M, Or the Mob
Film, perhaps more than most art forms, is subject to the vicissitudes of chance. The involvement of numerous personages, the dynamic between many people trying to produce a work of art, or at least entertainment, makes the intention and the result fraught with contingencies. The director may not be able to get the actor they know is perfect for the role; even if they do get the actor they want they discover that the actor can't quite reflect the depth of characters sought. The cameraman is brilliant but doesn't like the director and won't make the extra effort the film requires. The producer promised a budget of ten million but then comes up with only five as the director and crew must make the film they can on the small amount of money at their disposal. These are all pertinent to an art form that is also very much a business, helping explain why a director's oeuvre can be so much more incoherent than a painter's or a poet's.
Yet we can also think of the historical circumstances that maybe impacts on filmmakers more than on a poet or a painter. What happens when a director relocates, tries to make films in a very different cultural milieu than the one in which they started? While it has been very common over the years for filmmakers to see working in Hollywood as a career move, a certain type of promotion as we find when looking at more recent directors like Paul Verhoeven (from the Netherlands), Peter Weir (from Australia), Wolfgang Peterson (from Germany) and Taiki Waititi (from New Zealand), the impact of Naziism and Communism created for many an enforced move abroad. Some great films were made by emigre directors leaving communist countries for the West, including Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cookie's Nest and Ivan Passer's very underrated Cutter's Way. But the most emphatic influx into the States came after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Numerous filmmakers arrived in Hollywood, including Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang. In certain instances the directors are really only known for their Hollywood careers; nobody more than Lang was regarded as an important filmmaker in his own country who had to start a second career in the States.
Cinema, A Critical Dictionary sees such a breach between the two Langs that while almost every other filmmaker in the book receives one entry, Lang gets two. One covers the German period, the other from 1936-1960, where he mainly worked in America. The critics even disagree over which period was the more important, which one more clearly signifies Lang as an auteur, with two major writers arguing from different positions. Noel Burch insists on the overriding importance of the early period, saying, "my purpose here is only incidentally polemical, and I shall not waste time demonstrating how and why M is not merely superior to Fury but belongs to an altogether different dimension." Robin Wood, however, sees a noir thriller like 1952's The Big Heat as "among Lang's finest films."
It seems M is a good example of a Lang film which suggests a unity of purpose rather than a clear career distinction between the earlier work and the later films. Of all Lang's German works, perhaps even more than Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and the Testament of Dr Mabuse, M anticipates the work he would become most affiliated with Stateside; thrillers and noirs. In M, the police investigate a series of child murders with Lang interested halfway in the investigation but no less so in the murderer himself, Beckert (Peter Lorre). Early in the film, there is little doubt Beckert is the murderer as the film crosscuts between psychological tests indicating traits of the man who has written a letter admitting to the crime, and M looking in the mirror. From one point of view this could endanger the film's suspense; from another create complicity with a murderer. In some ways it does both because Lang is interested less in the whodunit than in the murderousness in the society more generally. He also isn't afraid of a degree of complicity since Beckert is a victim of impulses that Lang wishes to show are much broader than those of Beckert himself, no matter how horrendously they manifest themselves in his terrible deeds. As the investigations continues, with the police intruding on various underworld gatherings, so the criminals themselves, fed up with the police invasiveness, also seek out the killer.
The film becomes less about an investigation than a hounding and made all the more interesting since Beckert is undeniably a guilty man. Yet he is guilty of a crime that needs to be punished within a court of law, not a kangaroo court administered by a mob. While nobody is in any doubt that an innocent man shouldn't fall victim to a crowd baying for blood, what about a guilty man, and especially a child murderer? While Hitchcock was famous for putting innocent men into situations trying to prove they were the wrong man (whether in The Wrong Man itself or North by Northwest), Hitchcock was never really interested in the mob. Even though Lang's first American film Fury was also an innocent man movie, with Spencer Tracy unfairly arrested for the kidnapping of a child, what fascinated Lang again was the mob gathering at the prison. If Eisenstein and Soviet Cinema of the twenties was interested in the populace (as we find in the large gatherings in Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Earth), defiantly determined to flex their political muscle, American film was more interested in the crowd if we think of the opening of Modern Times as the workers enter the factory, or the hordes walking along the street in King Vidor's The Crowd. But instead of the populace or the crowd, Lang was often more interested in the mob, with no film more than M capturing the frightening feeling that people can turn from righteousness to anger to violence very quickly.
