TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 June 2013
No introductions needed surely for M, Fritz Lang's most celebrated masterpiece. Made in 1931, it seems as modern today as it must have been the day it was released and remains a thrilling experience. Analyzed to death by social scientists, exhausted over frame by frame by university film academics, x-rayed to infinity by amateur (and professional) psychoanalysts, both Jungian and Freudian, and ripped apart by structuralists, there is something for everyone in this extraordinary text. As Tom Gunning has observed in his excellent book (The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity), no one critic can really get to the bottom of all M represents or means, so radical is it's range, so penetrating into the human condition are its insights. But let me try to summarize a few of the reasons why M should be in every serious film collection.
First of all surely must be the film's unique narrative structure. There is no main character in the conventional sense of the term. The film may be all about the serial child killer, Hans Beckert (an astounding performance by Peter Lorre), but he barely appears, let alone speaks until the film's last 15 minutes. He is represented by his absence more than anything else. If you see M as a police procedural then the chief detective, Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) could be seen as the main character, but he isn't introduced until 20 minutes in and doesn't appear at all in the film's concluding kangaroo court. Perhaps it's Der Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens), the head of the underground who organizes Beckert's capture and trial, but again he isn't introduced until late. If anything he is Lohmann's doppelganger, Lang taking great pains in the film to parallel both sides of the law in their hunt for Beckert. No, the main character of the film isn't a person. Instead Lang makes the 'main character' the city of Berlin itself together with the effect Beckert's crimes has on the city's populace. The film's opening few shots, starting with the opening 'gong' of a clock and the children playing their sadistic 'counting out' game (continuing the clock theme), going through Frau Beckmann's reactions to the fact that her daughter, Elsie is late coming home, inter-cutting with scenes of her daughter leaving school to be picked up by a shadow, and then closing with her murder (a ball rolling out of a bush, the balloon bought from a blind street vendor by Beckert for the girl, now entangled in electric wires), all show Lang constantly forcing us to focus us on what lies outside the camera frame (the city), rather than what lies within it.
If the main character of the film is Berlin and its denizens then the main subject is the effect of Beckert's reign of terror, most notably the process by which the killer is trapped and condemned. The film is structured accordingly. Lang's relentless depiction of this process has an obsessiveness which drives the narrative mercilessly forward with no thought at all given to conventional notions of characterization. No film made before or since concentrates so hard on making one shot lead into the next with such inexorable logic. The balloon caught in the wires implies the news has already been transmitted by technology. This leads to the next scene of 'extra' newspapers being distributed on the street, to people reading about the murder on a wall, and to the deep feelings of paranoia that this inspires in everyone. The bad news doesn't unite the people against the murderer. Instead, it divides them and makes them accuse each other in a frenzy to find the beast, the Murderer Among Us (Morder unter uns - the film's original title). Accusations lead to counter-accusations, which lead to pressure on police to try harder to find the murderer, which leads to the criminal underworld being unsettled by the unwanted over-attention given them by the investigation, which leads to the underground deciding to find the murderer themselves, which leads to...and so on, down and down. The relentless logic and inherent mirroring and paralleling made between the 'official' investigation of the police and the 'unofficial' investigation of the criminal underworld is structured by Lang as a tightly coiled spiral which runs around and around, tighter and tighter, gradually roping Beckert in to his fate. Moreover, it is done by excluding him from the screen almost entirely, and it is of course his absence which looms over everyone and everything. It is when Beckert is revealed finally in the kangaroo court where Lang plays his ace card. For instead of a snarling, hideous monster deserving of the death penalty, Lang gives us a poor, frightened, shivering victim of persecution who mouths the (now standard) plea of insanity wherein he can't help doing what he does. He kills, but he has no control over that impulse. His 'defense lawyer' says Beckert is sick and that sick people should be taken to the doctor, not to the executioner. And so Lang achieves the miraculous here. He creates an atmosphere of terror where a whole city is shown to have been shaken by the actions of one monster of a man, but when the monster is revealed, he becomes the film's most sympathetic character. This reversal of audience sympathy is a masterstroke from Lang for suddenly we are in the area of social science. Which is the monster, the man or the society that creates and persecutes that man? That is the question Lang poses when he has Beckert address the camera directly. Are we with him, or against him?
