Thursday, May 22, 2014

Fritz Lang's "M" (1931)

First of all, let me get this out of the way: Peter Lorre, my oh my what big eyes you have! To better find poor little kids and lure them into your big candy-filled trap perhaps! 

Directed by:  Fritz Lang
Written by:  Fritz Lang & his wife Thea von Harbou
Based on:  a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
Starring:  Peter Lorre
Music by:  Edvard Grieg
Cinematography by:  Fritz Arno Wagner
Editing by:  Paul Faulkenberg
Running time:  109 mins
Big, frog-like eyes accentuating that baby face with an unassuming facade - that's what makes Hans Beckert, played by "the male Bette Davis" Peter Lorre, one of the most unforgettable villains in any film I've seen. With a touch of innocence and malice, Lorre handles this character so well that even I was confused when it's time to "judge" him. Not too confused though that I forget the unspeakable horror this guy has brought upon this town. This is what makes him more scary. Sure, Leatherface might make you crap your pants when you find yourself face to face with him wielding a chainsaw in some woods, but men like Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter makes your skin crawl with dread knowing that their kind is freely roaming our streets, all charming and innocent-looking, while in their minds their all thinking of ways on how to skin us alive. That's the horror that we face everyday. That's Beckert - the wolf under the sheep's clothing. The devil hiding under the mask of an angel. 

I've read in some IMDb thread how utterly unrealistic this film is especially the lack of fear those children have. Talking & walking with "M". Taking candies from him. And how parents seem to be neglectful despite of the danger they are currently facing. Well, as a movie-goer, one must always remember three words: SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. I mean, if you have trouble with this concept, I'm not sure you should be watching movies... or reading books.... or tv... or comics. Also, the first scene of the film shows us already how lightly these kids take the "M" situation. Even singing about it during playtime. 

And parents have to work. If it's an ideal world, they will just be around their kids 24/7. But as what the film's first few scenes imply, when one mother was complaining about the kids singing the dreadful song, another mother said they should be grateful they can still hear their children (while they're doing chores). At least they know they're safe.

this scene is both creepy and amazing.
This is Lang's first sound film and he considers it his finest work. "M" is simply ahead of its time and quite influential, technically & thematically speaking. There are certain shots that are simply genius and up to now you can still see those techniques being used or copied.
The poster scene is the perfect mix of innocence, malice & danger that's always present in the world we live in. The poster symbolizes the caution & awareness of our society to something bad or evil. The shadow literally is the shadow lurking waiting for its prey. And the bouncing ball of course symbolizes the innocent victims, the smearing of something good by something equally human - our evil side. That's one of my favorite shots. Like I said, this film is a gold mine & an inspiration to any directors and film buffs. I also love the way Lang intertwined the meeting between the police officials and the criminals and making us see how uncannily similar their ways are. That's awesome.
Good thing this was pre-3D era -_-
But there's this one scene that totally caught me off guard. It was weird and I had to rewind and pause just to make sure I wasn't imagining things. Yes, I'm talking about the sausage shot which I'm pretty sure you guys have noticed too! I mean my god it's just there! In your face! You want to look away, but you can't! I can't! Like a deer caught in the headlights kind of thing. It's weird but it's also funny because it makes you think "why the hell did Lang do this shot?" Of course, film buffs all have different philosophical interpretations of this scene. Surmising it's to make the Inspector look bigger & more powerful. In control and all that crap. I refuse to dig deeper into this scene. For me, it'll always be the sausage & eggs shot, nothing more. lol.


Possible spoilers ahead.

The ending cut abruptly as the judge (the real ones) was about to announce the verdict. Will Beckert be back in an asylum? Reclusion perpetua? Or will they sentence him to death? Unfortunately, we will never know. But we can assume. 

The way the kangaroo court scene was handled, my opinion was that the real court sent Beckert to an asylum for rehabilitation. But then again, after hearing the last dialogue of the victim's mother implying that the verdict won't bring back their dead kids might mean that Beckert's death won't make their kids come back to life. I don't know... what do you think?

Mothers. Lang leaves us with the victims' mothers' speech, telling us that whatever the punishment is, it won't change the fact that their kids are dead. The film ends with a warning to all the parents that it's their responsibility to take care of their children and to be more vigilant. 

Morality. While he has a point, if you think about it, really, there's something wrong with our society. The mothers could only do so much monitoring. Something has to be done. Explained so well in that kangaroo court scene, we as a society have a tendency of being so moralistic that sometimes we forget how to be realistic. When Beckert was apprehended by the criminals & beggars, he was "put into trial" with everybody in "court" knowing what the outcome will be - death penalty. Even the "lawyer" that was assigned to him has sealed Beckert's fate. This scene resonated to me the most because the criminals actually make sense! Sure, they steal, they lie, they're a bunch of lazy pigs who refuse to work an honest job and choose to do it the easy way (as Beckert have mentioned) but there's a boundary to what kind of evil they do. Child murder is disgusting. Beckert has to be eliminated. And they have a point. As the lead bad guy implied, in this society, what happens after the crimes were committed? The insanity plea? Then what? Rapists, murderers, crazy people either get sent to the asylum to be "rehabilitated" or sentenced to life imprisonment. Because it's the "moral thing" to do. And then they get pardoned or deemed fit to be back in society.... and then they kill again. So is that the moral thing to do, really? What about those innocent people that fall victim to these psychos? Let's face it, some people can't be cured. Recidivists shouldn't have a spot in this already sick world. And the criminals know that. I just love that scene really. At one point I felt they're some kind of vigilante, doing the dirty work that the police couldn't legally do, to better the world (though of course they have an ulterior motive. lol), but I liked it.

