Fritz Lang’s “M” at Film Forum
Published on March 14th, 2013 | by Paul Anthony Johnson0
“M” runs from March 15-28 at Film Forum.
Running time: 117 minutes; 1931
Directed by Fritz Lang
For the next two weeks, the most disquietingly modern film playing in New York will be Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece “M.” It’s a portrait of a city, and in a way a continuation and culmination of the series of city symphony movies that popped up across the late silent era, in productions such as Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” (1927), Jean Vigo’s “À Propos de Nice” (1930), and most famously, Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929). But where those movies constructed a cascade of complex, dazzling surfaces from the rhythms of the everyday, Fritz Lang’s threnody profiles the psychic essence of Berlin in the sinister twilight of the Weimar era. Choosing to reconstruct the city in the studio, Lang produced a near abstract but also disturbingly exact portrait of civilization on the edge of apocalyptic delirium. The movie chronicles a Grieg-loving child murderer named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) whose killing spree prompts both the Berlin police and the city’s besieged criminal underworld to conduct a manhunt for the murderer. The movie uses this set-up to unite high and low, cop and criminal, and victim and villain in a portrait of a city spiraling into chaos.
For much of the movie, Beckert is a kind of phantom—initially, the film only shows the back of his head, and when we finally see his face, he’s absurdly making mock-grotesque faces in his mirror to amuse himself, while an off-screen criminal psychologist offers a hack profile of our tender psychopath. Beckert’s only signature habit is his tendency to whistle the melody “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”—which becomes the film’s macabre leitmotif. But Beckert doesn’t come into focus as a substantive personality until the film’s final quarter, and most of the film is so decentered that it’s largely without a protagonist. Lang and his co-scenarist (and then wife) Thea von Harbou aren’t interested so much in Beckert himself, but in the effect he and his crimes have on the emotional and material life of a metropolis. Lang portrays urban survival as essentially dehumanizing, where most inhabitants function as rigid automatons who keep Berlin humming (the vision of the future Lang presented in his 1927 sci-fi epic “Metropolis” apparently arrived ahead of schedule). Unlike most films from the early sound era, “M” is very much a sound movie rather than simply a talking picture, as the movie has a sculpted soundscape that enables Lang’s ersatz-Berlin to acquire a fully lived-in quality in which the nervous whispers and paranoid jeers and wretched cackles of the city’s beggars and crooks and cops carry across several frames, one sound linking into another in a way that unites the movie’s diverse spheres of action. Only Beckert fails to fit into this mosaic due to his fragile, malevolent humanity, a dangerous defect that undoes the city and its more functionally workaday forms of cruelty and vice.
In 1931, Peter Lorre had just made a name for himself on stage thanks to his performance in Bertolt Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man,” and the movie is made very much in the Brechtian spirit, from its use of gangsters and prostitutes as a kind of chorus (G.W. Pabst’s film version of Brecht’s “The Three-Penny Opera” was released in the same year, and in many ways Lang’s movie is a competing realization of the play, and is arguably more faithful to the spirit of it ) to the unsettling contradictions that constitute Lorre’s performance and the film’s dramatic movement. Lorre plays Beckert as an innocent doomed to prey on other innocents, and as a weakling who nevertheless has the power to cause an entire city to come to a standstill, while the constant crosscutting between the police and the criminal gangs that run the city creates a sense of the often ironic interrelationship between law and order, as Lang shows the latter functioning as a more efficient and, in a sense, more honest version of the former.
Peter Lorre’s Beckert is an epochal figure who echoes across film history, though his distance from the current fashion for serial killer chic (e.g., the seductive pop psych genius of Hannibal Lecter or the earnest superhero exploits of Dexter) couldn’t be more pronounced. Far from brilliant or heroic or even particularly complex, Lorre’s Beckert is agonizingly pathetic, a wounded man-child acting out of debilitating instinct. His unsettling fragility also means he’s pretty much the only person on-screen we can identify with, and if the allure of modern serial killers often lies in the way they have become aspirational figures by acting out our most exuberantly morbid revenge fantasies, Beckert repels precisely because his particular monstrousness grotesquely reflects our most abject fears and failures.
Looking backward in cinema history before 1931, it’s difficult to find precedent for the strange, haunting tenor of Lorre’s performance, made up as it is of equal parts Conrad Veidt’s expressionist nightmare figure, Cesare (from Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist landmark “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” for which Lang was a co-scenarist), Charlie Chaplin’s feckless tramp, and Buster Keaton’s stone-faced fatalist. It’s the combination of monster and everyman, beast and clown, which makes Lorre’s Beckert more than just your pleasantly banal serial killer next door. His disturbed descendants are easy enough to spot, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher,” and in myriad lesser pictures.
But as influential as Lorre’s performance has become, much of “M” remains sui generis. No other movie I know conveys such a vivid sense of the pain and panic of a city tilting into the abyss, rendering the world a more fragile and terrifying place. It’s a potentially life-preserving jolt for any dope who fails to have enough paranoid thoughts about the miscreant next door.