Wednesday, October 1, 2014

M (1931)

M                        A                 
Germany  (98 mi)  1931  d:  Fritz Lang 

As a youth, Lang studied architecture in Vienna, but at age 20 he left home and traveled throughout the world, including North Africa, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, and the Pacific, supporting himself by selling drawings, painted postcards, and cartoons, eventually settling in Paris to paint, where he had an exhibition in 1914.  At the outbreak of World War I, Lang returned to Vienna and fought for the Austrian army in Russia and Romania, wounded four times, where he was eventually discharged as a lieutenant where he began writing screenplays while recovering for a year in a Vienna hospital.  Working first in Berlin during the silent era of the 20’s, and later in Hollywood, Lang used cinema to explore a personal fascination with “cruelty, fear, horror, and death.”  His style is characterized by grandeur of scale, striking visual compositions and sound effects, but also suspense, and narrative economy, utilizing minimalist techniques, often startling the viewer’s imagination to evoke horror.  One of the founding fathers of German Expressionism, he is connected to the roots of film noir, preoccupied throughout his life with the dark side of human nature, including vengeance, violence, and criminality.  In a 1995 survey of hundreds of German film critics and scholars, M was voted the most important German film of all time, though in 1931 the film received mixed reviews and generated only modest box office returns, where it was not among the top ten features.  Lang was the last major German director to adopt sound, where the German film industry was slow to make the costly transition, which couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the economic crisis of 1929 reduced movie attendance by nearly one-third while drastically cutting back the number of films made from 183 in 1929 to 144 in 1931.  Theater owners hesitated to buy and install expensive new sound projectors, while production companies were loathe to make sound films that could only be shown in a limited number of theaters.  However, reports of the commercial success of American sound films jolted the German film industry into action, as they did not want to be left behind.  UFA, the principal German film studio during the Weimar Republic up until World War II, built a state-of-the-art sound studio in 1930, which was used for Josef von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1930), Ufa’s first major sound release which opened with great fanfare.  The prevalent use of radio in the late 1920’s added to the acceptance of sound film, as it was assumed movie-goers were also radio listeners.  Nonetheless, it was not without great resistance that Germany, at the height of its silent film tradition, made the transition to sound films.  As late as 1929, Fritz Lang defended the virtues of silent film, arguing that the close-up in silent film allowed viewers to read gestures, along with facial and body movements to help unlock a character’s inner secrets, where silent film allowed the full expressiveness of the human face.  As Lang’s first sound film, M has been called a “silent film with sound,” as it’s a transitional film in its sparing and expressive use of sound, while occasionally maintaining silent sequences, joined by Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM (1930), Buñuel’s L’ÂGE D’OR (1930), Clair’s À NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931), and Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932).     

The use of sound in M can only be described as radical, and light years ahead of its time in the use of natural street sounds, with the noisy honking of car horns, the rising volume level of an agitated crowd, the insistent tapping of a nail, the expressive sound of a cuckoo clock as it strikes noon, and perhaps most importantly the sound of an obsessionally whistled melody that eventually identifies the murderer, ironically recognized by a blind man.  Lang’s subjective use of sound was highly sophisticated, where the blind balloon seller covers his ears at the mechanical noise of a hurdy-gurdy player, making the sound disappear altogether, only to be heard again when he lifts his hands, helping the viewer identify with their state of mind.  Similarly, sound is identified with the killer, who is “not” able to stop the sound spinning around in his head.  Visibly agitated after losing a potential victim to her embracing mother, he sits in an outdoor café and orders a cognac, where he can’t stop the sound of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, Fritz Lang's M - Hall of the Mountain King Whistling (Grieg ... YouTube (10 seconds) that he himself whistles unknowingly, where he can’t identify the source of the music he hears, where it must be subjective, imagined, or hallucinated as the whistling continues unabated, even after he covers his ears.  Unlike the balloon seller, the killer can’t help what he hears, as he has no power to stop it from its merciless aggravation.  Like a Wagnerian leitmotif, the whistle follows him as a sign of his subconscious identification, giving expression to his inner impulses.  Of interest, it was Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou who was whistling, as actor Peter Lorre could not whistle.  Giving the film another level of complexity, the tune is used in Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, which is the incidental music used to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play.  Peer Gynt is a capricious and irresponsible character with no sense of self, saving his own life by allowing another man to drown, where the tune is associated with a terrifying scene in a dreamlike fantasy where the trolls attack the trespassing Peer Gynt character with hysterical screams of “Slaughter him, slaughter him, tear him up, tear him up.”  Similarly, M’s frenzied mob scenes with people yelling and shrieking like the trolls evoke the same bloodthirsty passions in the public as the psychopathic killer, where the familiar musical refrain becomes a haunting prelude to unspeakable violence.