It’s there all the time, driving me out 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, 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 always there… always, 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,
and read, and read…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, 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… I can’t...
Murderer. Peter Lorre really doesn't have that much screen time (in fact, none of them really does) but each scene that he's in he surely captivates me. Those eyes, that expression, that awkward rat-like persona that he has, it's unforgettable for me. I really hated him so much I wanted to see some bloodbath. When he was "tried in court" I was waiting for the mob to kill him. But then that speech! Like his "lawyer" said (who suddenly was against death penalty), the fact that it's a compulsion, that Beckert couldn't avoid the urge means that he shouldn't be held accountable for his actions. That he shouldn't be in a criminal court because he needs to be treated by a doctor. I mean what can you really say to that? If you're a real judge, or a police officer, you really can't say "Ahh whatever man, you're crazy, we're gonna kill ya!" It's hard. But it's harder if you think about the future where the asylums & prisons are cramped to the max and we're using taxpayers' money to feed these criminals and after several years we pardon them and let them loose (back to society) and they repeat their offense, and we have a bunch of new victims. Think about it.

Mob. There's something striking to me when I saw this shot. It's so cool. But also, it made me think how people would love to crucify someone once he/she has been labeled as such or so. In this film, their outrage is understandable. But this is another aspect of humanity that could be taken to the extreme. Lang made an example of this issue. An innocent man was mobbed by an angry crowd just because someone mistook him for being the child murderer. He wasn't doing anything wrong, aside from him telling the time to a girl who asked. The point is, it won't matter whether the originator of something is right or wrong once a mob was spurred into action. My own interpretation of this picture is this:  the guy marks his hand first before putting the mark on Beckert's coat. For me, it symbolizes that we as part of the society has the control (hence, a responsibility) when it comes to labelling people.  Why don't we look at ourselves first before we point a finger at other people? There will always be a bad guy around us. The big bad wolf that eats kids. The evil witch that enjoys hexing innocent villagers. But we have to take responsibility in ensuring that the world we live in is a better place. It's easy to act disgusted when someone is mistreating a beggar, but are we really doing something to help this beggar? When we see them on the streets don't we usually turn our eyes to the other direction and pretend that they don't exist? Same thing with this film. It's easier to put that ugly label "M" on someone that's been proven guilty of some shameful act, but wouldn't it be easier if we prevent that from happening? If we, like the scene, put the same label in our hands first to remind ourselves that we have a duty to be vigilant. That we have to take part and be involved. Not only the mothers, not only the parents, but US. 


*Photos/GIFs courtesy of Tumblr.

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  1. Outstanding review.. Your compassionate yet very realistic view of this film was spot on..
    You seem to call a spade a spade, and to me that is real writing, not saying what is expected but the raw truth of society and murderers.. Impressive work here.. I give you a 5/5 for writing this most perfected piece of work..

  2. thank you for reading this and not get bored! lol. I felt like it was too long, but I didnt wanna remove anything.

  3. If you had removed anything, it would not have had the powerful influence it does of reading it..

  4. Hi - thanks for this post. I've never seen this movie but love the old black & white ones, so atmospheric.
    The shot you didn't want to talk about - I have a sneaking and uncomfortable suspicion about it. What Lang is very truthfully saying, is that there's a nasty buried side in us all that is actually turned on by such horror. That being the case, how bad is Peter Lorre's character when there are others out there getting turned on by such acts? The fact its a cop makes the point even more blatant. There may also be a even more subtle point in regards to what exactly happens to the children before death - saying it without spelling it out. Clever.
    This sounds like a genius of a movie, I shall try and track it down. I have great respect for Peter Lorre as an actor, he was very undervalued in Hollywood.
    Thanks again - I was looking for something regarding PL for the beginning of a book I'm sending off, it's helped a lot.

    1. Hi! Thank you for reading! I would love to talk to you more about B & W films. I haven't seen much BW, but it's also one of my favorite genres. The last BW film I've seen was Le Notti Bianche by Visconti (based from a short story by Dostoevsky) - I'd recommend that too especially because of the atmosphere of the entire film.

      That thing you said about that "nasty shot" is interesting. I agree that all of us have a darker side that can't help but get excited with observing such horror. That shot is a prime example. Because I remember being kinda disgusted by it, but still I refused to look away, and even replayed the scene, while trying to gauge my reactions. Human nature is so complicated and interesting.

      Anyway, if you love Peter Lorre, then I really think you would LOVE this film! He's so good in it and the film is simply such a masterpiece. Please let me know what you think of the film after you watched it. I'll be delighted to discuss with fellow film buffs.



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