Closely bedded into the relentless obsession of Lang and Thea Von Harbou's narrative structure (his wife's contribution to the script cannot be over-emphasized) is an extraordinarily complex mise-en-scene. Perhaps in no other film is the frame of any one image packed with so much information at any one time. Working closely with cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner Lang constantly alternates between overheads to huge close-ups to create a visual texture which resembles finally a huge net which closes in around Beckert. The numerous topographical shots take their cue from the scene where the police draw circles around the area of the Elsie Beckmann murder on a map of the city. For example, the overhead shot of Beckert running to and fro trying to elude his pursuers (following the realization that he has been identified) makes him resemble a cockroach around which a giant glass has been up-ended and against the sides of which he is bounced around as it closes in on him. He is trapped by the urban grid demarcated by the map of the city. In other words he is trapped by the city itself - the film's main character. These topographical shots alternate with huge close-ups (Beckert reflected in the mirror, Lohmann shot from a camera buried underneath his desk) which exaggerate and caricature. 'Caged' compositions abound, especially of Beckert trapped behind bars in the office attic, the burglar left by his mates climbing up out of a hole to find himself caged by the police, the scene where Beckert sees a potential victim in a shop window framed in a mirror which is then refracted back with Beckert himself in the frame, and then of course the vast vault of the distillery cellar used for the final scene.
Lang takes as a basis for his mise-en-scene the work of the German Expressionist movement, especially Georges Grosz, Max Beckmann and Ludwig Kirchner to create a series of stunning images - the circle of kids playing in the apartment block courtyard shot from above, the shot of the 'empty despair' of Frau Beckmann looking down the staircase which leads to infinity, the Georges Grosz caricature of the men drinking beer which ends in one accusing another of murder, the overhead shot of the street just prior to the police raid and the crowd scenes which deliberately evoke Beckmann and Kirchner. Lang was aware in 1931 that expressionism was somehow old fashioned (his earlier silent films make even greater use of it) and so he also took on board the Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity) of the time as evinced by sequences where objects take on the meaning of emotions. The shot of Elsie's empty table place speaks volumes of absence and the effect it has on her mother. The horror of Elsie's death is portrayed by means of a ball and a balloon (innocence lost). Then there's the amazing shot after the police raid on the bar of the paraphernalia of criminality. Guns, knives, knuckle-dusters, wrenches, drills, screw-drivers, stolen jewelry, wallets, expensive furs and so on are all displayed in one shot by Lang with fastidious precision to show the passion for crime that these people possess. Most recognizably Langian of all is the use of shop windows where goods are laid out especially to attract and inspire consumer desire. It is in such windows that Beckert finds his victims (goods designed to satisfy his desire?). The new objectivity first introduced here in M marks a transition in Lang's work from his obsessive arranging of people (in Metropolis (1926) for example) to an obsessive arrangement of objects - something that dominates Lang's films here on in. Shop windows appear in almost every film after M.
