Monday, November 15, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: M

Year of Release  1931
Nationality  German
Length  110 min.
Director  Fritz Lang
Screenwriters  Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Cinematographer  Fritz Arno Wagner
Set Designers  Emil Hasler, Karl Vollbrecht
Sound  Adolf Jansen
Editor  Paul Falkenberg
Cast  Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens

Beauty  I can think of few directors with as strong a visual sense as Fritz Lang, and perhaps none of his films have a greater quantity of unforgettable shots than M.  A publicly displayed newspaper article about a child killer is partially obscured by the shadow of the killer's face.  A bizarre balloon animal, belonging to the killer's most recent victim, dangles hopelessly in power lines.  An extreme low angle shot of a hulking bully is contrasted with an extreme high angle shot of the innocent old man he is harassing.  A massive blowup of a fingerprint hovers over a forensic investigator's desk.  The killer, pursued by a cabal of criminals, hides behind a stack of rotting wood like a cornered, feral animal.  A mass of grotesque faces stare at the killer in a perverse kangaroo court.  Three hysterical mothers weep for their deceased children on a courtroom bench, the middle woman's face nearly catatonic with grief.  Every visual aspect of the film - from the actors' faces to the set design to the cinematography - is perfectly calibrated to convey a haunting half-Expressionist/half-Realist portrayal of a decaying German city in the immediate pre-Nazi era.

Strangeness  M is partially based around a series of gruesome murder cases that occurred in early-30s Weimar Germany, but it is far from a typical "ripped from the headlines" suspense story.  Serial killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is portrayed as neither an evil monster nor a sympathetic victim of his own insanity, but rather as an unknowable, disturbing force that society is not equipped to deal with.  The everyday reality of Weimar Germany is increasingly defamiliarized as the city becomes more and more hysterical in the wake of the child murders.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  M doesn't follow a protagonist - the closest thing it has to a main character is a frightening, impossible-to-relate-to murderer - but instead follows an entire city as it responds to a wave of killings.  The narrative moves smoothly from one level of society to another, showing how common civilians, homeless beggars, the police, and a cadre of petty criminals each respond to the threat of the murderer.  Each scene comments on what came before, simultaneously reinforcing how big a problem these murders are and making the city's increasing hysteria look nearly as, if not more, dangerous than the actions of the killer himself.  The subject of the film is not the headline-grabbing murders, but society's response to the murders.

Tradition  M was made during the privileged period of film history when filmmakers who had mastered silent film conventions were just getting used to dealing with the possibilities offered by sound.  Lang, one of the premiere directors of the silent era, was able in M to simultaneously refine the techniques that he helped to invent in the '20s while innovatively using the new tools available with sound recording.  In fact, one could argue that M uses sound more effectively than any subsequent film, often contrasting periods of complete silence with Beckert's creepy "Hall of the Mountain King" whistle.  Lang knows when it would be more effective to drop the sound entirely - as in the elegantly brutal montage showing all of the places that Elsie Beckman could be if she wasn't dead.  In other spots, the film manages to fuse the best of silent and sound cinema.  When Beckert finally defends himself in front of the kangaroo court, Lorre's volcanic performance finds a perfect middle ground between the highly stylized Expressionist acting of silent cinema and the equally intense method acting of later sound films.  If Birth of a Nation is the film that summed up all of the possibilities of silent film, and Citizen Kane did the same for the sound era, then M is the film that manages to do both simultaneously, which arguably makes it the most important artistic landmark in all of film history.

Repeatability  It goes without saying that M holds up on multiple viewings; the film is so detailed that it reveals something new every time one watches it.  Part of the appeal of M for today's audiences is as a historical document of one of the most fascinating periods in history, Germany in the immediate pre-Nazi era.  The film is obviously too heavily stylized to be considered strictly "realistic," but the filmmakers clearly tapped into a very real psychology of the period.  Whatever liberties the filmmakers take with real life are in service of an unforgettable portrayal of the desperation of a society devastated by one world war and on the verge of an even more disastrous time.  It isn't hard to imagine Hitler as a member of the kangaroo court at the end of M.  The film has contemporary resonance as well; the paranoia that the city develops as a result of Beckert's actions is analogous in some ways to the contemporary fear of terrorists.

Viewer Engagement  M is a highly gripping film from beginning to end.  With the exception of an unneccesarily long sequence in which Detective Lohman (Otto Wernicke) interrogates one of the criminals to learn about Beckert's whereabouts, the film is as perfectly balanced and paced as Rear Window or Seven Samurai.  But M doesn't seek to merely entertain the viewer, but to force them to take an active role in interpreting its meaning.  By denying viewers a figure to identify with, M virtually turns us into citizens of the city that the story is set in.  The viewer must always consider where they stand in relation to the other characters, a dialectic which reaches its zenith during the kangaroo court scene.  When Beckert speaks, he is looking not just at the court, but at the screen, implicitly putting us on the same level as his criminal accusers.  When members of the court speak, we are placed in Beckert's shoes, justifiably frightened by the mass of fascists staring us down.

Morality  The film's dialectic narrative constantly puts viewers in the position of different characters, each time defamiliarizing our previous position and forcing us to reexamine and criticize what we think and how we feel.  M manages the tricky balancing act of neither condemning Beckert as a monster nor excusing him for the atrocities he's committed.  More importantly, the film shows that while individuals may have understandable motivations for the way that they respond to tragedies, mobs of people can become as (if not more) dangerous than the fears that they are reacting to - a message that could hardly be more relevant in pre-Holocaust Germany.  M is a great moral film not just because it understands humanity, but because it doesn't allow us to redeem ourselves.

M passes The Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Un chien andalou, the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali short film that is as widely acclaimed as M, even though its appeal is harder to explain.

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