One of the major influences of the film is newspapers and the impact they have on mass culture, which popularized serial installments of fictionalized murders to help sell newspapers, where in this film serial killing and serial fiction mirror one another, where the film opens with the mother of Elsie Beckmann preparing her daughter’s meal for her return home from school around noon.  How ironic for her to receive the latest installment of a popular serial murder story at precisely the same time that her daughter is being murdered, where Lang is capitalizing on the public’s strange fascination with murder, emphasizing how mass murder was such a popular theme in Weimar Germany, where descriptive newspaper accounts fed the public’s voracious appetite to pore over every last detail of the crime, often blurring the lines between fiction and real life, where actual serial crimes reinforced the concept of serial newspaper installments.  Lang’s film coincides with an actual serial killer, where the film is inspired by real-life serial killer Peter Kürten, known as the Monster of Düsseldorf, though the screenplay was completed before Kürten was arrested.  However, Kürten blamed the press for his killings, claiming he learned about Jack the Ripper from reading press accounts.  G.W. Pabst’s film Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (1928), a fictionalized and romanticized account of Jack the Ripper, opened near the beginning of Kürten’s killing spree, where Lang wanted to explore the public’s fascination with crime.  Public trust in government authority had eroded after the loss of the war, which led to a devastating rise in inflation.  German culture in the 20’s viewed violent crime as symptomatic of a failed political system, where the assassinations of political adversaries in the early 20’s led to highly publicized mass murders, where serial killing and serial culture blended into one.  Hitler’s Mein Kampf, written in prison and published in 1925, advocated the overthrow of the government, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, a musical glamorizing the criminal underworld, was the biggest hit in Berlin during the 20’s, while Alfred Döblin’s city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, followed the life of an ex-criminal through a labyrinth of petty criminals, prostitutes, and pimps of working class Berlin.  Berliner Morgenpost, Berlin’s newspaper, published a popular column called Der Kriminalist printing accounts of real murders side by side with serial installments of crime novels.    

Germany was besieged by mass murders in the 20’s, from Georg Karl Grossman, a butcher who made a living selling human flesh, after having killed and chopped up several prostitutes, who was arrested in 1921, after which he reportedly laughed when he was given the death penalty and hanged himself in his cell, to Fritz Haarmann of Hannover, the first German serial killer who was accused or murdering twenty-seven young men within a six-year period from 1918 to 1924.  It was Haarmann’s trial that introduced many of the themes raised in Lang’s film, namely the murderer’s mental capacity and his compulsion to kill, where he was in and out of prison at an early age, frequently transferred to clinics and asylums after pleading insanity, only to escape and go on another murderous spree.  Both Kürten and Haarmann had served lengthy prison terms before they became serial killers, where Haarmann was executed by guillotine in 1925, the subject (the Man in Black) of the chilling child’s nursery rhyme heard in the opening of the film (“Just you wait a little while, the evil man in black will come, with his little chopper, he will chop you up”).  Once Peter Kürten was arrested in May 1930, his story filtered through the mainstream press, shadowing the production of Lang’s film throughout.  While researching for the film Lang spent eight days inside a mental institution in Germany and met several real child murderers, including Peter Kürten, whose psychiatric and criminal investigation lasted from October 1930 through the end of January 1931, just about the time the film was ready for release.  Due to his confession, Kürten’s trial only lasted ten days in April 1931, concluding on April 22nd with a death penalty for nine murders along with seven other attempted murders.  M premiered just weeks later on May 11, falling between Kürten’s conviction and his subsequent execution by guillotine in August.  The press blamed Lang for capitalizing on the sensationalist aspects of the murders, especially introducing such a horrid subject matter, but Lang insisted he was not glorifying mass murder, but rather society’s obsession and problematic participation in what he called the “mass murder complex.”  In 1931, Lang wrote:

