Monday, November 23, 2009

Best Director Of 1930-31: Fritz Lang (M) (Part Two)

[To read part one of this essay, click here.]

: The Unseen Horror
Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of psychology, not just the psychology of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in a performance that launched his career), but the psychology of the audience as well. Using nothing much more than sound and shadows, Lang created a genuine sense of suspense and horror by exploiting a basic fact of human psychology, that we are most afraid of what we can't see. Indeed, the most explicit act of violence Peter Lorre does in M is to the orange he surgically skins with a switchblade.

Not until the 1940s, when the legendary Val Lewton produced such classic films as Cat People and The Body Snatcher, would an audience experience so much terror without seeing so much as the suggestion of blood spilled.

M is the story of a city gripped by fear—eight children murdered with no clue as to the killer's identity—and as the movie begins, we are witness to the murder of the ninth. A mother calls for her daughter as the camera cuts from one empty place to another—the stairwell of their tenement, the courtyard where children played moments before, the girl's untouched place setting at the dinner table. Of the killer, we see only his silhouette as her leers at the girl bouncing a ball; we hear him whistling a tune as he buys her a balloon.

And then in one of the most effective shots in movie history, the ball rolls out of the woods, the balloon floats free and the screen fades to black silence.

Lang was one of the first directors to grasp the value of the new sound technology, using it not as Hollywood was, as a novelty—larding weakly-plotted love stories with forgettable songs—but as a means of conveying his story and heightening his audience's emotional involvement. For example, every time Lorre commits murder, he whistles the same tune ("In The Hall Of The Mountain King" from the opera Peer Gynt), so that later when the camera follows a girl down the street and you hear the whistling off screen, you know what's coming, the moment all the creepier for not knowing exactly where the attack is coming from.

Lang was working within the same limitations of early sound technology as everybody else and yet in many ways M could have been made yesterday. Lang used an interesting strategy to get around the problem of sound cameras which were pretty much immobile: the camera is at rest for speaking scenes, but is in constant restless motion in those shots that don't have dialogue, dubbing in a few sound effects afterwards.

The result are some shots you won't see again until Citizen Kane, for example the scene where the camera apparently dollies in through a bay window, snakes around the room and come to rest in a close up on one of Lorre's key pursuers.

Lang also uses voice-overs to keep things moving. Rather than leave the camera on, say, a police specialist as he reads aloud from a psychological profile of the murderer, Lang lets the man continue to speak as the camera instead cuts to Lorre himself, studying his own face in a mirror. A modern audience is so accustomed to the technique, it's easy to forget someone had to invent it; rather than treating movies as simple film records of stage plays, directors such as Lang, René Clair and Rouben Mamoulian told their stories in ways that took advantage of cinema's unique opportunities.

Lang and film editor Paul Falkenberg also use quick cuts back and forth between scenes to comment on the action. When, for example, the constant police presence make the lucrative activity of Berlin's organized crime syndicate impossible, the syndicate's leader holds a meeting and maps out a strategy to capture Lorre—even as the police commissioner simultaneously holds his own strategy meeting. The camera cuts back and forth between the two meetings with cops and criminals finishing each other's sentences, underscoring one of the great themes of the movie, that in the panic of the Great Depression, Germany was in danger of trading its ineffectual democracy for the deadly efficiency of the Nazi party, one of those trades that too many think sounds nice in the short run but which Lang knew promised an even greater misery in the not-so-distant future.

Had it been just an exercise in style, M would still be one of the most effective thrillers ever made, but Lang is interested in more than just a resolution to his police procedural, instead shifting the focus to a study of vigilantism and mob rule. Lang takes advantage of another of life's perverse facts, that we identify with whatever character the camera follows, to force us into a complicity with Lorre as he's trying to escape from the pursuing vigilantes. Lang focuses his camera on him, shooting through doorways and windows, often from above, watching furtively, the Expressionistic sets and lighting that emphasizes shadows and confined spaces, and now after identifying with the victims and their grieving mothers, with the police and the criminals who hunt Lorre, we are now compelled to identify with Lorre.

In so doing, Lang raises questions about the balance between freedom and security, justice and efficiency, and the rule of law and the rule of the mob, that are still relevant today. Lang was watching ruthless thugs and a panicked public pull Germany to pieces, pitting neighbor against neighbor as posturing politicians and a news-hungry media played up the hysteria, and if you watch carefully, you realize nothing much has changed—we've just moved the proceedings to cable television.

