Fritz Lang’s M: Sympathy For The Devil

“We sat two hours in front of the room where the censors were looking at the film…and finally they came out and they said, ‘Mr Lang, this film has practically everything about which we disagree and which we cannot accept but it is done with such integrity that we don’t want to make any cuts.’ — Fritz Lang, interviewed by Powers, Reed and Chase in 1973 – (“Fritz Lang: Interviews”, 171 [note that, unless otherwise indicated, all references to interviews with Lang come from this text, being as it is the authoritative compilation])

When one tracks the progress of the German Expressionist movement as it relates to the development and refinement of means of cinematic expression, the progression unearthed is undeniably one that trends towards integration and consolidation with more classical and conventional forms of aesthetic articulation as they directly related to the medium of celluloid: augmentation, rather than demonstration, discretion rather than ostentation.

Placing Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came Into The World (1920), Fritz Lang’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) at one end of the scale and Lang’s undeniably masterful M (1931) at the other, we quickly come to see the evidence of a stark and blisteringly accelerated evolution, taking place over the course of a decade and moving quickly away from the conspicuous visual stylization, unashamedly overt and deliberately two-dimensional set design and manifest obsession with the painterly and the emotional that marks the image system of an early German Expressionist film.

Ever-more-concerned not with the depiction but the reproduction of a recognisable reality, over this ten year period we see the results of an inexorable swing towards total thematic and artistic consolidation within the realms of the pragmatic and the unabashedly ‘realistic’: as the understanding and implementation of geometry trends back towards the linear and the definitively Euclidean and away from the determinedly abstract, and the architecture transmutes from the monolithic and the obtusely monumental to merely the Gothic and overly prodigious, so too do the cast of characters become less like a set of hideous Caligari-esque caricatures and more like the people they purport to represent, in line with the dichotomous requirements of a self-styled ‘realist’ outlook.

The films of German Expressionists begin, then, to conceal their once-patent artistic affiliation so as to more readily allow the so-called ‘man on the street’ to identify with their content and narrative, a process that finds its eventual apogee in the American films noir Lang would direct and help to influence into perpetuity, where the real world and the world of Expressionist art blend seamlessly and overt surrealism is confined to dream sequences, most memorably in Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).

Indeed, the connection between the tropes of Expressionist and later Modernist art and the image system of the classical film noir is so strong as to have precipitated the authoring of a paper on just such a subject (“Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.”) by renowned film critic J.P. Telotte, who summarises an aesthetic of noir very close to Lang’s own: “oblique camera angles, low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions, reflective surfaces [that] logically suit its dark subjects (crime, corruption, the eruption of desire)” (4) It is unsurprising that it is Lang to whom such a style is chiefly attributed, for he was its foremost living practitioner; in his own words, speaking in 1958 to Jean Domarchi and Jacques Rivette:  “[Murnau] left very early for America, and was already dead when I arrived there…” (23)

Peter Lorre’s biographer, Stephen D. Youngkin, concurs (aptly and with great brevity restating the thesis which I have described above) in the following passage, noting “realism and expressionism set parameters that embraced light and dark, sound and silence, emotion and reason, sanity and sickness, revenge and justice. Lang was at his artistic best when searching out common ground amongst them.” (56)

And thus it is that we arrive finally at M, most probably Lang’s finest work, combining that streamlined-and-integrated Expressionist eye-for-detail (noted above and that we first begin to see seriously developing in the grandiose science-fiction aesthetic of Metropolis [1927]) with an everyman’s sensibility designed to pluck at the heartstrings of every parent and upstanding citizen in post-WW1 Deutschland and beyond, drenched as the film is in a fervent desire to plug directly into the common fears of a German populace surrounded by post-war violence and lurid tales of mass murderers operating in the Rhineland (Lang says as much to Powers, Reed and Chase, 170).

