Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #14: M

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

Oh the procedural: so formulaic, yet so stunningly popular. The new millennium has yielded an embarrassment of innovative television riches, but it's the procedural that has kept the vast majority of drama-watching Americans enthralled. CBS's slate of grotesque crime dramas has captivated America for the better part of the last decade: CSI, CSI: NY, CSI: Miami, NCIS, NCIS: LA. It almost seems like Jerry Bruckheimer could pick three letters at random and toss a Who song at the front of the credits, and he'd have another hit.

Fritz Lang's M, then, pulls off a neat trick: it is perhaps the founding document of this most odious of genres, and yet it entertained me in a way that no modern crime procedural could approach. It's probably fair to point out that the founders of a particular genre often do it better than any of their imitators, though. If the crime procedural is grunge rock, then NCIS and CSI are Nickelback and Seether.

I guess I found the procedural's Nirvana, then.

Though M is known as the film that launched Peter Lorre's career, it's interesting to note that his onscreen time is fairly limited. Most of the film concerns the twin efforts of Berlin's police and its criminal underworld to track down Lorre's character, Hans Beckert. Beckert, after all, has been kidnapping and murdering the little girls of Berlin, and that turns out to be a pretty bad thing for both the cops and the crooks.

One gets the sense, however, that Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is less concerned about the safety of Berlin's girls than he is the mountain of paperwork that's burying his police department. The crooks just recognize that it's bad for business; how are the great "Safecracker" (Gustaf Gründgens) and the rest of his thugs to eke out a living if the cops are raiding their favored haunts nightly?

For most of the movie, we see little of Beckert. Lang instead shows us the effect his largely invisible presence has on the city. Fear has transformed the people of Berlin into frothing, mad dogs. In one scene, we see a dozen people descend on an old man for simply telling a little girl what time it is. The director cuts from scene to scene seamlessly: the voiceover for one scene leaks without warning into the next, giving the impression that the city's madness is an insidious thing, creeping from person to person and place to place with little warning.

The film is less a psychological study than it is an examination of the way an ugly city works under duress. Sure, we get a fair amount of insight into the psycho-sexual tragedy of pedophilia. After the crooks catch Beckert (by tagging him with a chalked letter "M"), he pleads his case in front of their sham jury. "You have no idea what it's like to be in my head!" His pathetic screams elicit only laughter from the room full of jeering pickpockets and hookers. But Lang too good a filmmaker to simply gaze lazily at the grotesquerie of Beckert's character. A film about a town full of do-gooders plagued by a shadowy menace would be beneath him.

Instead, the town Beckert haunts seems like a seedy, profane hellhole, and Beckert himself appears more like a sincerely sick man than a monster. Everyone comes off so badly that it's hard to come away with much more than, "Watch your children," as far as morals go.

Lang rarely invests himself too deeply in the proceedings. His filmmaking has a cold, clinical quality about it that seems to say, "I couldn't find any heroes here. Let's see what you think."

If little of this sounds much like the typical police procedural, that's probably intentional. Imitators rarely capture the nuance of the original. M is the genuine article, and a truly spectacular film.

Next Week - Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game

- Photos courtesy of Doctor Macro and Not Just Movies