Film Notes: M

7 p.m. Wednesday, January 21, 2018
53 Wall Street Auditorium
Introduction by Tom Breen and Brian Meacham
Film Notes by Tom Breen

Directed by Fritz Lang (1931) 117 mins
Cinematogrpahy by Fritz Arno Wagner
Produced by Nero-Film AG
Starring Peter Lorre, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Gr
ündgens, Fritz Odemar, and Paul Kemp

Towards the end of his life, Austrian-born director Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was fond of telling a story about how Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had offered him the top position in the German film industry soon after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. Hours after Goebbels made the offer, the story goes, Lang packed his bags and fled to Paris, not waiting even a day to remove money from his German bank account.

Alas, that story of a morally uncompromising director immediately leaving his adopted homeland in protest of Nazi rule is, to put it kindly, a bit more complicated than Lang would have liked. Lang did flee Berlin, but not until months after the supposed meeting with Goebbels. He did go on to direct a quartet of unambiguously anti-fascist movies in Hollywood in the early 1940s, but he was also a dedicated German nationalist in his youth. His last pre-war German movie, DAS TESTAMENT DES DR. MABUSE (1933), was indeed banned by censors for its implicit criticism of the Nazi Party, but Lang was also admired by Goebbels and Hitler for his monumental, mythological Weimar-era epics DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924) and METROPOLIS (1927).

Although Lang’s heroic escape story may not quite jibe with reality, its murky, fatalistic tension between truth and fiction is a pretty perfect encapsulation of what Lang did so well in over four decades as a filmmaker: walk a fuzzy line between grandiose fantasy and hard-boiled documentary, imbuing the wild imagination of the former with just enough gritty detail from the latter that even the most outlandish scenarios bore a haunting, poignant resemblance to an all-too-recognizable modern reality.

Lang’s 1931 urban crime film M, a landmark early sound movie and proto-noir that was the director’s favorite of his own work, may be the best example of Lang blending conspicuous artifice with documentary realism in the service of creating a chilling, entertaining, unforgettably provocative exploration of the manifold dangers of modern life in the big city. Peter Lorre makes his film debut as Hans Beckert, an inconspicuous, cherub-faced petty bourgeois in 1920s Berlin who is also a serial killer of children. The highly organized forces of the police and the criminal underworld, along with the panicked and hysterical general public, all desperately seek to find Beckert before he takes his next victim.

Set in tenement courtyards, crowded city streets, smoke-filled police interrogation rooms, and other gloomy urban locales that would become the standard backdrops for American film noir in the decades to come, the movie was shot entirely on constructed sets over six weeks at the Staaken Zeppelinhalle studio just outside Berlin. Lang’s first sound movie, M was shot two-thirds in sound and one-third silent, integrating a highly expressive soundtrack of mundane city noises (e.g. honking cars, clanging clocks) with sequences of awed, contemplative silence before the forces of order pitted against an agent of chaos. But in a city suspended between the lingering trauma of World War I and the imminent rise of Nazi rule, M’s greatest ambiguity lies in just whom, exactly, the audience should sympathize with and whom they should most fear.

Lorre’s bug-eyed child murderer is indeed a monster, but is there not something also worrisome about the frenzied masses, the ruthless criminals, the uncompromising police? “Gradually, and at times reluctantly,” Lang wrote in the the Los Angeles Herald Express in 1947, “I have come to the conclusion that every human mind harbors a latent compulsion to murder.” While Beckert clearly falls into that everymanturned-monster camp, under the wrong circumstances, could the same happen to me or to you, too?

DID YOU KNOW: M is often remembered for its use of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" as leitmotif, a tune which Lorre's character whistles throughout the film. Lorre himself couldn't whistle, though, so the whistling was provided by the notoriously un-musical Lang, whose tuneless whistle was well-matched with Lorre's unbalanced character.

Presented in the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

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