M (1931) "The Birthplace of Modern Cinema"


Starring:- Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Inge Landgut, Ellen Widmann, Theodore Loos, Paul Kemp, Georg John, Ernst-Stahl Nachbaur.

Directed By:- Fritz Lang.

I am quite skeptical about the title I have given to this post. If we go through the history of cinema, it is quite clear that we cinephiles cannot pinpoint a specific point as the birthplace of modern cinema. Some might adjudge the Lumière Brothers – the grandfathers of cinema – as the aforementioned point. Even though they are correct to some degree, I’ll have to stress on the point that they merely gave birth to the medium, not the structure the medium was going to have in the near future, as they themselves were skeptical about cinema being known as an artform.

Other contenders for the title include Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”, Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, “The Great Train Robbery”, Murnau’s “Sunshine” and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” – which had cinema’s first great performance. There’s a name we often choose to not mention or it just slips out of our mind – whose Metropolis proved helpful to magnify the scope of cinema. In my personal opinion, Fritz Lang’s 1931 talkie M is the most deserving of the title – complete with all those complementary forces which will prove important to give birth to what we now know and perceive as cinema. It’s the first ever movie to use a leitmotif, what else do you need?

M starts with the disappearance and murder of Elsie Beckmann, one of many victims of a child murderer at large in a city. The police are unable to catch the murderer and asks the general public to keep an eye out for him. After the murderer who goes by the name of Hans Beckert (Lorre) sends a mocking letter to a newspaper, we enter the world of procedurals and crackdowns, which proves to be hazardous enough for the underworld activities – jails getting filled with crooks and bums. These rampant crackdowns force the Mafia to catch the murderer themselves. After getting through balloons, whistles, knives, oranges, chalk and a grippingly-shot scourging of a government building, Hans is brought before a kangaroo court composed of the underworld, complete with a lawyer. Will Hans get out of there alive, or will he be dealt with for good?

M is film-making at its finest. Obviously, Metropolis is Lang’s most technologically brilliant film but M has its own bout of technological advancements. The thing is not about these giant leaps, but the utilization of such advancements. M surely had the best sound design for a movie made in the 1930s – this statement may change in the future with respect to my further exploration of movies made in that era. It is really terrifying to witness the movie when it transcends through silence and sound so seamlessly. The auditory transitions jolt us into attention or assiduity, depending on the scene playing on the screen.

M hosts a gargantuan sequence set in a government building after hours. The underworld scouts have squared in on Hans, whose only resort is to enter the building. Then it comes, one of the greatest examples of camera movements. The camera tracks (quite rigidly) Hans as he runs and hides behind a building, the camera then resting on him. This shot shook me horribly. This was completely unprecedented. This one solitary shot didn’t let me sleep, as a result of which I began to run around… All right. It is truly amazing to witness a camera movement of such scope and influence set in the 1930s, when cinema was in its adolescence. It does not fail to produce goosebumps to me every time this scene sets in. Pure brilliance.

There is this scene in M where the Knights of the Underworld wait for their cunning King Arthur named the Safecracker. They discuss about the menacing police and feel disgusted about them being suspected for such heinous crimes. Lang uses cross-cutting in a meticulous yet familiar manner to transport us from the underworld to the police squad – their actions, mannerisms, ideas and opinions resting on the same bedrock but sitting at the ends of the intellectual spectrum radiates the notion of the two groups being no more different than one another. Fantastic.

Peter Lorre pulls off a nerve-wrecking performance in the form of Hans Beckert, one of the vilest human beings ever put on the silver screen. His obesity, walk, every physical and facial tic adds up to a person so deranged that some might put him at the other end of the spectrum, right down to the pernicious dungeons, where he might be Satan, with Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth serving as his hot-headed chamberlain.

The character of Hans Beckert is a study in itself. In a scene which introduces Hans physically, we can see him pulling his lips down to a frown in front of a mirror. Is it Lang’s shout-out to his acting stint in theater during the late 1910s, or is it the embodiment of throwing the spotlight on Hans’ deranged nature – his inability to feel pure sadness, or maybe the overt presence of such emotions has turned him into a mere carcass, a carcass hellbent into devouring fresh bouts of life in the form of little children?

We get to see the anger of the psychopath who narrowly misses his prey to its mother in the sidewalk. His face changes from relief to fury, shaking him right down to his cells. Hans practices his whistling, landing straight onto dead ends, his voice and physique literally convulsing with fear and anger in a truly harrowing manner. His body movements resemble that of a pendulum, swinging between the two extremes, producing a tone of uncertainty regarding his future and the movie as a whole. Lang expertly uses the camera to act as our analytical eye – magnifying him and inflating our fears by presenting the psychopath in the rawest manner possible, in his most reprehensibly personal moments; transforming us viewers into voyeurs at the moment. One of the best moments of acting ever put on screen, no doubt.

Lang, like I said about Kashyap in the case of Ugly (’13), leads us into darkness and leaves us astray, only to set us on fire with the immense turn of events. Lang gives his maniac a chance to present his case in front of a kangaroo court, which soon evolves into a strenuous monologue. Lang uses this sequence to point towards frequent ostracization and negligence towards mentally ill people, which soon turns out to be a bane for themselves. It is this scene which set off the trend of either humanizing or to further dehumanize the antagonist of such genre movies, which like Ebert said about spin-offs of Pulp Fiction – “… Sadly have the same words, but no music.” Lang also satirizes the urbane societies, who are shown to be on their heels when the news of such a ghastly predicament is announced. They are sharp and almost eternally suspicious of anyone walking near the children; but what’s the use when children are killed nonetheless? Thus making us fully accept the notion that even the most perfect beings have deformities in their basic formulas of creation.

Why? Just why?

In conclusion, Lang’s M deals with a topic so devilishly sophisticated yet delicate, that it has managed to transcend eras and everything the world has been through to be as much relevant today as much it was nearly 90 years ago. When a weeping mother evokes a sense of remorse and fear in the hearts of an audience as wildly cosmopolitan as us after all these years, you know you’ve seen one of the greatest movies of all time, which M surely is.

Pro:- Everything.
Con:- That low angle shot of Inspector Lohmann.

Ratings:- 5/5.


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