Thursday, June 17, 2010

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Germany 1931
105 min
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Ellen Widman, Inge Landgut and Theodor Loos.
Nero-Film AG

Yesterday was my 22nd birthday, and what better way to celebrate that than watching a seagull flying away with a sloppy roadkill fluttering in the wind? That lovely view of a utopian Sweden was of course after I watched Fritz Lang's M, which I hadn't seen in too many years. In short, it was a pretty morbid birthday - completely Lolita style.

Recently I have been in a Fritz Lang mood, and have pestered all my friends about how awesome that (to say the least) excentric German is. When my fiancé then told me that, since it was my birthday, I should choose any film I wanted to us to watch together. I reached for one of the first contributions to my DVD collection - my 2-disc special edition of M. I was not the typical teenager when I bought it at 16 years of age.

I can only imagine how much has been said about this classic, and I believe at least half of it is stretching the truth. When reading the trivia section at IMDb, one finds out that Fritz Lang was inspired to make the film when he read an article about "The Vampire of Düsseldorf", Peter Kürten, who was a serial murderer in Germany in the 1920's. In the same section one can read that Lang denied that connection. One can also read that the angry mob at the end of the film were all real criminals, and that 24 of them were imprisoned soon after the completion of the movie. How entertaining this might be, it is also a fact that Lang was that kind of a man who preferred to twist the truth in order to tell a great story, rather than telling the boring reality. (He was never offered to be the lead director of Nazi Germany - the Nazis did not have to "settle" for Leni Riefenstahl.)

Might be one of the coolest men to have walked the Earth.

Anyway. This film is frightening, and especially the first and the last scenes have aged like fine wine. For those who have not seen this film yet (shame on you), I will not discuss the intense and panicky last scene, but instead I will make one of my screen-shot filled posts and discuss the opening of this masterpiece.

I suddenly remember that one of my readers was amused by the fact that one can tell how much I like a film by the amount of screenshots included in the post. Well said, well analyzed. I'm a predictable person.

The film starts with a black screen, and the beginning of a nursery rhyme. Children on the sidewalk fade in, chiming:

Wait, just wait
a little while,
soon the boogeyman will come to you
with his chopping knife
He'll cut small pieces out of YOU!

A woman shouts at the children to stop singing that horrible rhyme, and complains to a neighbor about them. The other woman cynically says that she should be happy as long as they can still hear the children.

We cut to a cute girl going home from school, playing with a ball. She stops to bounce the ball against a poster, informing the public about a roaming child murderer. Two pair of siblings have disappeared within half a year, and it seems like they have fallen victim to the same murderer.

And then, the epic appearance of a shadow. The man says, "You've got a pretty ball! What's your name, child?", and gets the answer "Elsie Beckmann."

The picture fades, and we're back with the mother waiting for her daughter to come home. She looks at the cuckoo clock. She hears some children in the staircase, and enters the hallway to greet her daughter. Of course, they were only the neighbor's kids.

A short sequence shows the mysterious man buying Elsie a balloon from a blind seller, which she thanks him happily for. They walk off screen together.

We cut back to the mother, who is now asking the postman if he has seen Elsie. He hasn't. She looks down the staircase, which is empty. She puts a hand to her stomach, starting to look worried. She looks out the window and at the cuckoo clock again. We see an empty chair in front of a table set for dinner.

Then we cut to a shot of bushes, from which a ball is rolling out. A ballon has flown away and gotten stuck in some electricity pylons.

The screen fades to black, and it is quite for a little while. The next thing we hear is a newspaper man shouting "Extra! Extra!" And Elsie Beckmann is no more.

It was not the first time I saw this film, and yet I got chills down my spine. And the last scene is equally unsettling, showing the greed, hatred and ugliness of common people. And although shocking, the most interesting part isn't where a freudian graphologist analyzes the murderer's handwriting and speaks of his sexuality (what a daring indication for 1931!), either.

No, the most interesting part of M is still not the fact that it handles the subject of child murderers this early in film history, and on top of that during the Depression when people mostly wanted to get away from the harsh reality. The fascinating part is its refusal to separate any character into black or white, evil or good. A famous example of this is where Lang cuts between a meeting of police officers and other high shots, and a strikingly similar meeting with criminals. The police of course want to catch the hideous murderer, but the criminals want to catch him themselves since he is keeping the police far too active for their business to go around. A very amusing scene is when the police is raiding a speakeasy, and the items they find there are not pretty.

On a little side note, I have to mention that the lovely and slightly corrupt Inspector Lohmann plays an important part in this film, just like he does in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) - the same character and the same actor. The films have otherwise nothing in common apart from the director. I find this quite amusing.

Inspector Lohmann, always with a cool cigarr holder.


Kim said...

My favorite Fritz Lang film and Peter Lorre's best performance. Thanks for posting about it.

And Happy Belated Birthday

Frl. Irene Palfy said...

I just adore Peter Lorre! He is so awesome in this picture!

Happy belated birthday!!

Lolita said...

I can't think of any other actor who panics so convincingly as Lorre in the last scene of M! And thank you!

Fräulein Irene Palfy:
Thank you! How can one not love Peter Lorre? And that after playing this truly repulsive character!

Christopher said...

haven't seen this in ages..I used to have this on super 8mm film..a real scratchy old print..He'll cut small pieces out of YOU!"..LOL

James R said...

I was always under the impression that the offer from Goebbels may have been genuine, but where Lang lied was his account of fleeing Germany the next day. In fact he didn't leave Germany permanently until nearer the end of 1933. That was something I learned from the Testament of Mabuse DVD commentary.

M is an amazing film, and if it's any consolation I was also hardly a typical teenager when I got it on VHS when I was about 17...

Mykal Banta said...

Lolita: My goodness, look how you've grown! Nice going on the LAMMy nomination. Keep up the great work. How go the film studies?

Rick29 said...

Lolita, love the screen caps of the scene with the ball--still one of the most horrifying, haunting sequences ever shot. Happy belated birthday, too!

B said...

I too, love this film. Few people I know appreciate it.

Happy belated birthday.

JESCIE said...