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.
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.).
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.
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.