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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

M

m_shadow

Director: Fritz Lang
Country: Germany
Year: 1931

“Lang seems always to have been interested in what happens to individuals who come up against the larger power of organisations, bureaucracies, criminal networks — all the modern apparatus of surveillance and control. Almost always these individuals are destroyed by the encounter: they don’t find justice even if they have the truth on their side, events always spin beyond their control. If this seems like the world of Kafka, it also belongs to Raymond Chandler. Lang is a mix of artist and pulp storyteller, pessimist and entertainer. As much as any other film director he found how to fuse high and low culture in the new medium of the cinema.”
The Permanent Magic of Fritz Lang, bfi.org.uk

Background

Fritz Lang’s father was Roman Catholic, his mother Jewish. After their marriage, she converted and became a deeply devout Catholic. Fritz was born in Vienna in 1890, and described his childhood as “very puritanical.” This environment almost certainly influenced his films, which often featured themes of sexual perversion, sin, guilt, and punishment.

After high school, Fritz studied civil engineering and art, and then traveled the world. At the outbreak of WWI, he was drafted into the Austrian army. By the time he was discharged in 1918, he had been seriously wounded three times. In one sense, these injuries turned out to be a blessing; he spent his time in the hospital sketching out scenarios for future films.

After the war, Lang got a directing position at UFA, the German film studio. UFA was originally state-owned, then privatized in 1921, then re-nationalized again in 1942, under the Third Reich. UFA is best known for launching the careers of Lang, F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel), Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will) and for producing Nazi propaganda during WWII.

In 1920, Lang met Thea von Harbou, actress and writer, who was to become his future wife. She co-wrote all of Lang’s films from 1921 through 1933.

During the decade between 1919 and 1929, when he left UFA, Lang made several of his early masterpieces: The Spiders, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Siegfried/Kreimheld’s Revenge (his Ring of the Nibelung adaptation), and, of course, Metropolis.

Later, he received a better offer and transferred to Nero-Film. His first film for Nero was also his first film with sound: M, a thriller loosely based on the exploits of serial killer Peter Kürten, the so-called ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’.

Digression that is too good to leave out: In 1936, a novel by Klaus Mann (son of Thomas Mann) was published, entitled Mephisto. The novel tells the story of an actor who gradually sells his soul via collaboration with the Nazi regime, in a vain attempt to further his career and improve his social position. The novel (and the excellent 1981 film of the same name, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a thinly-veiled account of the life of Gustaf Gründgens, who plays Safecracker in M. The story just gets weirder: Gründgens was married to Klaus Mann’s sister, for one thing. Also, the guy who eventually filed a libel suit against the publishers of the novel was Gründgens’ lover-slash-adopted-son (yes, you read that correctly). Irony Alert: Gründgens’ single most famous role was that of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in 1956.

Back to Fritz…

After the release of Lang’s next film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, he was summoned to meet with the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels informed Lang that Dr. Mabuse would be banned. Some sources claim that Goebbels also offered Lang a job as head of UFA, but this is unsubstantiated and seems unlikely. In any case, Lang fled Germany that night, without his wife, who had become a Nazi supporter. Lang makes an appearance as himself in Godard’s Contempt, and a version of this story is told there.

Lang was in Paris just long enough to make one film, Liliom. After this, he landed in Hollywood, where he made over 20 films, some of which (The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, to name two) still stand as pungent classics of film noir.

In the late 1950’s, his health and his Hollywood cachet on the wane, Lang returned to Germany and made his Technicolor India Epic, which I have not seen but I really should. His eyesight almost completely gone, he made one more entry in the Dr. Mabuse series, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

Fritz Lang died in 1976, and is buried in Hollywood.

Synopsis

Cool title shot: “M” chalked on a hand, in German Expressionist propaganda-esque illustration.

Children in the street are playing a “duck-duck-goose”-type game, but with slightly creepier lyrics:

“Just you wait, it won’t be long
The man in black will soon be here
With his cleaver’s blade so true
He’ll make mincemeat out of you!
You’re out!”