The epidemic series of mass murder of the last decade with their manifold and dark side effects had constantly absorbed me, as unappealing as their study may have been.  It made me think of demonstrating, within the framework of a film story, the typical characteristics of the immense danger for the daily order and the ways of effectively fighting them.  I found the prototype in the person of the Düsseldorf serial murder and I also saw how here the side effects exactly repeated themselves, i.e. how they took on a typical form.  I have distilled all typical events from the plethora of materials and combined them with the help of my wife into a self-contained film story.  The film M should be a document and an extract of facts and in that way an authentic representation of a mass murder complex. 

Made two years before Hitler came to power, this brilliant psychological thriller is a vivid portrait of the rapidly disintegrating Weimar Republic, showing a city gripped with fear and swarming with cops as a city is under siege by a child murderer.  Germany was undergoing massive unemployment, rising criminality, and massive unrest.  Lang’s original title, Mörder Unter Uns (Murderer Among Us), was changed only three weeks before the premiere, shifting the focus from a suggested sensationalist thriller to something more abstract and ambiguous, where the single letter title stands out from the rest.  It had been 19 month’s since Lang’s previous silent film DIE FRAU IM MOND (Woman In the Moon, 1928), a sci-fi melodrama where the studio insisted that he modernize the film and add a soundtrack, something he flatly refused to do, while Alfred Hitchcock, in contrast, did not hesitate to add sound to Blackmail (1929).  The famed Austrian director was a great cultural hero during the Weimar Republic after the success of DESTINY (Der Müde Tod, 1921), DR. MABUSE:  THE GAMBLER (1922), the two-part NIBELUNGEN (1924), and the German Expressionist futuristic classic, METROPOLIS (1927), the most expensive film ever made at that point, as all were internationally acclaimed critical and commercial triumphs.  His next films did not fare so well, though M, created by Lang along with Thea von Harbou, his illicit lover that became his second wife, addressed events of the time, becoming a scathing documentary of Berlin’s underworld, expressed as a modernist art film, alternating between a meticulous police procedural and an eloquent essay on the death penalty told through pure abstraction, where there was no romantic interest or leading lady to hold the audience’s interest, but Peter Lorre, initially discovered by Bertolt Brecht, seen by Lang in his production of Pioneers in Ingolstadt in 1929 (later adapted into a made-for TV film by a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1971), shot to stardom as Hans Beckert, the compulsive child murderer, hunted down not only by an increasingly frustrated police force, but also, more ruthlessly, by Berlin’s criminal underworld.  Lorre gives one of the great screen performances, a chilling portrait of madness, murder, and vengeance, where the underworld and the police are both desperately on the lookout for the killer.  Hindered from carrying out their nefarious activities by the police presence, the criminals decide to take matters into their own hands, covering Berlin with a network of spies.  The film is way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling, offering a detailed portrayal of police procedures based on Lang’s own research at the Alexanderplatz police headquarters, while the depiction of Berlin’s prostitutes, beggars, and grotesquely respectable citizens has a documentary quality. 
British Film Institute Film Classics  Volume 1, edited by Rob White and Edward Buscombe, 2003

In M, Lang alludes to scenes well known from war films.  The raid on the basement bar, a hangout for criminals, is staged and shot like a military operation.  From extreme high angle, the camera observes columns of uniformed and armed police advancing in locked step, reminiscent of infantry marching in formation. Later, one of the gangsters surveys the scene from the same angle through binoculars, as if reconnoitering the enemy’s position. 

