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In Fritz Lang's startling and exquisite film M, fear stalks the streets of Berlin in the form of a serial child murderer whose grisly... Read More
In Fritz Lang's startling and exquisite film M, fear stalks the streets of Berlin in the form of a serial child murderer whose grisly accomplishments are so heinous even the criminal minds of the underworld want him dead. Filmed in post-Weimar Germany during the infancy of the Nazi state, this tale of moral depravity serves not just as an allegory for the need of justice for all, but as an ominous foreshadowing of the sort of societal hysteria that leads to cultural witch hunts. Originally titled "Morder Unter Uns" ("Murderers Among Us"), M was one of Peter Lorre's (CASABLANCA) first major film roles. Fritz Lang's expressionistic eye plunges into the dark cityscape of Berlin, as he follows the killer whistling down the street, seducing small children with toys and candy, and eventually fleeing for his life. A city paralyzed by fear, and a vast criminal underground network of blind beggars, thieves and murderers, as well as an unforgettable climax notable for its startling statement about the murderous na... Minimize
25 Reviews from Epinions.com
Apr 24, 2005
Sin City - 1931
Pros: amazing film for 1931, with great direction, cinematography and issues
Cons: make a case for fascism while officially decrying it, 1931 production values
The Bottom Line:
Remarkable film, with cutting-edge techniques for 1931 and issues that are still fresh today.
"M" is a 1931 German film from Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis inspired the cityscapes of Blade Runner, the Star Wars prequels and The Fifth Element. It has the distinction of being Lang's first "talkie" and the first known feature involving a serial killer. To get an idea of just how far Lang was willing to go with it, his killer is not the brilliant Hannibal Lecter, who dissects everything with his mind (when he isn't eating the free-range rude). No, his killer is simply a pedophile with irresistible urges - like luring young girls away from their mothers with candy and balloons.
The plot of M revolves around a real-life bogeyman terrorizing a German town. Ordinary methods of police work have failed to catch him - throwing the town into one big panic. While citizens point fingers at each other, the killer keeps killing. If that isn't enough, he sends a manifesto to the papers, which makes the cops look like clowns. They, in turn, shake down the underworld, which decides, in the end, to find the guy themselves.
If this premise sounds familiar, maybe that's because it bares a superficial resemblance to Sin City. There, an assortment of "lowlife scum" engage in detective work of a similarly unofficial kind, as "real" evil is pursued - in the form of a sadistic pedophile society lacks the ability to put down like a rabid dog.
The difference here is that M wants to take serious what other films, including Sin City, see more as an opportunity for spills and chills. To be honest, this is not a film for those with A.D.D. It's in black and white. The soundtrack is monophonic. Scenes sometimes lack sound-effects, dialogue or a score. It begins and ends in silence, as if it were a film school project hauled out of somebody's garage.
At the story level, there are other "ugly duckling" issues that would turn off the casual viewer. One of them is the lack of a clear central character. M is a story about a serial killer, but we never get to know him, except as an object of fear. He gives a speech, late in the film, but it's too little, too late. He's basically a problem to solve. In the meantime, Kommissars Lohmann and Groeber (Otto Wernicke and Theodor Loos) don't play a large enough role to decide the outcome of the story - nor does underworld baron, Shranker (Gustav Grundgens). If anything, it's the town, itself, that takes the starring role. But in pulling this off, Lang has to create a kind of objectivity that feels a little like a Stanley Kubrick film, where practically everything is in wide angle, and we're not so much following the highs and lows of a specific character as watching a sequence of events unfold.
What the casual observer may miss is the sheer artistry of this film. Lang may have only had black and white, buffered by some crude recording technology, but M is painted with imagery and ideas. In casting Peter Lorre as the madman, Frans Beckert, Lang gives us neither Hannibal Lecter nor Darth Vader - but rather an image of human frailty. Three years after its release, the Nazis banned M as a corruption of values, because it humanized the bad guy. The fear that grips the town - and the violence it begets - are documented as steps in a logical sequence that must end in the capture of this monster. But this is Germany, following the Great War, with slums, pimps, hookers, cardsharks and beggars. It's a Germany of hunger, blight and burned-out ruins, the breeding ground of crime, violence and bad ideas.