“I told you to stop singing that awful song!” shouts Laundry Lady from the balcony. “Haven’t we heard enough about that murderer?”

“As long as we can hear ‘em singing, at least we know they’re still there!” replies a neighbor, sensibly. She happens to be the mother of a little girl named Elsie.

Bells ring at the Gemeine Schule (Public School), and we cut back and forth between Mom doing the washing, and little Elsie Beckmann making her way home from school. A policeman helps her cross the street, she bounces a ball along the sidewalk, oblivious to her impending doom. Mom sets the table, while wearing a leather apron more suited to a slaughterhouse than a domestic kitchen.

Elsie bounces her ball against a poster on a lamppost: 10,000 MARKS’ REWARD – WHO IS THE MURDERER? The shadow of Man with a Hat falls across the poster.

“What a pretty ball you have there,” he says to Elsie, and we know instinctively that this is the notorious child-murderer, because he has the voice of Peter Lorre.

While Mom slices the potatoes, Man with a Hat buys a balloon for Elsie. The balloon is purchased from a blind street vendor, and Man with a Hat whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” during the transaction.

I’m going to bet this comes into play later in the film. Interesting side note: Lorre could not whistle, so that is Mr. Fritz Lang you hear on the soundtrack.

Mom begins to panic. “Elsie!” she shouts down the vertiginous stairwell of the apartment building.

A skillful montage tells the story: Empty stairwell, empty street, empty attic, empty chair at the dinner table. In a nearby park, Elsie’s ball rolls out onto the grass from behind a bush. Her balloon is snagged on a telephone line (or is it a power line? how do you know the difference?).

The next day, the papers are filled with the horrible story of Elsie’s murder. In an apartment, Whistling Man (formerly Man with a Hat) writes a postcard: “Because the Police did not publish my first letter, I am writing now directly to the press! Proceed with your investigations. All will soon be confirmed. But I’m not done yet!”

Anxiety in the city runs high. Men who were once friends now suspect each other of murder. Every interaction between an adult and a child leads to suspicion and accusations. Nine children have been abducted and killed. The police search every nook and cranny of the city, follow up every lead, turn loose the dogs, interview dozens of suspects, but make no progress. The mayor is losing patience.

A nighttime raid on a speakeasy yields a jackpot of guns, brass knuckles, stolen cutlery, and a few illegal immigrants, but no clues related to the child murders.

“You’re ruining my business!” complains a weathered barmaid. “You won’t find the guy you’re lookin’ for here anyway. Sure, the girls solicit. Business is business. But believe me, in every one of them beats a mother’s heart! I know a lot of toughs who get all teary-eyed just seein’ the little ones at play. If they ever get their hands on that monster, they’ll make toothpicks out of him!”

In an upstairs room, a group of petty criminals await the arrival of Safecracker (yes, that is his name) and lament the recent crackdown by the police. “They’re on your back even if you’re with a broad!” says one. “They’ve gone nuts – got this murderer on the brain!”

The elegant Safecracker arrives, and the meeting begins. “I assume you’re authorized to make binding decisions for your divisions?” he asks the others, and then proceeds to the first and only order of business: “An outsider is ruining our business and our reputation. Measures taken by the police… are hampering our activities to an almost unbearable degree… Gentlemen, when I run head on into an officer from the squad, he knows the potential risks, and so do I. If either dies in the line of duty, fine. Occupational hazard. But we must draw a firm line between ourselves and this man they’re looking for! We conduct our business in order to survive, but this monster has no right to survive! He must be killed, eliminated, exterminated!”

The action then cuts between the meeting of the underworld leaders and a simultaneous meeting of the city officials.

Both have the same goal. Both meeting rooms fill with cigar smoke as the men hammer out a plan of action. The legal authorities decide to search the records of released mental patients, in the dim hope that the murderer was previously hospitalized. The underworld authorities hatch a much more ambitious plan to mobilize every beggar in the city for a 24/7, street-by-street manhunt.