A film very much set at the heart of the Weimar Republic, made two years before Hitler's rise to power, the film, Lang's first talkie, captures a discordant desperation, a time in Germany when most of the population were in poverty and there was no access to state help for even the most needy. "Large swathes of the population lived in abject poverty. The number of alcoholics and drug addicts, illegal prostitutes and suicides rose dramatically", an exhibition on Weimar art, Splendour and Misery stated. "Nobody was able to count on state aid, and even the disabled veterans were denied the pensions they had been promised." How could it not be an impulsive world and who better than Lang to capture it, someone who could make objective subjective states, suggesting that a characterisational feeling reflected a broader societal aspect? Robin Wood notes that "when Lang talks about using his camera 'to show things, whenever possible, from the viewpoint of the protagonist', it is clear he is speaking figuratively, whereas with Hitchcock such a description could be literal." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) Wood speaks of this narratively but we are also inclined to think of it sociodramatically, to see that for Lang, rather than focusing on the guilty man, he was often more interested in the guilty society. Working in the twenties in the Weimar Republic, making films about the impulsive and the mentally unhinged (Dr Mabuse The Gambler and The Testament of Dr Mabuse), the megalomaniacal (Metropolis) and the duplicitous (Spione), Lang could see that the impulses were collective rather than singular. Siegfried Kracauer, in his famous book From Caligari to Hitler, noted, speaking of M and von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, "both films bear upon the psychological situation of those crucial years and both anticipate what was to happen on a large scale unless people could free themselves from the spectres pursuing them." Moving to the States was inevitably going to generate a different problem in some ways but in others Lang managed to retain a sense of foreboding that was always greater than the mystery the narrative itself generated. Wether in Scarlet Street, The Woman at the Window or The Big Heat, the films are permeated with a pessimism that suggests the Weimar Republic spirit was ingrained as Langian outlook.
However, rather than saying anything more about Lang's work generally, let us to indicate the stylistic and ethical originality of M. Two scenes come to mind. The first, much commented upon, when the little girl Elsie goes missing; the second when the criminals are searching for Beckert while he hides out in the attic of an office building. Both scenes show a marvellous use of space while at the same time generating a connotative relationship with character. In the first, the young girl hasn't come home from school. The viewer has seen her propositioned by a man's shadow as she walks along the road and understandably fears the worst. As the mother waits at home and looks up at the clock fretfully, so the film cuts to the man seen from behind buying a balloon off a blind salesman. After a while the mother calls out the window, calling her daughter's name several times, and the film cuts to an overhead shot of the stairwell, the attic where clothes are drying, and then to an empty plate with the cutlery set out. Elsie's absence is enormously felt, and as if to emphasise that absence, to acknowledge her death without showing us her body, Lang shows us her striped ball rolling out of a bush and the balloon stuck to a telephone mast. It is a marvellous example of making absence present, allowing us to feel, too, the loss for this forlorn mother who looks sad and broken even before her daughter's disappearance.