The war was still a living memory in 1931.  Lang singles out Emil Dustermann from the long line of nameless beggars as the embodiment of the classical veteran.  His wooden leg signifies that he was one of the millions of soldiers who returned from the front as invalids.  Limbs were often blown off as grenades and shells exploded, or amputated because of a lack of surgical facilities in front hospitals.  These cripples who dotted the streets of Weimar as solemn reminders of the war found themselves outsiders in a society which sought to repress the national shame of defeat and resented the financial and moral burden veterans imposed.  It was not uncommon for war cripples to end up playing the hurdy-gurdy in tenement courtyards, selling papers or balloons, or joining the ever growing army of beggars.  Emil Dustermann stands for the continuity between the trenches and the domestic front more than a decade later.  In a scene reminiscent of millions of volunteers registering for military service in August 1914, the camera captures the bureaucratic particulars of induction:  Dustermann’s name and post are meticulously recorded in a close-up of pedantic handwriting.  ‘Dustermann, Emil’ receives a carbon copy of the record.

Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s was filled with poverty-stricken beggars and panhandlers on the streets, comprising the underground network, as the years following World War I in Germany were, according to Lang, a period “of the deepest despair, hysteria, cynicism, (and) unbridled vice.”  Chaotic elements eroded public order, so that by 1930 Nazi paramilitary groups murdered, bombed, and sabotaged the nation while the existing governmental bureaucracy sat back in helpless ineptitude.  Lang’s film aptly reflects the horrors of the times, a carefully constructed cloistered madness, purposefully expressed in the formal beauty of the director’s shadowy expressionism, not only a link between silent and sound, but also German Expressionism and Film Noir, exploring the growing chaos through an effective blending of expressionist and realist styles, where M’s central character Hans Beckert embodies the struggle between a weakening moral order and an increase in malevolent forces, personally besieged by uncontrollable homicidal passions. The film opens with the blending of a gruesome nursery rhyme about a real-life serial killer in Germany with the activities of a child’s mother who prepares an afternoon meal for a daughter she presumes will be arriving soon, but the camera moves back and forth between the mother and her daughter Elsie Beckmann, the only child to walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult, bouncing her ball on the street, where a policeman unsuspectingly helps her across the street directly into the hands of the killer, initially seen only as a shadow whose lingering presence hovers ironically over a reward poster for the killer’s capture, asking “Who is the murderer?”  The shadowy figure buys her a balloon while humming a distinctive melody.  But as her mother futilely cries out her name, images of that bouncing ball can be seen coming to a rest in an unnamed field, with the balloon getting tangled in the telephone wires, making Elsie Beckmann the most recent victim.  The newspaper reports announce another murder, leaving a city restless and uneasy, where citizens in a panic are shown accusing one another in a lynch mob hysteria, ready to incriminate just about anyone.  The police are led by Inspector Karl Lohmann, Otto Wernicke, who would play the same role in Lang’s next film, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933), Lang’s last film before leaving his wife behind in Germany and fleeing for Paris, eventually emigrating into the United States.    

