Monday, October 21, 2013

Fritz Lang | M

trapped between
by Douglas Messerli
Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, and Karl Vash (writers, based on a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson), Fritz Lang (director) M / 1931, USA 1933

I cannot imagine of work of 20th art more appropriate for this year’s volume of My Year, with the subtitle “Murderers and Angels,” than Fritz Lang’s memorable 1931 film M. One of Lang’s first titles for this work, “Murderer Among Us,” is eerily close to the title I had first considered, “The Murderer Next Door.” And the subject of this film, a child murderer on the loose in an urban environment, has an uncanny relationship with my own introductory essay, which I describe as “a lament.”

    For all of its thematic of murder and violence, however, Lang’s film is strangely non-violent it what it presents on screen. In the first few scenes, indeed, Lang might almost be presenting an innocent world, as children play in the courtyard of a Berlin apartment building. But the game they are playing is far less idyllic than it first may seem, as one by one they eliminate each other, chanting about a child murderer. Once more Lang slightly misleads us by presenting a woman setting a table for her daughter about to return home from school. But his prowling camera reveals a wanted person’s photo of a serial killer who has preyed on school children, as, very gradually, the woman, Frau Beckmann (Ellen Widmann) begins to perceive that her daughter is late, going to the window and eventually to the door to look for her.

     The murderer is revealed soon after, as we see Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), whistling the somewhat frightening Grieg tune from Per Gynt, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” approach the young child, Elsie (Inge Landgut), buying her a balloon from a blind street-vendor, her ball, soon after, rolling emptily in a patch of grass, the balloon having been trapped in the telephone lines overhead.

      So Lang establishes in spare images the basic theme of the film, reiterated in the movie’s last moments by Elise’s mother “One has to keep closer watch over the children.” Berlin, 1931, is clearly a dangerous world. Actually, as critics have pointed out, however, the central “murderer,” played to perfection by the pop-eyed Lorre, is not seen that much on the screen. Appearing only in these early scenes, in a wonderful moment, soon after, when, facing a mirror he attempts to mimic the dreadful face with which the press has described him, and in the last few scenes of the work, in the startling chase and trials which bring an end to his actions, the killer of this film about murder is mostly absent.

     The real villains of Lang’s work, both the members of the police force and the underworld of the city’s criminals, see themselves as the saviors of the society—albeit for different reasons. But Lang makes clear, without saying a word, that these men and women representing different social forces are perhaps far more dangerous than the murderer among them.

      As Roger Ebert has argued, it is in “the horror of faces” that the director reveals his disdain for his fellow countrymen, who, one must remember, were gradually being transformed into the figures of Nazi destruction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with Ebert’s characterization of faces of these actors as being “piglike,” but, as they each go about their business, they are certainly not very pleasant or engaging. Both the societally-backed police and the hidden underworld meet in smoky backrooms as they determine their strategies. The police intensify their searches of psychiatric patients and frequently raid operations of the underworld, which, in turn, forces the criminal bosses, believing the social authorities to be idiot bumblers, to organize their own search for Beckert. Business is hurting.

     Beckert, meanwhile, is obviously a man of the middle class, living in a modest apartment, traveling through the city like an overworked member of the middle class, peering into shop windows, becoming a monster only when he almost accidentally crosses a child’s path.

     Without knowing it, Beckert is trapped between these two worlds, as he begins following yet another young girl, the beggars and other street-people closely following him. When they become frightened that he may get away, resulting in another murder, one of their group chalks his hand, depositing the imprint of an M upon the murderer’s coat shoulder. When the young girl notices the strange imprint, Beckert must again go on the run, and he escapes into a nearby office building to hide.

     With far greater competency than the police department, the criminals search the building from top to bottom, eventually capturing the murderer and bringing him to their underground court, replete with a “lawyer” who bravely argues Beckert’s case as opposed to the large “court” gathering who demands his death.

     Beckert’s impassioned pleas that he cannot control his actions, arguing “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” has no meaning in a world of men and women who knowingly and purposely murder, without being driven from within. Just as the mob is about to fall upon him, the police arrive. The five judges at film’s end pass their judgment, sentencing him, it is apparent, to death. But Lang has signified in a manner that evidently the Nazi rulers themselves did not perceive, that the more dangerous murderers are still very much among the society at large.

     Only a year later Lang’s film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, would be described as an anti-Nazi film, and was cited by the Nazis as “an incitement to public disorder” and banned. A year after M appeared in the US, Lang escaped from Germany, later to make films in the US. Some of his later film noirs and other films are quite notable, but none reached the clearly-wrought horrors of his first “talkie,” M.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2013

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