Perhaps we pay too much attention to the story.
We all love a good story.
But the mark of the genius filmmaker may be found in their method of narrative. The art of how they tell their stories.
To be quite honest, I wasn’t thrilled to return to this Fritz Lang masterpiece, but I’m glad I did.
It is very much how I feel about Hitchcock’s Psycho. It is a wonderful film, but it’s not something I want to throw on once a week during the course of kicking back.
M, like Psycho, is a supremely tense film. Nowadays, when we think of Hitchcock, we might reflect on his tastefulness. Think about it (says Jerry Lee). In Hitchcock’s day (a long, productive “day”), things which are now shown with impunity were positively disallowed for a Hollywood filmmaker. Blood and guts…no. Hitchcock was forced to artfully suggest.
The strictures guiding Fritz Lang (29 years earlier) were even more conservative. But even so, M is a genuinely terrifying movie.
Terrifying films are rarely relaxing. They are not meant to be.
But as I had seen this one before, I was able to focus more on the method employed by Lang. The truth is, M is a masterpiece. It really is the treatment of a brute subject (murder) with incredible subtlety.
What is most radical about M is its counterintuitive take on crime.
Within this film, crime is divided into capital and noncapital offenses.
In M, a band of criminals exists which seeks to put a serial killer out of business. It may seem a strange turn of phrase, but this killer is bad for the business of other criminals (mainly thieves and such).
A town in terrorized. The police regularly raid establishments. You must have your “papers” with you at all times.
And so those who survive on crime are so desperate as to adopt (temporarily) the same goal as the police: catch the killer.
It is not giving much away to tell you that Peter Lorre is the killer. This is not a whodunit. It’s a “what’s gonna happen”. That I will leave to your viewing pleasure.
While I am on the subject of Lorre, let me just say that this is one of the finest, weirdest performances in cinema history. The final scene is one of absolutely raw nerves. Lorre is not the cute, vaguely-foreign character he would become in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Lorre is stark-raving mad.
His attacks of psychosis are chilling to observe. But really, it is his final outburst which tops any bit of lunacy I’ve ever seen filmed.
Today there would likely be plenty of actors ready to play such a macabre role, but in 1931 this was a potential death wish.
That Lorre put his soul into it tells us something important about him. First, he was capable of being more than a “sidekick” (as he was in the previously-mentioned Bogart films). Second, he was dedicated to the art of acting. Lorre was not “mailing it in”. Playing such a role can’t be particularly healthy for one’s mental state.
But there’s a further thing. His final monologue is filled with such angst. Let us consider the year: 1931. In the midst of the Great Depression.
But also we must consider the country: Germany. These were the waning years of the Weimar Republic. Three important dates would end this democratic republic: Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Jan. 30, 1933),
9/11 the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), and the Enabling Act (Mar. 23, 1933).
The era of M (1931) was the era of Heinrich Brüning’s “deflationary” monetary policy as German Chancellor. I put deflationary in quotation marks because Wikipedia’s current description might better be termed contractionary monetary policy.
As Wikipedia would tell it, Brüning was essentially instating fiscal austerity (that hot-button term of recent times) concomitantly with the aforementioned monetary approach. This was, of course, the failure which paved the way for Adolf Hitler to take control of Germany.
And so we find that the historian Webster Tarpley is right when he refers to certain modern-day policy makers as austerity “ghouls”. Either conservative/fascist leaders across the globe have no grasp of history, or they are looking forward with anticipation to the next Hitler or Mussolini.
It should be noted that Tarpley is coming from a socialist perspective rooted in the Democratic Party of FDR. His opposition, therefore, would likely brand him as liberal/communist and through slippery-slope logic see the policies he espouses as paving the way for the next Stalin or Mao.
And so goes the political circus…ad nauseam.
Returning to film, we must at least consider this situation in Germany. The country was still paying war reparations from WWI (though this was becoming impossible because of the internal economic woes).
What is perhaps most astonishing is how much Peter Lorre’s character prefigures the Hitler caricature which has come down to us from history.
War-based societies have a compulsion to kill. Germany found out the hard way that this is not a healthy default. Sadly, today’s Germany has not checked the most warmongering modern country on Earth (the United States) enough to make any difference.
The United States has, for a long time now, been breathing…seething for a war. The “masters of war” are all wearing suits. Only suits want to go to war. A true warrior does not want war. Only those who will go unscathed actively invite war.
But there is an insanity in suits. A compulsion. Don’t let the suit fool you. A suit is, for us grown-ups, the equivalent of a piece of candy…or an apple…or a balloon for a child. A suit advocating war is saying, “Keep your eyes on my suit. I know best. Trust in me. Look at my impressive degree.”
The suits like places such as Raven Rock Mountain. The suits won’t be on the battlefield. And don’t let the 10% who actually fought in a war fool you: they were in non-combat operations. Their daddies made sure of it.
So keep your eyes open for the M of American cinema. Who is the next fascist to take the stage? Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache. How dangerous could he be? Trump has a ginger comb-over. Surely he’s harmless, right?