While the police work round the clock, they have no significant clues, with Berlin’s criminals under threat of constant crackdowns, leaving them unable to do their jobs.  Outlaw gang leaders meet in secret to discuss what can be done, headed by the most notorious criminal, Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens), with the camera alternating between meetings of the police and the criminals, with a startling similarity between the two groups, both trying to solve the same situation.  While the police continue to raid establishments, the angry letter written by the murderer to the newspaper offers them a clue, as they’re looking for the red pencil that penned the letter, searching various apartment dwellings, questioning the residents, while the criminals plot to watch every location in the city through the army of beggars on the streets, who are able to watch without drawing suspicion.  Lang shows this shadowy network comb the streets through a montage of both groups simultaneously attempting to implement their plans, but also links them together through sound, starting a sentence in the police camp and ending it in the criminal meeting. This crosscutting is all driven by dialogue, and while there are common visual elements, the meeting setting, the smoking room, the seating, the prominence of one leader in each group, it is the pace and character of the dialogue that sets up the parallel action to give the audience a sense of progress and the passing of time.  Interesting also that there are long periods that remain in Lang's first "talking film" with no sound whatsoever, which may catch the audience off guard.  The police in 1930's Berlin were heavily into cigars, apparently, as there's more cigar smoking in this film than any other in recollection, as characters are often covered by a cloud of smoke onscreen.  As the police attempt to develop a psychological profile of Beckert, the camera cuts to him peering into a mirror and making faces at himself, often seeing his image reflected from storefront windows, where at one point the image of a young girl appears, followed by the whistling of the tune, where he’s seen wandering through the streets of Berlin following a possible victim.  When his actions are thwarted by the child embracing her greeting mother, he’s visibly upset, thrown into a nervous panic, downing a few gulps of cognac to calm himself, but as he passes the same blind beggar where he bought a balloon for Elsie Beckmann, the vendor recognizes the tune he’s whistling and sets the beggars on his trail, where one of them cleverly bumps into him and manages to mark the back of his shoulder with the letter “M” so he could be identified. 

Abandoning the search for his next victim, Beckert becomes frightened when he’s boxed into a corner, shown from a vantage point high above the street, but escapes into an office building just as the employees are streaming out the doors at closing time.  Guarding the exits, the beggars contact Schränker, informing him the killer has been trapped inside a large building that has been locked down for the night.  Schränker leads an all-night search of the building, subduing a couple of watchmen and searching every possible hiding place, creating an intensive level of suspense as Beckert, who has been locked into a darkened storage room, attempts to claw his way out.  When his incessant tapping can be heard from the outside, Beckert is quickly captured and taken away just before the morning workers begin to arrive.  One of them was left behind, however, and is interrogated by the police, suggesting he may have inadvertently gotten himself involved in a homicide, which has more serious consequences, eventually tipping off the police to their plans.  But the scene of the film is the trial sequence, where Beckert is hauled in front of a jury of his peers, namely other killers and thieves that make up the underground criminal element of Berlin.  It’s here that Lorre distinguishes himself in one of his more enthralling performances, especially his final plea for sympathy that initially only elicits only laughter from this crowd when he begs for the police, as they have heard it all, as he is quickly condemned to death by the unforgiving mothers who hatefully accuse him of the most heinous acts, violating and murdering children.  Beckert is given a defense attorney who allows the accused to defend himself, where before a group of hardened convicts, Lorre evokes great sympathy in his speech before his accusers, not just because he is helpless to his sick condition where he can’t stop himself, but because after performing such hideous acts he persuades the audience to care about what happens to him.  It’s hard to believe that while appearing before Fritz Lang’s cameras in the daytime, Lorre was, at night, acting on a theatrical stage as a comedian in a farce.  “I can't help myself!  I haven’t any control over this evil thing that’s inside me.  It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander through the streets.  It’s me, pursuing myself.  I want to escape to escape from myself!  But it’s impossible.  I have to obey.”  This is the heart and soul of the film, where a character you have grown to despise for his vile and despicable acts, who is essentially an evil monster, suddenly becomes sympathetic, becoming an anti-death penalty treatise, a reminder that no matter how grotesque the crime, criminals often tend to be victims of abuse in some strange and perverted way, where state sanctioned killing is an inappropriate response for what in large part are society’s ills, or at the very least a medical problem, while also eliciting a somber warning of societal fear and paranoia, often stirred up by the voices of moral authority. 