Jason Crouthamel, in a study of sexuality and violence in post-WW1 Germany, notes the presence of “…infamous serial killer, Peter Kurten…after the war Kurten became a full-fledged serial killer, murdering dozens of young women in a frenzy of sadism that terrified Dusseldorf for months in 1925.” (76) Crouthamel even goes so far as to suggest that Kurten was the model for Peter Lorre’s Beckert, a claim that originates with one of Lang’s contemporaries, critic Siegfried Kracauer, whom Lang personally found odious and whose claims he refuted with little patience or care: in his 1963 interview with Gero Gandert, his response to the suggestion of Kracauer’s potential legitimacy is a curt, “First, Kurten was not an admitted killer of children, second, the screenplay for M was finished before Kurten was apprehended.” (36)

Nevertheless, despite his protestations, Lang and his long-time collaborator, wife Thea von Harbou, were clearly aware of the zeitgeist into which their work was being born. On release (says Youngkin), “moviegoers blocked the sidewalks. Automobiles jammed the street. Insider the theatre, spectators clapped and whistled for and against capital punishment while Kurten sat on death row…Classic stature came to Lang’s favorite film overnight and stayed.” (63)

Understandably so. In every way, M is a triumph, not least in its sheer technicality, in the audacity of its presentation: Lang’s first ‘talkie’ (synchronised sound having only been employed at a commercial level since 1927, with the release of The Jazz Singer), diagetic sound is nonetheless deployed with an incredibly progressive sense and understanding of its capacities to enhance the cinematic experience (Lang to Gero Gandert in 1963: “…when the silence of the streets is sliced to shreds by the shrill police whistles, or the unmelodic, constantly recurring whistling of the child murderer, that gives mute expression to his compulsive urges.” [35]) This fact is made more amazing still by the relatively infinitesimal number of prior examples in the canon able to be considered beforehand.

There is no amateurish fumbling, no conservative treatment of the material at hand: this is an all-out assault on the senses of an audience unaccustomed to being pounded and battered with such ferocity.

Having lost (or rather, readily surrendered) the ability to ably call on the surreal and the overtly sublime, Lang instead begins to focus on the play of light and shadow, using unconventionally harsh lighting rigs that emphasise either extreme of the monochromatic palette to be found in 35mm black-and-white stock, obsessing now over the placement of every vicious line, carving up his frame as he blasts the city of Berlin and its soundstages with phosphorescent bulbs. To Andy Klein, it is as if “everything seems determined by some odious geometry, a rigorous mathematical system too complex for humans to ever comprehend.” (1)

And it is Berlin and no other: undoubtedly so. Peter Hogue, in his Film Comment article, “Fritz Lang: Our Contemporary”, argues “…the crime story is a function of, and occasion for, a wide-ranging portrait of a city…” (10) The city is as much a character in this film as any of its motley crew of grifters, pickpockets, panhandlers and policemen. They are all bit players besides the Teutonic marvel of Lang’s Berlin, which leads a dualistic existence with its long paved avenues and sunlit streets, always filled with the sounds and sights of playing children, beneath, behind and above which always lies the sordid implication of sleazy underground clubs, sprawling shadowlands and vast industrial complexes lit with much homage paid to the technique and implication of heavy-handed chiaroscuro lighting design.

To observe the comings and goings of the police and the criminal underclass is to watch the scurrying of rats; Lang at one point shoots the interception of the now-marked Beckert from above, and the resultant melee is almost comical in its absurdity, recalling some kind of warped Chaplin sketch gone horrible, horribly wrong.

Hogue warns the reader of the dangers of becoming caught up in “the technical felicities and social ironies often rehearsed by film scholars” (10), and rightly so, for there is so much more to Lang’s masterwork than simple technical competency on a grand and illustrious scale, and to Lang than simply that he was cast in the role of “geometrician of doom” (11). Lang, to Hogue and subsequently to myself, is about more than the implications of a fatalistic geometry for a city under siege from within: he notes that “the vertiginous shot of a geometrically abstracted stairwell is associated” not with more symbolic abstraction, but the very real and concrete “absence and death of a child…his films…evoke common human experience” (11).