There's something creepy about how quickly the town turns in on itself. Innocence is replaced by mistrust. Simple gestures become sinister and mob violence replaces discussion. It's not hard to see echoes of this in the Salem Witch Trials, the anarchy after Lincoln's assassination, the round-up of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and even the paranoia that gripped America after 9/11. As FDR would put it, one year after the release of M, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." But fear itself is more than enough, especially when the neighborhood has been turned into a peasant crowd carrying torches and looking for Frankenstein's castle.
Lang's cinematography and direction may take a distant second to the technology and technique of the present moment (and whatever mediocre knock-off is being shilled at a cineplex near you) - but Lang's 1931 masterpiece speaks for itself. M is full of technique that seems way ahead of its time. The camera work and production design are amazing. The composition is meticulate. Lang paints in shadow as well as light. He uses the stagey wide-angle shots, but mixes in close-ups and inserts for variety and emphasis. He uses voice-over narration to tie together a series of shots that play like short vignettes of action, enabling Lang to tell more of his story in less time. He also incorporates music into the story, not simply for effect, but as an integral part of the story, itself.
One scene, in particular, shows Lang's use of symbolism and imagery to find an effective replacement for graphic gore. When a little girl is abducted by Beckert, Lang spares us the carnage, but not completely. We end up seeing "loss" as a parent would see it: an empty area where children normally play, an empty staircase (spiraling into infinity) - that isn't being scaled by Else coming home for dinner; a kickball rolling to a stop, with no one around to pick it up; and a toy balloon, drifting free and away. The juxtaposition of these simple, yet telling, shots gives this part of the telling an unexpected kick.
And while there are technical glitches - where the sound cuts out completely - it's obvious that some of this was on purpose. As happened in the famous shootout scene in Road to Perdition, there's a strange effect that comes with depriving the audience of at least one of their senses. The action becomes that much more real, because it feels objective.
Not every one of Lang's trick shots is a stroke of genius. There's one scene where we find ourselves looking up at a komissar from between his legs. What we see is a sight Ed Sullivan never would have put on TV - and for the life of me, I can't imagine why Lang would want us to see that. It's just weird and distracting.
One of the more troubling aspects of this film is its depiction of vigilante justice as if it were a commercial for fascism. Revenge plots, by their nature, are about giving value to behavior we, as a society, have long since renounced. To do that, the story must argue that society has failed to live up to its part of the bargain, releasing the individual to take the law into his own hands. Though this film expressly disclaims such an approach - even going so far as to articulate a "rule of law" theme later - that approach is a bit like putting some "socially redeeming value" into a porno film. This film's draw, as it is with Sin City, is to promise vigilantism. Nobody came out to hear a sermon on letting the authorities handle things. They came out to see Charles Bronson blow away the bad guys - or in this case, to see the bad guys blow away the really bad guy.
It's in this respect that I have to look at M with both "shock and awe." People see what they want to see. Some see M as a clever, if subtle, criticism of Nazism and its parity with murdering pedophiles. The Nazis reportedly hated the film's original title, "Murderers Among Us," because they assumed Lang was referring to them. The film's message - about the need for the rule of law - also seems anti-Nazi, given the connection between the impulse toward vigilante justice and the emotional appeal of fascism (a political idea that gets its name from the Roman fasces, the symbol of Roman power, composed of a double-headed ax wrapped by whipping rods).
I read somewhere that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of Nazi propaganda (inventor of the Big Lie) loved this film, calling it "fantastic" and "free of phony humanitarian sentiments." One can argue that Goebbels was simply too stupid to see its criticism of the Nazi regime. If so, his naivete must have been short-lived, because three years later, the film was banned for humanizing its villain. One can also question whether any such endorsement was made. Maybe, as some have suggested, Lang played fast and loose with the facts, particularly when we consider that Goebbels never wrote of any meetings with Lang - and Goebbels kept a fairly detailed diary.
