M People

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My first and last trip to Berlin I recall trying to sleep in the day time in the Alcatraz youth hostel, where we guests of Britfest Short Film Festival had been placed after smarter accommodation fell through. I had been unable to sleep in this establishment for something like four nights and was almost starting to hallucinate. I lay on my bunk and could hear children playing in the street. German children. Which called to mind Fritz Lang’s M, and made me even less inclined to sleep.

M is one of those seminal films I haven’t actually watched very often. When first introduced to it, I had a fairly normal, banal reaction to early sound cinema, reacting to the perceived creakiness, and particularly the unsteady lurches of the camera and the fact that the movie’s studio version of Berlin has no incidental traffic noise. That last fact is now one of the pleasures of the movie for me — I like how the whole film seems to have beamed down from space, with alien modes of behaving and strange, grotesque characters. I ran it for students last week and they got to experience the weirdness for the first time, but I seem to be past it. I’m *in* 1930s cinema now.

The whole look of the movie’s world is incredibly beautiful to me — and yet many of the objects we see must have been quite commonplace. The water-pump that crouches amid the children like a preying mantis or an iron vulture is a perfectly naturalistic detail from a time when children played in tenement courtyards and every courtyard had a water pump. But it’s welcomed into the composition for its malign aspect. The drain set into the cement is somehow grim and suggestive of slaughter.

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An aerial track along a heap of confiscated weapons made me think of TAXI DRIVER, and recall that Scorsese spoke of Lang’s influence on AFTER HOURS — tracking shots that make you feel locked into the character’s horrible destiny — so Lang surely must have been hovering over the earlier film too. (Scorsese’s overheads, which carry over into LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST also, are not like Hitchcock’s God shots, they are geometric like Lang, and dissociative like an Out Of Body Experience (O.O.B.E.).

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Who is the central character of M? Who’s side are we on? Sometimes the answer to both questions comes in the uncomfortable form of pudgy young Peter Lorre, but really it’s a movie about a society rather than an individual — as with THE BOSTON STRANGLER which mimics the structure closely, you could replace the killer with a virus or a weather formation. But despite a rather cool, detached view of its often appalling characters, many of them Georg Grosz cartoons made flesh, the movie is certainly not lacking in human interest.

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Oh, did I miss something — why do we get this angle? It seems to betray a frankly inexplicable interest in Otto Wernicke’s genitalia. The fact that Lang was, according to information received, possibly bisexual, in no way accounts for this.

M (Masters of Cinema) Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD) [1931]

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20 Responses to “M People”

  1. Have you seen the Losey M ? It’s really quite brilliant, and sadly neglected. David Wayne plays the child-killer in a style radically different from Lorre’s. He’s not sympathetic at all. The whole ting was shot in downtown Los Angeles in the Bunker Hill area. “Angel’s Flight” is featured in the opening shot and the finale takes place in the Bradbury building (a principle location for films as diverse as Blade Runner and 500 Days of Summer)

    Also in the cast Karen Morley (her final role) and your friend and mine, Norman Lloyd!

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, the Losey M is unjustly neglected. I cover it in my Robert Aldrich book since he was assistant director. Also featured are Howard Da Silva, Luther Adler (brilliant performance as “the lawyer”) and Raymond Burr. The film is also covered in WEdward Dimendberg’s book on film noir and locations.

  3. Losey’s leftist critique of the gangsters and the Freudian psychology seemed a little undercooked, but the cast is astonishing and his filming of LA magnificent. Some of Lang’s best ideas survive and some of those added to the mix DO work. The copy I saw was pretty ratty — I must try and obtain an upgrade.

  4. Actually, David E, did I not send you a copy if this movie a few years back? The clip reminds me I need to see it again.

  5. Can you recommend a book on Lang? His work is so confident but also queer. For instance M is expressionism of a contemporaneous Berlin, so yeah you get these haunting images of water pumps and empty attics. But then Otto Wernicke’s detective winds up in the more supernaturally inspired Testament… So are they the same worlds? And then you have the fact that he dabbled in (if not outright invented) every known hollywood genre except the musical (the western Rancho Notorious is one of my favs). Obviously there are Germany vs. Hollywood questions to be addressed. And finally Ministry of Fear just needs its own book because that’s straight no chaser.

  6. I thought Ministry of Fear was straight all chaser — one long chase.

  7. Yes you did sir — along with Noroit, Fabulosa and a Raul Ruiz short.

    Luc Moullet wrote a book on Lang for the “Seghers” series. There’s also a good BFI book whose title I can’t recall that deals which such delights a Blue Gardenia and Der Tiger von Escnapur/ Das Indische Grabmal

  8. Lang made one musical, of sorts: You and Me, with tunes by Kurt Weill.

    Given Lang and Harbou’s esoteric interests, there’s a good chance they didn’t differentiate between the “naturalistic” world of M and the more paranoid, uncanny one of Mabuse.

    Tom Gunning’s critical study of Lang is probably the best — but the Berlin Film Museum’s massive tome FL is one of my prized possessions.

  9. High time I saw that one. There is so much Ruiz to see!

  10. kevin mummery Says:

    How interesting it would have been if Otto Wernicke had made a series of films as Inspector Lohmann, sort of in the vein of Peter Lorre’s “Mr. Moto” series. Of course the political climate in Berlin would have made this impossible, but still it’s fun to speculate.

    I also wonder what a Lang directed version of “Threepenny Opera” would have been like…I recall some of the same actors were in Pabst’s version as were in “M” and “Testament of Dr. Mabuse”.

  11. Well Inspector Lohmann returns in Testament of Dr Mabuse. It’s interesting to imagine what would have become of the character under the new regime. Like most cops, he would probably have fitted in fine. It would have been nice to have revisited him in The Thousand Eyes of… instead we get Gert Frobe as an almost identical character.

    I haven’t read Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, but they deal with a detective character in Berlin in the thirties…

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    The shot of Wernicke’s currywurst is reminiscent of one of Wallace Beery (and a small child) in Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon.” These slobs were shameless about their freeballin’!

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Lang’s “M” is totally compelling for Gustaf Gundgrens and his leather coat (and GG’s life and career are the stuff of legend).

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    Correction: Grundgens.

  15. No Y-fronts in Weimar.

  16. Grundgens really is great in M, and utterly repellent in the little bits of Nazi-era musical revue which are the other thing I’ve seen him in. Of course, it’s hard to make measured estimates of movies where the actors are all Nazi actors, the sets are all Nazi sets, the cute kids are cute Nazi kids, and the dogs are all totally Nazis.

  17. Along those lines, the thematically muddled nature of many of Lang’s Weimar films, which some (me) might blame on Thea von Harbou being an idiot, have arguably stood them in good stead historically. Goebbels loved Lang’s films until The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, but we can rest easy in the belief that whatever he loved about them was different from what we love about them. He thought M was a pro-capital-punishment film, and von Harbou herself said that it’s message was in the spectator’s final speech: Don’t let your kids be kidnapped and killed.

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