And what's wrong with a little vigilantism, you might ask? Nevermind that in 1931, the Nazi party's rise to power made the question fatally shortsighted, Lang raises the possibility that Lorre's serial killer might really be insane. And if end-running the presumption of innocence for some emotionally-satisfying instant justice doesn't keep you awake at night, what about the innocent men beaten on street by a mob all too willing to jump to conclusions, what about the night-watchman who are tortured and beaten simply so the criminals can get their hands on Lorre before the police do. Lang is suggesting that the violence of the compulsive murderer isn't much different than the violence of the lawless mob, and condemns the practice of pretending that the innocents who are one of ours are victims, while the innocents who are one of theirs are collateral damage.

"The idea that each individual is responsible for what happens to the poorest, most anonymous child on the street," says one character, voicing the movie's key idea, "hasn't even dawned on the public at large!" Oh, Lang prays, that such a concept take hold before the Nazi party comes to power. It didn't. Hitler became chancellor of Germany just two years after the film's release.

The Life And Legacy Of Fritz Lang
Born in Vienna in 1890, Fritz Lang initially trained as a painter but began writing movie scenarios while recovering from wounds suffered in battle during the First World War. Working with his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, Lang directed a series of highly-acclaimed movies in Germany, including Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Die Nibelungen, the science fiction classic Metropolis and in 1931 his landmark achievement, M.

After M, Lang made one more film in Germany, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The anti-Nazi theme in the second leg of the Mabuse trilogy was even more overt, so much so that von Harbou reported her husband to the authorities (she later divorced him and embraced the Nazis). Interestingly, even though The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was immediately banned, Joseph Goebbels offered Lang the opportunity to head the by-then nationalized German film industry while hinting darkly that he was willing to overlook Lang's Jewish ancestry. Lang was no fool and he was no collaborator—he fled Germany soon after the meeting (legend says that very afternoon), leaving his wife, his films and his fortune behind.

"His act of moral courage," Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster wrote in their book, A Short History of Film, "is difficult to overestimate; had he stayed and lent his considerable skill and international reputation to the Nazi movement, he would have been a formidable propagandist for the Reich. But despite his innate pessimism and fatalistic outlook, Lang acted quickly and decisively, removing himself from harm and depriving Hitler of Germany's most popular film director at the height of his early fame."

Lang worked in Hollywood for over twenty years, never quite finding the same success he enjoyed in Germany, but making some fine movies including his first two English-language efforts, Fury and You Only Live Once, and a couple of post-war noir classics, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat.

He had a well-deserved reputation for a perfectionism that bordered on cruelty—for example, he had Peter Lorre thrown down a flight of stairs a dozen times for a scene in M, treating the actor not as a human being but as a visual prop—and his painstaking methods didn't sit well in star-driven Hollywood. Very few name actors agreed to work with him more than once.

"In The Return of Frank James," Henry Fonda said in an anecdote recounted at the wonderful Self-Styled Siren, "I had a scene where I come into a barn hunting down John Carradine, who has killed Jesse. I had to come in to a point, look around, hear something and exit. That's all there was to the scene. We were about five hours doing it because Lang decides he wants cobwebs from the overhead beam down to the post that stood where I had to stop for a moment. So they send to the special effects department, and a guy comes down and blows cobwebs around. It's easy to do. But then Lang would come in and break holes in them to make them look like old cobwebs. Pretty soon he was breaking so many holes that the entire thing collapsed, and the effects guy would end up having to do it over. I sat there watching. By this time I knew Lang so well I would make bets with guys that we would be three hours, [mucking] with the cobwebs in a scene where I come in and stand for two seconds, then walk out!

"Anyway," he said, "I didn't enjoy working with Fritz Lang." And that was a movie Fonda liked.

Aside from his conflicts with actors and producers, I also suspect that Lang was a fish out of water in America. Not one of his German classics could have been made in Hollywood—Irving Thalberg, for example, while admiring M, admitted he would have fired the director or writer who had come to him with the idea—and without the same intimate knowledge of the new society he found himself living in, the images themselves, which were an obsession of Lang's to begin with, became the message, to the frustration of those who worked with him.

Lang returned to Germany late in his career and made three films there, including the third entry in the Mabuse trilogy, none successful. He was never nominated for an Oscar or any other award, although the German film industry did recognize him in 1963 "for his continued outstanding individual contributions to the German film over the years."

No matter. The best of Lang's early German films—Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse—have earned him a place at the table of history's great directors. He's my choice for the best director of 1930-31.

Trivia: After M, Lang would again explore the danger of mob rule in his first American film, Fury, the story of an innocent man who barely escapes a lynch mob only to be consumed by his own lust for revenge. He fought to cast an African-American actor in the lead role—what an incendiary picture that would have made in 1936—but the studio insisted on Spencer Tracy instead who gave one of his best early performances.

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