If a filmmaker is truly special, he might make a movie that’s so influential it marks a shift in cinema’s historical trajectory. Fritz Lang made two. I was fortunate enough this past weekend to catch one, a theatrical screening of his 30’s masterwork, M. Complete with retranslated subtitles, restored footage, and narrative restructuring, the new version is supposedly the closest to Lang’s original conception since 1931. As one of Germany’s great Expressionist pioneers, working amidst the political turmoil of the Weimar Republic, Lang is most remembered for the silent milestone, Metropolis, he envisioned for the storied UFA movie studio. But M, his first Talkie, and not surprisingly, one of the first great sound pictures, is perhaps more momentous. If by today’s standards it lacks a consummate sound-scape (at times the audio drops into lulls of absolute silence, much to my snoring neighbor’s soporific delight), it still represents the most innovative application of new film technology and technique this side of Oz’s glorious Technicolor. The story is about a child murder-spree in Berlin, the resulting public outcry, and the efforts of cops and criminals to bring down the culprit. Beyond its boundless formal invention (Orson Welles probably watched it a dozen times while developing Citizen Kane), the film is famous for its ambiguous critique of vigilantism and its legendary villain played by Peter Lorre, the bug-eyed character-actor who’d go on to make Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. For anyone genuinely interested in film art, M is an absolute essential, and here finally is your chance to see Lorre’s famous peepers on the big-screen, too.
Projected large, the first shot, of cavorting youngsters merrily chanting about “the man in black”, a neighborhood bogeyman, is a powerful sight. A forebear of Nightmare On Elm Street’s hypnotic lullaby (“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”), Lang frames this portentous chorus from a curiously high angle: the overhead perspective of judicious parents. To the carefree kids, it’s a game, but to their moms and dads, the “man in black” is very real. He’s killed eight children already, and that afternoon, while her mother prepares dinner, little Elsie Beckman is doomed to be number nine. On her walk home from school, she’s lured away by a mysterious stranger offering candy and balloons. Then, she vanishes without a trace. Lang ends the sequence with her mother’s cries as they echo over a series of vacant and immobile wide-shots (streets, corridors, fields, and playgrounds) that visualize her disappearance and set up an aesthetic motif that will conclude several later chapters. If you’ve seen 1979’s Halloween, you’ll recall John Carpenter borrowing the technique for its climax to imply the incorporeal abstractness of his menace, Michael Meyers. Appropriately, M’s prelude, a self-contained set piece with propulsive dramatic functionality, launches the narrative similarly to traditional horror movies. Moreover, the rhythmic succession of still shots is not the only repetitive action Lang brings into relief. He also conjures one of cinema’s most recognizable leitmotifs: the whistling of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” foreshadows the monster’s arrival, and long before Jaws’ or Darth Vader’s signature themes so ominously presaged their entrances.
Beginning with the presence of children and ending with their absence, the prologue sets the playfully sinister tone for the entire picture. Plot wise, it provides the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Elsie’s death sends Berlin’s denizens into an uproar. Lang chooses to relay this pandemonium with a sophisticated montage, using voiceover to marry reporters’ dialogue to the actions they’re recounting: a man is accosted in the street for chatting innocently to a little girl; an arrested thief admonishes the police for wasting their efforts on him; entire homeless shelters are hauled down to the station. On display is the kind of ugly moral panic that infects societies like a plague. We’ve seen similar tornadoes of paranoia sweep across America in recent years, after Columbine, 9/11, and Sandy Hook. The joyless Inspector Lohman (Otto Wernicke) is put on the case, and Lang incorporates the era’s cutting-edge investigative practices—fingerprint and handwriting analyses, the questioning of dubious witnesses—but efforts prove futile. Meanwhile, the slippery maniac scribbles letters to the press and the police promising more mayhem. When they’re published on front pages, or posted on bulletins and storefronts all over town, the murderer’s ghoulish mystique is hyper-inflated. A truly modern madman, he lusts for infamy possibly even more than blood. Due to Lang’s leisured pacing, the montage lacks the elliptical zip that the contemporaneous Russian directors perfected. As the story bounces about Berlin, however, the foundation for thriller conventions, on which Hitchcock would later build, is laid, and Lang, through this technique, clarifies that the film’s protagonist is neither the cop nor the killer but the city itself.
And what’s a city without its underbelly? Leads dwindling, the detectives target the brothels and speak easies of Berlin’s sordid underground. The miscreants being harassed and debased may be drunkards, pimps, whores, and gangsters, but they’re certainly not child murderers. The crooks now cry for the killer’s head, if only to restore business as usual. Thus initiates another of the film’s more excellent sequences. To create a profound comparison, Lang surreptitiously crosscuts between two council meetings. In one, police officials assemble (at a long table, in a statehouse) to strategize, haplessly at first, until one, speaking from off-screen, suggests interrogating recently released mental patients. Across town, the city’s organization of hoods (at a round table, in a squalid tenement), led by the assertive Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgens), contrive a surveillance system of vagrants to watch every school, swing set, and street corner for the prowling pedophile. In one way, Lang sets up for a dramatic finish. Who will catch the killer first? In another, more meaningful way, he delineates the dichotomy between the two sub-cultures, as they work separately and competitively toward the same goal. A snaky long-take (a model for Jean Renoir) through glass windows and around crowded tables at a tavern, where the vagabonds are given their assigned positions in exchange for sausages and beer, demonstrates cooperation within the city’s demimonde, which is especially revealing considering the lack of it given authorities throughout the film.