I'd like to believe that, but I don't. I can't say with any certainty whether Goebbels ever said anything complimentary about this film, but it was co-written by Lang's German wife, Thea von Harbou, whom he later left for being such a happy little Nazi. I'm inclined to see in this film what I see in Sin City and a host of other revenge plots released after 9/11: fascist cinema in progress.
Don't get me wrong. I liked Sin City, just as I liked Death Wish (when I saw it in theaters - yes, I'm that old). Both films (along with Man On Fire and Open Range) argue that there are evils greater than ourselves. Like Bogey in that bar in Casablanca, it's time to stop drowning our sorrows, time to stop playing coy, and time to wake up. There comes a time when the fighter on the ropes has to stop beating himself up for what he woulda-coulda-shoulda done - and recognize that there's another fighter in the ring, one who's heading this way with hatred in his gloves.
After 9/11, America woke up and collectively said, "Okay, we took some liberties with the Indians, enslaved eight million blacks, interned a few Japanese-Americans and let a few Nazis go, if they were scientists. We dropped the A-bomb twice, over civilian populations, and we popped a few heads of state - in order to win the Cold War. But damn it, Al Caeda just killed three thousand people, and we just don't have time for any more trips down memory lane."
In many a revenge plot - Sin City included - the heroes are "bad guys" up to their eyelids in regret. They've done some pretty shady things - so "white weddings" are off. But now, something much worse, something a whole lot more evil, has stepped up to the plate - and it's do or die. Sometimes, you have to just toss the shrink a quarter and walk out of the office with your head held high. "We're all bastards" should be a motto printed on a t-shirt. (I'd buy one.) I don't care what it costs, a little perspective is always a bargain.
Here, the cops have failed. If you're Joseph Goebbels, or Thea von Harbou, it doesn't take a lot to figure out the analogy to democracy itself. Weimar Germany was a political disaster, unable to feed itself, rule itself or govern itself. It was only a matter of time before someone would rise up and "clean up this mess." Unfortunately, the guy who did it had a little square mustache, a bad hair job and nothing but brown shirts in the closet.
In M, the failure of the legitimate government to fix the problem forces the underworld to use its muscle. That, in itself, is a scary idea to toy with (Don't try this at home) - because fascism, as a symbol, goes back to the fasces of Rome, that ax tied to a bundle of whipping sticks - representing the power of government to punish "the evildoers" and restore order. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that the underworld's newest leader would be that little guy with the armband, the classic failed painter with a plan for getting rid of the deviants parasitically sucking the lifeblood of the German state.
For Hitler, such parasites would go a bit broader than pedophiles. It would include all criminals, gypsies, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews. It's easy to argue that Lang was talking about pedophiles, but when all the other symbols of M are allegorical enough to stand for something broader (the cops standing for the government, the robbers standing for the shadow government of a new Germany) - it's easy to imagine this pedophile as standing for all the parasites that would be considered a hindrance to German progress. And in fact, Germany would go on to act harshly toward foreigners and any religious or political dissidents.
If you watch this film from start to finish, you'll know you're watching a film that went out of its way to endorse the rule of law. But whether that endorsement is the message this film was carrying, from start to finish, or a socially-acceptable message tacked on along the way, is really up for grabs. Tell a pornographer that he has to include material that has "socially redeeming value," and he'll tack on a couple of minutes of footage to save the production. By the same token, stories with controversial topics are routinely injected with material designed to head off criticism. For example, Michael Douglas's Falling Down, which gave mainstream audiences the eye candy of a white man getting mad, was careful to include a scene where Douglas's character has it out with a skinhead. Likewise, Death Wish - whose whole reason for being is to see a New Yorker engage in an orgy of Bernie Goetz styled vigilante action - concludes with a scene that makes clear its hero has learned a lesson.
You can't sell fantasy wish fulfillment without blowing up the ride. Otherwise, everyone would want to jump on, and you'd have a revolution. That's why Jesus walked on water, turned water into wine and raised the dead - but had to die in the end. Oh sure, you can bring him back three days later, but you still have to wave goodbye with a promise he's coming right back. Otherwise, with Jesus hanging around, the world would be a totally different place. And it's not.
