Fritz Lang Season – M (1931)
Can you hear that? That’s the ominous approach of an epoch shattering event in the adolescent development of cinema, the arrival of sound. I’m not going to rehash the introduction of the auditory here as wiser souls have already collated the colorful history here, although of course as Bogdanovich and others have pointed out cinema was never ‘silent‘ due to the important musical accompaniments and audience participation that supported those early screenings, so if you’re interested then here is a fine primer that gives you all the technical and industrial context of the transition which shattered so many careers. Apart from the godlike stars (many of them European talent with strong regional accents) some directors also found the change impossible to accommodate, Griffith and Keaton immediately springs to mind as two icons whose careers waxed and waned as the industry swiftly embraced the new technology, whereas the great chameleon Chaplin and the likes of Hitchcock instinctively absorbed the new narrative and storytelling possibilities that the breakthrough afforded. But it was Fritz Lang whom arguably directed the first sound masterpiece, pioneering the aural to accelerate the cinematic experience, merging technological form with content to provoke a sense of ominous, foreboding dread in 1931’s M.
The landscape is Berlin, the period a decedent 1920’s and a child murderer is terrifying the streets. Although the film has passed into the public domain and you can find it easily on certain sites I arrested the exhaustive recent Blu-Ray release, this essential print containing the original premiere 117 minute version and the 1960 re-issue 98 minute version, alongside a illuminating commentary from director and scholar Peter Bogdanovich. The film is celebrated for its groundbreaking deployment of sound, it was barely a few years since Al Jolson amazed the world and the industry was slowly adapting to the new possibilities at an aesthetic level, of how on-screen sound could be used to drive a narrative and story functions forward to a expectant and attuned audience. Many of these films were primitive affairs, no surprise given the methods required to hide microphones in props and to obscure the cranking and moving of big, bulky cameras being shouldered round the set during a take, but as always a few pioneers begin to mine the possibilities of the newly evolving technology. Lang specifically exploited the phonic in his film, utilizing a few formal inventions – the thud of a bouncing ball, the distant hum of police alarms, the chimes of clocks and church bells – in order to prise open the sense of a humming and vibrant city, before awarding the central protagonist a murderous whistling refrain which becomes the uneasy leitmotif of the entire film. Character voiceover became a economical method of imparting story information over montages of the city and the authorities hesitant investigation into the murders, a procedural fascination with technique, logical deduction and strict methodology which prefigures Michael Mann, David Fincher or any one of the CSI: St. Albans franchises by a half century.
Can you imagine, even remotely, any country on earth or indeed any prestige director gaining finance for a film which has a child murderer and implied pedophile as its main protagonist? Sure it does happen (this is pretty darn grim from Haneke’s production house) from an arthouse perspective but this would be a rough equivalent of Ridley Scott or Chris Nolan taking on such material, with all the attendant controversy that would ensue. The film treads its own dark path in other ways, beyond the deployment of sound there is no hero-cop investigator to root for as Peter Lorre’s career defining antagonist criminal is the only major character in the film, the prowling camera following the loathsome little wretch as he stalks his hapless prey. Lang is less concerned with any individual psychological malfunctions than he is of societies reaction to such unimaginable crimes, the underworld flocking together to eradicate the threat not out of some civic or moral duty but due to the interference that concentrated law enforcement is hampering their clandestine activities. That’s one of Lang’s traits, the position of one mortal situated within a wider society, a human animal constrained and conflicted by civilization’s controlling infrastructure. In M it’s the burglars, pickpockets and larcenists who bring the repulsive killer to kangaroo court justice, prompting some rather uncomfortable questions of the sanctity of the law and due process, of the presumption of guilt before innocence, a cruel and satiric inversion of being judged by a jury of your moral and social peers.
As progressive as the sound design this is a Lang movie so the visual arrangements are equally planned and revealing, the architectural framing of the characters within the urban angles of the underworld and mean streets suggesting a framework of order and control, a futurist manifesto more in alignment with Man With A Movie Camera than the mean streets of The Naked City or The Wrong Man to come. Peter Lorre’s squirm inducing performance lingers in the mind like a trailed nightmare, his sadistic wretch often cited as a metaphor of the Third Reich to come, with Hitler and his psychotic fanatics seizing the country a mere two years later. M is the mirror of a decrepit, shadow choked Germany reeling from a global economic depression and recent scars of defeat, a poisonous fulcrum wich would ferment a fascist cancer. Uncomfortably and presumably intended as a warning the presentation of the murderer verges on the sympathetic, he pathetically confessing that his compulsion to kill is uncontrollable and cannot be refused, a gnawing hunger within him that can only be sated through death. Lang counterpoises this with his frequent fascination with the indiscriminate mob, a crowd working as a homogenous mass of ignorance and fear, an explicit statement of the single in opposition to the social that also prefigures his first American film Fury in 1936. Lorre would go to be one of American cinemas most memorable sniveling, conniving degenerates, with memorable tuns in The Maltese Falcon, some early Hitchcock’s, and a little known picture named Casablanca. With serendipitous timing this article dropped on the day I starting putting this review together which perfectly links some of these European films to some of Hollywood darkest dreams, the early germs of the despair to come;