Each member of the Beggars’ Union is assigned a block of addresses to watch.

“Maybe you’ll win the 15,000,” says the union leader to one member receiving his assignment. “Knock on wood,” replies the beggar cheerfully, rapping on his peg leg. Next is a montage of the beggars at their assigned stations, watching people on the street for any suspicious behavior. A beggar sits on the sidewalk, with a sign around his neck that reads “BLIND”. As a man passes, the “blind” guy raises his dark glasses and eyes him suspiciously.

The police have gathered a list of released mental patients and their current addresses. By a stroke of luck, one of the first homes visited is that of Hans Beckert, who we know to be the Whistling Man. Unfortunately, Beckert is out admiring surgical equipment and stalking a little girl at the time, so the cop misses his chance to end the killing spree.

At the same time, the blind balloon seller hears Beckert whistling that tune again, makes the connection with the day of the last murder, and flags down a young man on the street. “Listen!” he says. “Someone’s whistling!” The young man sees Beckert luring a young girl. Thinking fast, he scrawls an “M” on the palm of his hand with a bit of chalk, and then conspires to slap Beckert on the back, thereby transferring the “M” to Beckert’s coat (yeah, I know; a bit farfetched), and the hunter becomes the hunted!

While the cops follow up on some clues (and eventually identify Beckert as the murderer), the underworld springs into action, trailing Beckert (and his intended victim) around the city. The girl escapes, but Beckert is trapped in an office building by the criminals.

As night falls, the criminals arrive and silently take over the building. They torture the security officer briefly to find out the locations of the night watchmen, then search the building floor by floor. Just as Beckert is discovered in the attic, one of the watchmen sets off the alarm. “Everybody out! Five minutes until the cops get here!” someone shouts.

Beckert is tied up and spirited away by the criminals in the nick of time. A montage shows us the damage they leave behind: Broken-down doors, jimmied locks, holes jack-hammered through floors.

Only one of the criminals – Franz – is a bit slow, and caught by the cops when they arrive.

Under some highly unethical (but surprisingly effective; take that, liberals!) questioning techniques, Franz tells the coppers everything: The child-murderer Beckert has been captured, and is being held by the criminals in an old brewery outside of town.

In the brewery, Beckert stands before a tribunal of underworld leaders. He is identified by the blind balloon seller, and confronted with pictures of his victims.

Predictably, he goes apeshit. “You have no right to treat me this way!” he shrieks. “You can’t murder me just like that!” The crowd of assembled hoodlums laughs mirthlessly.

His pleas of insanity fall on unsympathetic ears. “We all ‘can’t help it’ before the judge,” mocks an old-timer in the crowd.

Interesting side note: Allegedly, Fritz Lang didn’t feel that Peter Lorre looked sufficiently beaten and disheveled for this scene, so he threw him down a flight of stairs just before they turned the cameras on.

Despite an impassioned speech by the accused, and some valiant work by the appointed defense attorney, the crowd of hooligans is not swayed. “Kill the monster!” they shout, and it’s hard not to sympathize with their point of view.

Just as they lunge to carry out the death sentence, the coppers arrive and arrest Beckert, and he is delivered to an uncertain fate in the courts.

“Watch your children!” urges a bereaved mother, as Beckert’s second trial begins.

What I Liked

To be candid, I wasn’t really looking forward to M. I saw it years ago, but I couldn’t remember if it was silent or sound, and I remembered it being technically impressive but maybe a bit long.

In fact, this was Lang’s first sound feature, and his use of sound is uncannily sophisticated. Some scenes, like the criminals taking over the office building, are shot in near-silence, which makes them eerie and tense. But then the silence will be broken by an unwanted sound, which raises the anxiety level even further. The use of the whistling clue, the sound of the anguished mother shouting her child’s name down the empty stairwell, and many other audio moments display Lang’s mastery of film sound.

