Flickhead
DVD Review
By Richard Armstrong

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Fritz Lang’s

M

A special DVD edition from Eureka Video

Available from Eureka, £11.69

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M

1931—105 minutes
Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang.
Cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner. Edited by Paul Falkenburg.
With Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut.
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Review by Richard Armstrong

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    “I like to think that all of my police pictures are documentaries,” Fritz Lang tells Peter Bogdanovich in the 1965 conversations excerpted on this double DVD from Eureka. One of the most striking aspects of Lang’s celebrated account of the apprehension of a child murderer, allegedly based on Peter Kürten, the ‘Monster of Düsseldorf,’ and vital to the film’s historical relevance, is its almost Balzacian, some might say fastidiously ‘German’ taxonomy of the social and legal hierarchies of a German city during the Weimar period. The film moves from the particular—Frau Beckmann at 4 o’ clock—to the political—the police, the underworld—then back to the particular—the killer, the mother. Within this scheme, Lang dissects the city with the ambition of a municipal surgeon. No wonder the Nazis banned M.
    The documentary mood permeates the film. A voice-over describes the police manhunt as we see constables combing streets and woods, evidence being sifted. As the radius of the operation expands across the city, labels appear on the map as in a documentary film. This documentary ambition makes for compelling visual inventories. See the camera panning over the takings of a police raid—power drills, leather cases, pocket watches, cigarette cases, knuckle-dusters, wallets, guns, furs, opera glasses. In a refuge for down-and-outs, an old man surveys an array of cigarette and cigar butts retrieved from the streets and ashtrays of the city, briefly savoring a Havana stogie as thick and brown as a chair leg. Fingerprint examination, handwriting analysis, pieces of confectionery wrapping, shavings from a red pencil…all shot in even naturalistic light, this film’s purchase on its time and place is clinical, if not phenomenological. Superintendent Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) scrutinizes the papers of a bunch of cat burglars, jewel thieves, prostitutes and pimps. The weaknesses of the body politic are arrayed before our startled gaze. Elsewhere, lines of police converge on a street as villains scurry like vermin from alley and mews into the arms of the law. This is investigation as fumigation. At stake here is evidence of an entire society’s ill-health rather than simply the apprehension of a murderer, and least of all the memory of the little girls he destroyed, for they are soon sundered from this film’s inventory. It seems ironic that all this investigation is about saving the children whom we see less and less of as the film progresses. If the very first shot is of kids playing in a circle, as Frau Beckmann (Ellen Widmann) says at the very end of the film: “We should keep a better watch on our children.”
    An overlooked aspect of M, I suspect, is its sheer plethora of images of writing. The killer writes to the press, we see newspaper print, police documents, notes in notebooks, street plans, industrial diagrams. Inscription seems to underwrite the city’s very existence as image, substantiating the film’s phenomenological account. As Lohmann checks the protocol of the Benno Strasse warehouse break-in where the underworld have trapped the killer, we see each part of the scene as the document describes its condition.

