two men from seeing each other when they happen to be in her apartment at the same time.

When Joe learns the truth about Helen, You and Me turns serious, briefly resembling a film noir. Convinced there are no good people in the world, Joe decides to go back to crime by taking part in a plot to rob the department store with some of his coworkers. Helen learns of the plot, however, and alerts Mr. Morris before it can take place. She addresses the gang in the movie’s climactic scene, using arithmetic to explain that crime literally doesn’t pay. Subtracting the expenses of a heist (getaway car, hiring a mob lawyer, et cetera) from the payoff, Helen argues that being a hood doesn’t pay that much more than working in a department store. Her logic convinces the entire group, save for Joe, though he eventually returns to her at the movie’s conclusion.

Helen’s math lesson is one of the film’s most audacious sequences, a Brechtian mix of rhetoric and vaudeville. It’s also distinctly Langian in its use of cold logic to address impulsive behavior. Indeed, the director’s skepticism is never absent from You and Me. Despite its positive theme of ex-cons reentering the working world, the movie acknowledges what they have to deal with—not only limited employment opportunities (which would have been even more limited during the Great Depression) but the suspicion with which society regards them. In several scenes Lang deliberately evokes his previous film, the much darker You Only Live Once, in which a well-intentioned ex-con played by Henry Fonda finds himself an outcast upon returning to outside life.

You and Me takes an unmistakably skeptical view of capitalist culture as a whole. The movie opens with a musical number called “You Cannot Get Something for Nothing,” in which an offscreen narrator asserts that anything a person might want in life (even “beauty . . . gems of thought . . . [or] good health”) has a price attached to it. This song sets the tone for a characteristic depiction of capitalism as a system that imposes a rigorous and malign order on the world. Desire for material goods forces people to have money, which makes them struggle to find a place in the workforce. Much of what we see in the film reflects this atomizing process: Morris’s store (organized by departments); Helen’s living space (two discrete apartments separated by a collapsible wall); the ex-cons plotting the failed robbery (by assigning separate tasks to each member). It’s worth noting that Morris himself, in controlling the fate of so many former criminals, resembles a benign version of Lang’s evil mastermind Dr. Mabuse.

The world of You and Me may be tough, but it’s also forgiving, providing all the major characters with a second chance in life—and more importantly, a place to go. In one of the film’s most endearing sequences, Joe tells Helen he’s taking her on a honeymoon even though they’re broke. He presents her with a bunch of maps, and Lang cuts from a shot of each one to the interior of a different ethnic restaurant, as the happy couple pretends it’s traveling the world. And in the movie’s centerpiece, a group of ex-cons affectionately recall how they developed a system of percussive sounds in prison to communicate with each other across cell walls. Lang illustrates the system with a series of prison images rendered continuous by the rhythmic chant on the soundtrack. The communal expression gives way to the movie’s third musical number, “Stick to the Mob,” which in turn inspires the ex-cons to rob Morris’s store. It’s a weirdly euphoric sequence, showing how a creative network of voices can bring happiness even to the condemned.