In the second scene, Beckert is hiding in the attic and the criminals have worked out where he is. Perhaps our relationship with Beckert has been unsympathetic up until this point, entirely understandable given that we know he murders children, but when the criminals try to get into the attic, the film moves between Beckert's fears and the criminals' desire to capture him and our sympathies are with the child killer. Lang puts the viewer on the side of the hounded and not the hounding, leaving us fearing for a man's life even if Beckert has killed people who would be deemed unequivocally innocent. As the men search the attic, Lang shows us Beckert, frightened and cowed, shaking and his eyes enormous. He is terrified and Lang asks us to share that fear. As Lang said in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, "...you show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man." (Fritz Lang in America)
In the first scene, the sympathy is obvious but the form isn't. How can we not sympathise with a humble woman who has lost her daughter as the film registers that loss in elliptical shots that generate a pathos in the daughter's absence? It is as though we not only feel the daughter's absence in the present but for years to come as well. The mother calling out Elsie is a refrain that will probably be ringing in her mind for the rest of her life. In the later scene, the film crosscuts logistically in the sequence to give us all the information we need but the compassion we are asked to feel for Beckert could seem uncalled for; what is less worthy of our sympathy than a child murderer? Lang provocatively suggests a righteous murderer. Better the terrible deeds of an isolated man caught in the impossibility of his own frightening and frightened impulses than those who believe that their impulses are not terrible and can justify killing others with impunity. Shifting our sympathies to Beckert, Lang also asks us to see the righteous mob against the impulsive fiend. As the kangaroo court scene shows, when the criminals take Beckert to an abandoned distillery, the mob doesn't see their actions as wrong because as perpetrators of a lesser of two evils their actions are justified. But as the figure given the role of defending Beckert in this ad hoc court says, the president of the committee is himself wanted for three murders, all done it seems while of sane and sound mind, or at least what would pass for it in Weimar Germany. Beckert is clearly of unsound mind and needs not to be killed but to be cured; that he ought to be helped in finding a way to overcome his impulses rather than being executed for his wrongdoing. The defence lawyer couches his argument in an understanding that needn't just be human (after all how can we not feel more for the children killed than the child killer?) but psychological as well. To execute Beckert doesn't resolve the problem, it just means putting to death a single perpetrator, leaving the killer's psychological state a mystery and adding another corpse to those of the children. What is more important is to understand impulses and not try and bury them under categorical guilt (with Beckert) and categorical righteousness (the mob).
Finally, M, suggests, the mob is more dangerous than the child killer the righteous have impulses too, but while Beckert hears voices in his head that no one else hears, the voices of the mob are legitimised because they are heard by everyone. A collective impulse that is justified can be a lot more troublesome than the solitary one however heinous. What is worse: to allow mob rule which asks for collective violence to misunderstood crimes, or legal justice that can understand the specifics of an offence? M is, on the one hand, a film about a terrible series of child murders, but on the other, an account of Germany at a time when the state was so failing its people that many were resorting to crime and prostitution, and M shows the irony at work when the criminals insist on catching a killer first and foremost because it is bad for business. They initially get involved when the police keep breaking into their illegal establishments in search of the murderer. A man ought to be hounded for his crime so that mass criminality may continue. The mob feels that the individual misdeed must be punished so that the collective misdeeds can go on. But if Lang's film remains such an important work it isn't just that it so acutely anticipated the rise to power of Naziism that Lang himself escaped in July 1933, but also that he understood, like Kafka, that the important aspect for the mob isn't the crime but the nature of a person's hounding. "Das ist ja kein Mensch!" ("That's not a human being"), Kate Gellen says, quoting the film, and invokes the great Czech/German writer. "Much like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin, Beckert finds himself transformed, physically, into a monster." ('Indexing Identity: Fritz Lang's M')
Like Kafka, Lang understands the nature or persecution as a human condition rather than a result 'merely' of guilt. Many were to be hounded throughout the thirties in Germany, guilty of innocence, and many more have been persecuted before and since elsewhere. If Hitchcock often suggested the theme of the wrong man as an innocent on the run, Lang proposes that innocence isn't the question; being forced on the run happens to be. It was what so often interested him as he frequently explored states of persecution (Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), where guilt or innocence somehow gives way to getting hounded in one form or another. After all, unlike Hitchcock, who could freely move to the States as the career move it happened to be many years later for Verhoeven, Peterson and others, Lang was himself one of the persecuted: someone who may have been offered work in Hitler's Germany but seemed to know well enough that he would no longer be a free man. It made sense it would become a common theme in his work, but it is there never more strongly before the event, for no hounding was quite as horrific as that of M, or the Mob.
© Tony McKibbin