Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Business is business": M and (the disruption of) social economy

M (1931; dir. Fritz Lang; starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgrens) Here is the (nearly-empty)IMDB page for the film; here is the (informative) Wikipedia entry.

The scene you see in the image above is a crucial moment in this extraordinary film: A street-person had earlier surreptitiously marked Hans Beckert (Lorre) with the "M" in true sneaky-posting-of-'Kick Me!"-sign-on-unsuspecting-mark fashion, and it is a child--Beckert's would-be victim--who has just pointed the mark out to him. Almost from the film's beginning, the audience knows it is Beckert who has been terrorizing Berlin via his committing of several murders of children, but he had remained invisible to the city, whose citizens, in several wonderfully-intense scenes, had been operating on innuendo as they lived in fear and anger. From this point on, though, he is rendered visible, even--as here, literally as well as figuratively--to himself as a Murderer (Aside: visit my bloggy friend Raminagrobis' post esse est percipi for an elegant discussion of the socially-constructed self.)

M is a rather odd crime film, in that it is not even about the criminal or his crimes but about his function as an element within society--and, by extension, society itself: The "M" stands not for "murder" but "murderer." A social pariah as having a function within a society? Well, perhaps "anti-function" would be a more accurate way to put it.

Below the fold: some musings on this within the context of the film, along with a tie-in to recent events in Wichita.

A quick word about M's structure: while most narratives have a rather straight-line quality to them, tracking as they do the movements of a very few characters, M's structure is much more organic, as befits the fact that it is in fact about a society's responses to an unseen evil in its midst. Thus, the camera pans up from the chilling opening scene, in which the text of a children's choosing-game makes explicit reference to the murderer and his targeting of children, to a woman who berates the children for this. This woman is carrying a basket of laundry, and the camera follows her up a flight of stairs to the door of a washerwoman. The washerwoman reassures the other woman by saying that at least the children's singing means that they are still there and still safe. The washerwoman, as it happens, is awaiting the lunch-time arrival of her daughter Elsie from school, and in the next scene we see her leave school, then stop to bounce her ball off . . . something out of frame. The camera slowly follows the arc of the ball to reveal that its target is a poster announcing a reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer. About the time we finish reading it, a man's shadow falls over it and a man's voice compliments Elsie on her ball. All that occurs well within the film's first ten minutes. It's not until Beckert realizes that he's been marked, which occurs well past the film's mid-point, that it assumes a more conventional narrative structure.

The poster asks "Who is the murderer?" To borrow some Saussurrian terminology, we have a signifier ("murderer") in search of a signified ("who"). The long second act of the film is the city's collective seeking to unify the two and thus create a sign--which moment occurs when the street person marks Beckert. Or, it might be more accurate to say that that unity of signifier and signified occurs in the moment depicted in the image at the beginning of the post: Beckert can now "read" himself through the lens of the community and now will begin to behave more fully in accord with the community's sense of what a "murderer" is or does--he will try to hide not his crimes, but himself. It's here that I want to pick up on the oft-noted fact that it's not just the police and not just the upstanding citizenry of Berlin who are on the hunt for the killer. Even the city's large criminal element begins the search, not to aid the police but to find him before the police do. For these crimes, prompting as they do frequent raids on brothels and other less-than-savory locales, have been "bad for business." There's a bit of dark humor here: their criminal activities are treated in the film as an alternate economy (as a barmaid at one of the brothels tells one of the police, "Business is business"). And even more interestingly, as the Mrs. noted while we watched, we start to root for the criminal element in their quest to find the killer before the police do. Not that the police in M are incompetent or corrupt, but their hunting him is their job, and they go about it in methodical--but, let's face it, plodding and inefficient--fashion, always acting after the fact. As the Mrs. pointed out, the murders are bad for (the criminals') business, but they also seem to have an emotional investment in his being found, too. Elsie, after all, is certainly a member of the underclass, as they themselves are.

So, then, we have in this film a city's legal and illegal elements, which we usually think of as being in opposition to each other, here bound together in something like yin-yang fashion against someone who has done violence to all the citizenry. More specifically, he has done violence to the usual unspoken-yet-powerful bonds of the social contract that usually holds citizens together as a community. Those bonds can be summed up as the avoidance of bearing false witness. Yet in a social space in which apparently-motiveless crimes are being committed, fear and speculation and paranoia, no matter how unfounded--misrule, in other words--become the order of the day. I found myself reminded of the effect that BTK's re-emergence and eventual arrest in Wichita had on the city (which I wrote about here and here), and thought of my own position relative to that story as analogous to that of the audience for M: As relative newcomers to each story, we can more clearly see the logical traps others--who, in their defense, have had to live within that narrative and have had it shape their thinking and actions--fall into.

Despite its reputation as one of the supreme examples of German cinema and its close attention to camera movement and staging, M has an almost documentary-like feel to it. It doesn't construct the narrative but follows it as it reveals itself, and its themes reveal themselves through the narrative and not in Greek-chorus fashion. Yet, those very themes are at least as ancient as the Greeks. I think it is for these reasons that it remains so contemporary in its feel.


fin said...

I love those old German Expressionist movies...reminds me of the buildings rising near the MetroMover.

My favorite is Metropolis.

John B. said...

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Not that I've seen every Lang film, but the ones I have seen, I am mightily impressed by how contemporary they look and feel.

Speaking of German Expressionism: have you seen Sunrise? It's not by Lang, but it's still very much worth seeking out.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm learning over here and will see if I can find M and Sunrise. Read, Watch, learn.

Winston said...

I have not seen M or any other Lang films, but halfway through your second paragraph I was thinking "ahead of his time", which you confirmed in your final few words as "contemporary."

Engaging the audience with an early revelation of the identity of the perpetrator is sheer genius, but I would think rather difficult to pull off effectively.

John B. said...

At his best, "ahead of his time" would indeed describe Lang. Any chance you have to see Metropolis, which Frances mentions above, is not to be missed--Apple's famous 1984-styled commercial for the Macintosh takes its look and feel directly from Lang's film.

Your comment in the second paragraph reminded me of one of Hitchcock's methods for creating suspense: he shows the audience something that a protagonist will come to learn much later; the suspense thus arises from our waiting and wondering what will lead to that information's revelation to others in the film. In M, there's considerable suspense, but it arises from wondering what will happen once the citizens know what we know. I know approximately nothing about Hitchcock's influences, but at the very least it's difficult to believe he wouldn't have known of Lang's work--especially given that each arrived in Hollywood at about the same time.

R. Sherman said...

Sort of back.

A couple of weeks ago while I was at home, I spent a few days watching nothing but B&W movies from the DVD collection, including M. When I get completely back up to speed, I think I intend to post about my personal film festival.

As for Lorre, wow. Love the guy.


Kitten said...

I have no idea, but for some strange reason, the movie you describe reminds me of Peeping Tom (1960). Wow, my thought-process is nonsensical.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.
I'd heard of Peeping Tom but had to read about it before I could comment on it. I can see certain similarities between them. The audience is a voyeur in every film it watches, if you think about it; some filmmakers, though, choose to draw our attention to that fact more than others. Based on what I read, I'd say that in M it's more like the audience is a voyeur of itself out in the world when confronted with a crime or event that upsets the social order; Peeping Tom, though, sounds much more "psychological" (read: personal) and thus would be a more intense viewing experience than M (and that's not a criticism of the latter).