My memory of M‘s technical brilliance was – I’m happy to say – entirely warranted. Lang’s impressive use of montage to visually convey important information, his smooth cross-cutting between connected scenes (like the two simultaneous meetings of city leaders), the incredibly inventive camera work (of particular note: the scene where the camera floats up from the action to a blank wall above, then to a window and in through the center pane to reveal the action going on inside) all make this an exciting movie to watch, from a technical standpoint.

What my memory forgot to tell me was how much fun the movie was – not as a museum piece or a film studies thesis – but as a snappy, inventive, propulsive thriller. Lang never tells us too much – for example, the details of the murders are left to our imagination – but he effectively sketches the mounting fear in the city, the grief of the parents, the frustration of the police. Cutting between the simultaneous sleuthing of the police force and the criminal underworld is a brilliant device to increase the suspense – who will apprehend him first? The whole sequence in the office building is just about perfect – the terse determination of the criminals, the desperate creeping and clawing of Beckert, the impending arrival of the police. I found myself laughing with joy and shouting at the screen several times: “No, not in there!” “Watch out behind you!”

Finally, I loved the giant protractor drawing ever-widening circles on a map of Berlin.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

There could have been a bit more development of Safecracker, the leader of the criminals, who was almost like a international super-spy. “Tubby” Lohmann, one of the police inspectors, seems like he’s going to be a major character, but then disappears for a stretch.

Interesting side note: Otto Wernicke returned as Inspector Karl “Tubby” Lohmann in Lang’s follow-up film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

All I’m really saying is that the performances by these actors were compelling enough that I wanted to see more! But I’m not sure that would have made M a better film.

Should You See It?

Oh, yeah, definitely. M can stand on its own two feet as a thoroughly exciting cat-and-mouse crime thriller without me apologizing for its age or its country of origin. It’s smartly scripted, fast-paced, and technically dazzling. Recommended without reservation.

Next: M. Hulot’s Holiday

One Comment

  1. I want a cigarette.

    Or maybe a cigar.

    Early on in the film “M” everyone smokes. And they don’t just smoke as SMOKE. Cigarettes, cigars, cigarettes or cigars in huge pipe type things that curve over half your head. There are multiple scenes where the smoke is so thick you can’t see what is going on. Even one character asks another character if they want a cigarette. It’s like they’re talking to me. Funny…as the film goes on…there’s less smoke – less smoky haze. Maybe because the mystery gets clearer. Was Fritz Lang doing some artsy-fartsy filmmaking here? Since it’s SOOOOOOOOOO prevalent in the earlier scenes I would have to assume that, yes, the smokiness is a metaphor (?) for the fact that the authorities can’t figure out who is killing the children.

    Okay…on to the real review.

    Besides my constantly thinking: “Who’s smoking now?” I kept saying to myself: “This is 1931?” Silent films had ended just three years prior. There were some films that were still being made in the silent film style (one camera – pointed forward). And, yes, there were still silent films being made. So the leaps that Lang does in terms of camera set-ups, style, shadow, shading are amazing. One shot in particular had me stuck with some stupid shit-eating-grin on my face as the camera is placed high above the street set with actors coming in from all sides. This is 1931? There’s bad language! This is 1931? There’s competent acting! This is 1931? There are themes of revenge and horror and retribution! This is 1931? This is 1931 Germany?

    Oh, yeah – back to the story.

    Peter Lorre (yes, THAT Peter Lorre), plays a child murderer who is terrorizing a city of 4.5 million people. 8 children are dead and he has just written to the papers to say that more killings are going to come. Of course we never see the children die. All we know is that they’re dead and when they’re found they’re, uh, brutalized (again the brilliance of implying horror without actually seeing it). The city is in a panic. No one can figure out who the killer is and though the reward for capture keeps going higher – no clues are coming out.