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    Lang’s storytelling is characteristically consummate. Paul Falkenburg’s adroit edit brings together citizens reading a news billboard on the street / businessmen perusing the evening paper in a club. Only the ‘bridge’ of a word brings whole tiers of the city together in their paranoia. Underworld boss Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens) and cronies plan to foil the killer / Superintendent Groeber and detectives plan strategy. With hindsight, Frau Beckmann’s final plea feels like a poetic apostrophe standing in for the savage ellipses which rip the little girls from the picture. Elsewhere on Flickhead I mentioned the smoky mise-en-scène of municipal deal-making in M. Never was carbon monoxide, that most insidious and insinuating gas, used with more presence as a metaphor for political and moral ambivalence. No wonder the Nazis banned M.
    Yet although Lang is less interested in his crimes than in the impact Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) has on the status quo, there are moments in this realist epic which hint at the inner life of the city. Lang did, after all, emerge out of the Weimar expressionism of the high-20s. As Lang scholar Lotte Eisner writes in her 1976 book, in M “The documentary and the ornamental are indivisible.” Notice that moment when a little girl passes a bookstore window where an optical device swirls. Not only does the moment suggest the confusion in a serial killer’s head, but in recalling the plunging stairwell at the Beckmann apartment it hints at the meld of ornament and technology in Lang’s modernism. Elsewhere, the former trainee architect gives us the Benno Strasse warehouse from behind steel shutters, their latticework shadow thrown like spidery entrapment amid looming black columns, the effect like cobwebbed trees in an ancient forest. Earlier we see Beckert, his overgrown child’s cherubic face gawking in a store window, chewing at the soft flesh of a plum before wiping the juice from his lip as he sees another little girl. Despite the copious forensic methods at Lohmann’s disposal and the rational tenor of the investigative voice-over, it is finally a blind old man’s intuition which leads to Beckert’s capture. Lorre’s final, spellbinding confession remains one of cinema’s most compelling proofs of the mysteries and ellipses of human longing.
    Bogdanovich feels the moment is cartoonish when, aghast, Lohmann’s cigar falls out of his mouth. But it works because another part of this complex film’s appeal is at the level of caricature. While its city is one of a thousand Gothams of the pre-war pulp press, its faces—Lohmann’s, Beckert’s, Franz, the burglar’s—belong in a comic strip. Witness Fritz Arno Wagner’s low angle shot looking up from beneath Lohmann’s desk at his crotch, the impression of a flaccid penis disgusting evidence of the Establishment’s impotence.
    Consisting of interviews between Lang and Bogdanovich, Lang and documentarist Erwin Leiser, a visual essay by historian R. Dixon Smith, programs on the 2001 restoration of the film, a photo gallery, and galleries of contemporary posters and artwork, plus a detailed commentary by Bogdanovich and Restoration Supervisor Martin Koerber, this DVD is itself a fastidious tribute to M. Few filmmakers have known how to enmesh the spectator in the dangerous mobile spaces of their imaginings quite like Fritz Lang. His commentators dedicate themselves to his gliding camera, stealthy editing and astute aural economy. Hear Lang and Bogdanovich rehearse the celebrated ‘elision’ of little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) as that balloon ‘person’ clings macabrely to telegraph wires before disappearing. The entire sequence from Frau Beckmann’s expectantly laying out Elsie’s tea remains a tour-de-force of storytelling in sound cinema, putting the early talkies of Hollywood to shame. Meanwhile, Lang leaves it to each of us to decide just what Beckert did to Elsie. M is a brutal manhunt played out on the geometric grid of the modern urban imaginary, mobilizing recent recollections of missing children cases from the Dutroux child abuse scandal in Belgium in in the 1990s to the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Britain in 2002. Seldom has the sheer dread of the deranged criminal been so tangible as in Lorre’s sweaty bulbous stare.

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    The 2001 restoration comprised of elements retrieved from prints at the Netherlands Film Museum and the Cinémathèque Suisse from which a 35mm fine grain negative was struck by L’Immagine Ritrovata of Bologna, Italy. The film’s original running time was 117 minutes. Banned by the Nazis in 1934, it was not seen again until the 99 minute re-release of 1960. Koerber and Peter Campbell (of the Australian facilities house IML Digital Media) guide us through the exacting work of retrieving the original from the tears, scratches, creasing, missing frames, degradation, ‘tramlines,’ and random artifacts of decades of neglect. As we view juxtaposed scenes from the 1960 and 2001 prints, we witness the care that has gone into preserving the gray scale and fine detail. What a pity that Lang, who died in 1976, cannot see this pin sharp print.
    There are some great moments in the extras. Although we have heard the story before, nothing can compare with Lang’s own re-telling to Leiser of his appointment with Goebbels and subsequent flight to Paris in March 1933. Lang tells it like he is rehearsing a scene, meticulously aware of the monumental mise-en-scène of corridors and halls at the Ministry of Propaganda. Although you are constantly aware of the ambient noise and imperfect sound in Bogdanovich’s 1965 sessions (recorded for the 1967 book, Fritz Lang in America), the director’s sometime dictatorial reputation comes shockingly across when he literally shouts down a woman’s voice in the background. (Was this Bogdanovich’s wife Polly Platt?) While the sound on Campbell’s restoration documentary is full of echo, I particularly like the artwork on some of the original German release posters.
    To depict underworld types, the production hired real criminals, doing a deal with the police to prevent their arrest while shooting was in progress, Koerber tells us. Once shooting was done, the police were allowed on the set but the criminals had dispersed across the city, lost amid the microhistories of Weimar. While in Düsseldorf and elsewhere, mothers called their little girls in for their tea…

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