Closely allied with Lang's meticulous mise-en-scene is the innovative sound design of the film. This was Lang's first sound film, but he uses it with consummate expertise - the use of over-lapping dialogue in the crowd scene where people are reading about the Beckmann murder on the wall show Orson Welles wasn't the first to use it in Citizen Kane (1941). The telephone conversation between the minister and the policeman is a wonderful example of how to convey information quickly and with maximum impact. As they talk the visuals move with supreme logic from one police method of investigation to another - I'm sure Lang remembered this when he made the first sequence of The Big Heat (1953) where he used the telephone to similar jaw-dropping effect. Then there are the sheer number of scenes in which Lang uses no sound at all - the lead-up to the police raid, the chase of Beckert where he is marked on his back with an 'M' and the frightening court scene where the poor victim begs for mercy as the majority bay for blood. There is no music in the film. The only tune comes from a whistled (by Lang himself) rendition of Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' by Beckert. On one level this was the very first example in cinema where a character becomes identified by a little leitmotif to sinister effect - something which has become commonplace in films ever since. On a deeper level Lang alludes to the original Ibsen play where the troll king asks Peer Gynt, "What is the difference between a troll and a man?". The Old Man of the Mountain later answers "Out there, where sky shines, humans say: 'To thyself be true'. In here trolls say: 'Be true to yourself and to hell with the world'". This of course takes us into the heart of Beckert, a man split in two (he is first introduced as two by way of mirrors) whose ego has no control over his troll-like id when turned-on sexually.
There are so many levels on which we can approach M. One important strand must be its very contemporaneity. Inspired initially by a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson, the film seems to leap out of the 1931 newspapers reporting real mass murderers like Harrmann, Grossmann, Denke, and most notoriously of all Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf monster. Kurten was important for the film as not only were memories of him recent among Germans, but elements where lifted literally from the case. Kurten was apprehended with the help of members of the criminal underground, and the character of Lohmann is based on one of the detectives involved in the case. It is even alleged that Kurten was one of many child killers who Lang and Harbou interviewed when preparing the script. Then there's the film's analysis of the way the mass media insinuates itself within each of us, the film's use in penological debate and its investigations into basic metaphysics. And, of course we can't ignore the film's political dimension. Replete in sinister black mac, bowler hat and cane, Der Schranker looks every bit the Gestapo interrogator, especially of course in the final scene. He constantly recommends exterminating Beckert the way the Nazis later exterminated the mentally sick and of course the Jews. Is the 'M' on Beckert's back a precursor for the star of David later worn by Jews? Josef Goebbels certainly thought so as shown by his later use of M as propaganda by linking psychopathic behavior with the Jews, taking Peter Lorre's Jewishness in real life as a springboard for his foul assertions. The fact that Lang offers all this (and much more) with no pat answers of any kind shows what a masterpiece the film is. The only moral drawn in the film would be that of the mothers at the end, that mothers mustn't neglect their children. Beyond that, Lang leaves us free to draw our own conclusions. The ambiguity is fascinating. Goebbels thought the film the greatest argument for capital punishment he had ever seen! Lang himself later had people believe exactly the opposite. The truth is M can be interpreted any which way we like and to take one concrete interpretation over any other is to ignore the truly radical complexity of this stunning work of art.
If perfect cinema is defined as original narrative told with innovative pictures and sound then there isn't a more perfect example of the phenomenon than M. The film should be seen by everyone and this superb Masters of Cinema release makes it a mandatory purchase. The quality of the restored version is little short of stupendous with both sound and vision ultra-sharp. Included along with the usual informative booklet are two commentaries and also the whole of the British release of M where Peter Lorre acts in English. It is shorter than the restored release and the out-takes are very interesting in what they say about Lang's construction as it was meant. For example, several gongs accompany the credits at the beginning, not just the one 'gong' of fate present in the restoration. Also, the end is changed with the mothers gone and replaced by the kids continuing their game from the film's beginning. Finally, there is a 24 minute interview with Lang himself in which he shows himself to be a showman forever steeped in pushing myths about himself. As Patrick McGilligan has demonstrated (in his biography, Fritz Lang, the Nature of the Beast), both tales, first of the way Lang came to shoot M at an old Zeppelin hanger, and then second, how he left Germany overnight after being offered leadership of the German film Industry by Goebbels, are fictitious. These MoC releases do seem rather expensive and I have hesitated to buy some of them, but this release of M is worth every penny. See it and be astounded.