So it goes with Neo, the Jesus of the Matrix, whose fate is sealed by the fact that none of us can dodge bullets or jump from skyscraper to skyscraper. The best vigilantes kill themselves or die for the cause. Either that or they go away, contented to wait for the bat signal or the next impending crisis. We always wake up to find it was "just a dream." We always learn we have the power, in ourselves, to handle our own problems, without the need of magic. The ring, we all know, has to be cast into Mount Doom. Fantasy wish fulfillment is like a dream, and all dreams must eventually yield to the light of day.
So it goes with M. If you look closely enough, you'll discover that what M is selling is a war against deviants. Society isn't doing a good enough job, so it's time for the Star Chamber. Cue Denzel, Vin Diesel, Tony Soprano, Batman, Spider-Man, even Leonard Shelby from Memento. Somebody has to pay. Somebody always does. But by the end of the film, the audience is given the Evil Knievel speech: "Don't try this at home."
And so, for my money, M is a remarkable film with impressive technique and something to say on a topic that is as fresh as tomorrow's news. But it's also a mixed bag, from a political standpoint. There's no question, in my mind, that Lang was no friend of the Nazis. He left Germany, to avoid becoming a propagandist, and left his wife, Thea, who was just too much of a happy little Nazi to stay with. But the carrot it dangles, while officially a repudiation of fascism, may well be fascism itself.
We, Americans, like to think of ourselves as morally superior. Our iconic group of founders are the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, and their Puritan buddies (who over-ran the place in the next great wave). We love all that Mayflower Compact, City on a Hill, stuff that ends with black-hatted people chewing corn on the cobb with friendly Indians. Never mind the fact that the Pilgrims were separatists who would have stayed in Holland had they not hated the Dutch and their liberal toleration for people of various faiths (including Catholics and Jews). Never mind the fact that the Puritans would end up hosting the definitive "witch hunts" of America. Never mind the fact that the next generation would end up wiping out most of the Wampanoag tribe (that band of friendly Indians who gave the Pilgrims corn). Never mind the fact that the Pilgrims were preceded by the Virginians (and it was, in fact, Virginia the Pilgrims were trying to reach when their ship blew off course). The Virginians, we know, came to America - not to worship the Almighty, but for land, tobacco wealth and slavery. One of the less-discussed reasons for the American Revolution was the Proclamation of 1763, which would have closed off the lands west of the Appalachians to American settlers. King George III, that rascally tyrant, wanted to give this land to the Indians as a permanent reservation.
So much for moral superiority.
In truth, fascism is terribly attractive, especially when you perceive an external threat or saboteurs within. People want "Homeland Security" - whether it's the day after Pearl Harbor or the day after 9/11. They like the idea of Tony Soprano, adjusting the scales of justice in exchange for his cut off the top. They decry the impotence of government and seek a source of power not similarly limited. The danger, of course, is that power tends to serve its own interests. If you create a warlord powerful enough to clean up the streets, there's no telling what he'll do next - and by then, you'll have disassembled whatever there was in his path.
When people grow weary of "bureaucracy," they are also growing weary of the due process that acts like a break to impulsive, despotic action. Their desire to give government enough power to "do whatever it takes" by "any means necessary," is the unwitting desire to unplug democracy. Unfortunately, once you've wound up that particular monster, the damage that can be done is considerable. Fascism may have its charm, but jettison democracy at your own peril.
M raises the argument and ends up siding with the rule of law, but what it teases us with, throughout most of its running time, is not due process. It's fascism, pure and simple. We know that Gordon Gekko is pure evil, but when we watch Wall Street, his "Greed is good" speech is the show-stopper. We know that Lucas is right about the dangers of fascism, but we watch Star Wars to see Darth Vader. Part of the shivers that went down my back while watching M was its willingness to toy with the dark side, and the realization that, though Lang fled the evil empire, such an empire did, in fact, capture, enslave and slaughter millions of people.
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