Lang’s work was marked by a deep streak of fatalism and paranoia, making his reputation with quasi-mythical films about master criminals and spies, featuring Rudolf Klein-Rogge in DR MABUSE:  THE GAMBLER (1922) and SPIES (1928), men who manipulate appearances and conspire to take over the city, and even the world.  In M, Lang shows us gangs of real criminals and a killer who is himself a victim, dominated by his own tyrannical urges.  In his final speech before the legions of crooks who have captured him, Lorre agonizingly evokes the forces that stalk him, that compel him to kill, just as he disrupts and terrifies the city as a whole.  This is a film about the horror within.  To show how people’s lives are dominated by powers outside their control, Lang repeatedly emphasizes scenes of off-screen action that mysteriously define what we see in each frame.  All of Lorre’s violence is committed out of sight, where he himself only slowly comes into view as the film progresses.  Much of his character anticipates the evil that he intends to carry out, but it’s defined by providing evidence of what he’s already done.  In one of the more remarkable images, he is identified at his trial before a house of convicts by a blind beggar who recognizes his whistling, who reaches in and grasps his shoulder from outside the frame.  When the criminals close in on him, we see him scurrying through the streets like a rat in a maze, and when he takes refuge in a warehouse, he becomes lost in the shadows until they methodically root him out.  The entrapped killer becomes another victim, as he has been all along, pursued from within and without.  The Mörder Unter Uns (Murderer Among Us), Lang’s original title, is also the murderer inside us, the force of the irrational, the instinctive, the obsessional, over which we have little influence.  Combining abnormal psychology with a police procedural drama, where Freud is combined with a crime documentary, Lang exposes, in the last turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, a paranoid vision through a realist framework.  Beckert’s personal chaos only aggravates the existing societal chaos and the apparent struggle between the police, who represent the authority of the Weimar Republic, and the underworld, who symbolize the rise to power of the Nazi Party.  The real struggle is between the two groups, both vying for power and control, with Beckert standing for a lack of control.  The erosion of power in postwar Germany is reflected in the growing similarity between these two organizations, which Lang artfully conveys through a masterful use of similar settings, camera angles, and mirror images of the two groups, where skillful editing binds them together.
The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity  The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, by Tom Gunning (528 pages), and M, by Anton Kaes (87 pages), book review by Dana Polan, May 12, 2001 (pdf format)

For quite some time, Lang was not thought of as a director of modernity but as a modernist director. That is, his films were studied not as material investigations of a historical world (the world of contemporaneity), instead, attention was directed to the films' supposed investigation of deep metaphysical themes -- most of all, the existential inescapability of destiny and fate. One of the central gambits of both Gunning and Kaes is to refuse such modernist metaphysical thematics. Kaes, for instance, virtually gives no mention of the theme of destiny and when he does explicitly mention the topic (on the very last page of analysis of M), he does so to rewrite existential themes in concrete historical fashion:

This visual reference [in a final tableau of the film] to fate and destiny dramatises a larger tension at work in the film, a tension between the forces of modernity with their emphasis on time, discipline, organisation, seriality, law and order, and those recalcitrant counterforces -- trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death --that defy reason and resist integration.

Indeed, what is best about Kaes's volume is his reconstruction of the social, political, cultural worlds of Weimar Germany that M responds to (less successful perhaps, because more conventional, is his scene by scene interpretation of the film). Thus, in the course of his volume, we learn about such topics as the rise of serial murders in the Weimar Republic (and public obsession with them); the increasing grip on public consciousness of new media like radio and tabloid newspapers; the increasing transformation of everyday life into an arena of discipline and a concomitant policing of society as well as a peace-time militarisation of the populace; a growing fascination with a typological understanding of criminality according to physiognomy (the portrayal of the bizarre murderer Hans Beckert by Peter Lorre enabling M, as Kaes astutely notes, to be picked up by the Nazis as a demonstration of the ostensible ties between perversity and (Jewish) "race").

As a typical example of Kaes's historical contextual reading, take his discussion of M as dramatisation of a disciplinary culture:

The film's obsession with surveillance also addresses the deep-seated fear of an expanding urban population. The ease with which Beckert was able to hide . . . must have scared the contemporary audience. Berlin more than doubled in population by the end of the decade . . . Attempts to control and discipline these masses included insistent endeavors to survey, classify, categorize and supervise them. Vision and surveillance foster discipline and control . . . For Foucault, the perfect disciplinary apparatus enables a single gaze to see everything all the time. For Lang, however, even a single panoptic gaze could not comprehend, let alone discipline and contain, the psychopathological Beckert.

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