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M (BFI Film Classics) Paperback – February 26, 2000
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From the Back Cover
Fritz Lang's "M" (1931) is an undisputed classic of world cinema. Lang considered it his most lasting work. Peter Lorre's extraordinary performance as the childlike misfit Hans Beckert was one of the most striking of film debuts, and it made him an international star. Lang's vision of a city gripped with fear, haunted by surveillance and total mobillization, is still remarkably powerful today. And "M" resonates too in the serial-killer genre which is so prominent in contemporary cinema. "M" speaks to us as a timeless classic, but also as a Weimar film that has too often been isolated from its political and cultural context. In this groundbreaking book, Anton Kaes reconnects "M"'s much-studied formal brilliance to its significance as an event in 1931 Germany, recapturing the film's extraordinary social and symbolic energy. Interweaving close reading with cultural history, Kaes reconstitutes "M" as a crucial modernist artwork. In addition he analyzes Joseph Losey's 1951 film noir remake and, in an appendix, publishes for the first time "M"'s missing scene.
About the Author
Anton Kaes is Chancellor's Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. He is the author of From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (1989) and co-editor of The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (1994).
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Yet what is it about M that makes it so compelling? Certainly there are some features that even an armchair film critic would note. Peter Lorre in the lead is quite possibly the single best casting - ever. It is not simply that his performance is incredible (though it is), but that he just puts that feel to the character, the child murderer, that simply could not have been matched by anyone in his day, or probably any other day for that matter. He just seems to 'be' the role.
And there is, of course, the noir feel that comes across in every aspect of the movie, from its shading, camera angle and dialogue.
But what else? It is here, in the less noticeable areas, that Anton Kaes, the author of this monograph, sheds some light. He places M into the context of the Weimar Republic from which it came, revealing aspects not immediately apparent.
Far from a pure work of fiction, M touched upon the turbulent (to say the least) political and social atmosphere of its culture, in which the shadow of World War I, and the shame of having lost that war, is being eclipsed by the rise of a far more terrifying regime. National Socialists were already committing acts of violence and terror in the streets of Berlin in 1931, when M was released, and the film captures, if not the politics, then certainly the somber and dark mood, the foreboding sense of something bad, real bad, about to happen.
Further, crime, and perhaps more important, the concept of crime, was rampant in Berlin at the time. Several serial killers had already been caught, whose motives simply seemed beyond the undrstanding of our knowledge of man's psyche. The public's response - fear ... combined with utter fascination, and no small degree of admiration for the underworld figures who played their cat and mouse game with the police with such expertise.
M simply tapped into the interplay of human psychology, the law and crime that were paramount features of the Weimar Republic, and which, although perhaps more subdued in other societies, are also at play basically everywhere. Although one may not be familiar with the specifics of Weimar society prior to reading this book, no doubt many will say to themselves 'Oh, now I get it' with resepct to some aspect of the movie. They will get it because, although more to the fore in M's time and place, these are ultimately facets of the human condition to which we can all relate.
Having read enough of these BFI books to know the red flags, let me say that Kaes keeps his analysis fairly well within reach of even those not interested in the mumbo jumbo of all too many film analyses. Anyone with enough interest to read a book about a black and white film shot in 1931 Berlin will probably be able to get everything here. Also, although Kaes occasionally shows his leftist tendencies (he seems to think that the downtrodden share many of the same theories of crime as American academic eggheads - they don't), they do not eclipse the film analysis itself. This is worth the time.
Fritz Lang, who always regarded M as his best film and the one by which he would be remembered, called it "a documentary". It is one of the first film about serial killers, and already Lang goes beyond depicting the pathology of such criminal; what M examines is the pathology of 20th century modern society.
In this compact but meticulous study, Anton Kaes reveals the connection between the film and the Weimer German society in which it was made, and shows us how Lang fused his film with shrewd criticism and annualization of the world in which he lived in; a 20th century metropolis of mass society and mass-media culture. Yet he is not satisfied to put M back to its social context of the time. Lang's analysis of social pathology, and Kaes' explanations of it, inevitably reveals the parallel between that society of the 30's and ours of 70 years after. True, that the development of technologies has changed the face of the earth in all those years, but nevertheless the evolution took place in the same direction that Lang predicted 69 years ago.
Kaes shares one brief chapter to analyze the 1951 Joseph Rosey's remake to point out that details may have changed (which restrained Lang from directing the remake himself), but the basic sociological pathology still applied in Los Angeles then. And it still remains so for that matters. The appendix shows the non-existent 6 minutes scene which was cut after the film passed the censor board. People from all over the town and the country call the plolice and proclaim to be the murderer. Lang recreated the same sequence later in THE BLUE GARDENIA. Paul Schrader said recently that in the culture of media and celebrity, there are no moralities. The deleted scene from M reveals that, and the same mentality is true more than ever at this beginning of the new century.