Youngkin recounts, utilising extensive referencing of on-set accounts, how Lang abused and drove Lorre ever onwards in search of the perfect performance as they reached the penultimate scene, summarising the process thus, “Described as brutal, abusive, exacting, driven, omnipotent, imperious and autocratic…Lang was a perfectionist…” (p. 59) “…[he] had literally beaten a performance out of Lorre.” (p. 62) Though one may actively cast a shadow of doubt over Lang’s methods, their outcome cannot be denied:

“… I have no control over this. This evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time — driving me to wander the streets, following me silently, but I can feel it there — it’s me, pursuing myself — I want to escape, to escape from myself but it’s impossible… I can’t escape, I have to obey it, I have to run endless streets — I want to escape, to get away and I’m pursued by ghosts — ghosts of mothers and of those children, they never leave me, they are there, always there, always, always except when I do it — when I … then I can’t remember anything and afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done. Did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it, but who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act — how I must! — must!– don’t want to — but must — and then a voice screams — I can’t bear to hear it — I can’t go on, I can’t go on …”

In a 1964 interview with Michele Manceaux, Lang recalls, “during the silent movie era we were forced to prefer action. Now, I don’t think that action is superfluous, quite the opposite, but one can also explore character. In a film one must find everything…” (39) Where there has been until now such art and such artifice, there suddenly stands, at the trembling climax of M, a single, static shot of a bent and bowed Lorre at his theatrical best, disallowed his signature theme or the ability to remain partially shielded from the camera by the diffusing stratum of a shop window or the edge of the frame: hounded on- and off-camera to his wits’ end, besieged within and without, for long moments pausing and clutching at himself before erupting into paroxysms of guilt, fear and loathing. If ever Lang’s Expressionist urges were sublimated by the thoroughly Prussian industrialism of his chosen profession, they vent themselves here, as Lorre’s febrile and impassioned ranting threatens to warp the very nature of the cinematic reality we have faced. If ever there was a time to suddenly feel sympathy for the Devil, this is it.

Works Cited

Butler, Erik. “Dr. Mabuse: Terror and Deception of the Image.” German Quarterly 78 (2005): 481-97. Project MUSE. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Cowen, Michael. “The Heart Machine: “Rhythm” and Body in Weimar Film and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” Modernism/modernity 14 (2007): 225-48. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://0-muse.jhu.edu.alpha2.latrobe.edu.au/journals/modernism-modernity/v014/14.2cowan.html&gt;.

Crouthamel, James. “Male Sexuality and Psychological Trauma: Soldiers and Sexual Disorder in World War I and Weimar Germany.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17 (2008): 60-84. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Grant, Barry K., and Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang: interviews. Univ. P of Mississippi, 2003.

Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Hogue, Peter. “Fritz Lang Our Contemporary.” Film Comment 26 (1990): 9-13. Academic Research Library. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Kaes, Anton. “The Cold Gaze: Notes on Mobilization and Modernity.” New German Critique 59 (1993): 105-17. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Klein, Andy. “Fritz Lang.” American Film 15 (1990): 56-59. Academic Research Library. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Lungstrum, Janet W. “The Display Window: Designs and Desires of Weimar Consumerism.” New German Critique 76 (1999): 115-60. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 21 Apr. 2009.

Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” Film Quarterly 49 (1996): 12-28. University of California Press.

M. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke,

Theodor Loos. DVD. Criterion, 1998.

Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Symons, Stephane. “Deleuze and the Various Faces of the Outside.” Theory & Event 9 (2006). Project MUSE. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/theory_and_event/v009/9.3symons.html&gt;.

Telotte, J. P. “Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3 (1989): 3-17. University of Chicago Press.

Titford, John S. “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema.” University of Texas Cinema Journal 13 (1973): 17-24. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Willis, Don. “Fritz Lang: Only Melodrama.” Film Quarterly 33 (1980): 2-11. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Youngkin, Stephen D. The Lost One A Life of Peter Lorre. New York: University P of Kentucky, 2005.

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~ by Martin Kingsley on June 29, 2009.

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