    Now, before you gather that this is going to become: “CSI Berlin” as the cops start clearing out every hovel, every corner, every smoke filled bar where the hookers and layabouts and riffraff drink – the underworld of organized crime realize that this penny-ante murderer is ruining their business. I would assume they also care a bit about the victims but the leader of the group (“Safecracker”) wants this guy found and dispatched or they will be broke.

    So now the film is working on three levels. Level one, the killer and his victims. Peter Lorre disappears for minutes at a time. We see and know who he is early on but then the story shifts to the hunt. That brings in level two: The Police who are at their wits end. Everyone is working double shifts, everyone is tired. Level three is the underworld and I’ve already explained that this killer is putting a mighty crimp into the “bidness” they’re trying to do.

    So EVERYONE is after Mr. Lorre and his killin’ ways. And besides that…everyone is looking at their friends, their neighbors, the man on the street as the potential murderer.

    Now, while the Police are doing everything they can do – the underworld goes one brilliant step further and hires every bum and hobo on the street to watch what is going on. They want every child followed. They want every child watched. They’re going to catch this killin’ sumbitch and exact their justice.

    It doesn’t take long before the cops and the mob figure out who it is and Peter Lorre is on the run into a large factory (an amazing set piece). When they (the mob) realize that the killer is trapped, they break into the factory after hours to find him.

    What follows is a very tense combing of the factory until the little weasely murderous bastard is ferreted out and brought to justice.

    Here is where the film, though, kind of grinds to a halt. In all logical sense Mr. Lorre would be given a pair of concrete galoshes and dropped into the nearest lake. Or he’d be eviscerated by the very knife he was going to kill the little girl with…but, instead, the film goes into a kangaroo court with Safecracker the judge and the underworld and bums as the jury and executioner. They even provide him with a defense (as if he needs one) who makes a valid argument that they guy is unable to control his actions so he must be sent back to the asylum from whence he was released.

    While the kangaroo court is in session, the cops are doing a “good-cop/bad-cop” routine on one of the members of the underworld who was forgotten in the factory break-in/capture. That member gives up the info and in the end of the film everyone is busted.

    What I liked:

    This is a fantastic film in many respects. Though Peter Lorre isn’t on screen for a long time, his overall creepiness permeates every frame. In the scenes where he’s seducing the children he does seem real, human, almost loving. But when he’s the tormented soul…oh how tormented he is. It’s a role I’ve never seen from him before and I role I don’t think he ever did again.

    The photography is EXCELLENT and the print is up to the task. There seemed to be a couple gaps in story but a card at the end explained that the original print was 111 minutes, cut to 94, this print is 104 minutes (or something) so there’s still footage missing from SOMEWHERE. Still, that doesn’t detract from a story that is still as exciting and vibrant and prescient today as it was in 1931. 1931!

    Also…the overall story just made me giddy with delight. I don’t know why…maybe it’s the hunt. Maybe it’s the suspense. Maybe it’s the using of the beggars and bums to bring the bastard to justice, but I found myself grinning from ear to ear during most of the proceedings.

    Also of note are scenes where the film is sped up or there is complete silence (at one point I thought my headphones had broken). These seemed to be leftovers from Lang’s years as a silent film-maker. Though I thought initially that I would be distracted by these moments they, in fact, added a layer of uncomfortable-ness to the film that just enhanced the experience.

    What I didn’t like:

    The switching gears from a good “where is he/how are we going to find him” story to the kangaroo court was a bit, well, lame. Granted, once he’s found if they kill him like you want (and like how they want) then the film is 95 minutes long. It doesn’t ruin the story for me – but it slows it down in a way like going on a ride where it’s exciting for the first three quarters and then the last quarter it just, well, stops. I assume (and maybe Jason explains this above) that Fritz Lang was really hammering home the revenge/retribution mentality of the masses and how that corresponded with what was going on in Germany at the time. It may well be that Lang was making a point. It just didn’t feel right (maybe because I wanted to see some retribution on Lorre’s ass).

    Overall:

    Still…a classic in every sense of the word. Wonderful film.

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