Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Mark of M

This is a (bad) essay on the movie, M. I am taking a film class, currently, so I thought I might as well (procrastinate and) post this. This one is not very good, seeing how I wrote it over the period of a month or two. It is six pages.

M is a wonderful movie by Fritz Lang. It is German and from 1931.

The German murder movie, M, directed by Fritz Lang, was a breach between German expressionism and film noir. It was made in 1931, after WWI and during the depression. The movie showed dark aspects from the times (i.e. – run-down building, a surplus of beggars and a lack of fathers) and the earlier expressionism. Unlike German expressionism, the set is not warped and twisted to fit the story, but closer to that of noir. Both noir and German expressionism uses shadows as a way to express certain feelings or amplify an idea. Unlike noir, the main character is not trying to find something, as is the norm of noir themes. Instead, it the movie is displayed like a documentary, points out how occurrences like murders is entertainment and brings attention to sound in moving pictures.

The opening of the movie sets the tone well, there are children, in a circle, playing in a yard. They’re playing a murder game, where a child spins around and around and around in the middle and point to another to leave it, becoming one of the murdered, all while singing a song that goes with the game. At the time of creation, sound was a new and wonderful thing. Unlike our movies today, M, rarely gives background music and hands out lots of silent bouts. Even before we see the children playing, we hear the children songs of murder. These children standing in a circle are a hint as to what the movie is about. At this point in plot, only children are being eliminated (by our Hans Beckert). In only the first minute of the movie, we get two themes: sound and elimination.

A mother tells the children to stop singing that horrific song (which the children ignores) and we skip over to see a girl playing in front of a warning pasted onto a pillar. She blithely ignores it; the warning tells of a child-murderer and to be careful. As the shot rests on the warning, we see a man’s shadow splay across the words. This shadow-play is reminiscent in noir cinematography. The shadow draws our eyes to the words mörder (German for murderer). Even though we cannot tell who the man is, the words tell us what he is. Such shadow-play creates a suspense (of who this murderer is) and gives us our first introduction to what will be the main character. It sets up the plot wonderfully for the audience, our first scene is of children playing a murder game, our second scene is of a child being murdered.

The movie now moves over to a mother wondering about her child, calling out to her down the stairs (as an audience, we can grimly guess and can only wait until our dark presumptions are confirmed). A man comes by her apartment and tries to sell her a shilling shocker of a new chapter in a murder novel, which she promptly buys. This is all done purposefully. Lang points out how murder is displayed as entertainment and propaganda (to buy papers). We, the audience, is plainly watching a movie about a murderer which is a reference to a murderer from a year or two before. When the mother calls for her child (Elsie, whom we know, by now, that she is truly deceased), we are given a handful of clips of stairs and clothes hanging to dry. This gives in to the ‘documentary look’ of the movie, making it reference, yet again, to murder as entertainment.

After the mother’s distressing calls disappear, the jarring call of young newspaper boys ring out. Someone in the crowd asks who is the murderer. Directly after that, we see a man writing by the window. Right away, we learn he is the murderer. Not only because of the note he was writing, but because of the more subtle clue from the last sentence spoken. Also, we can recognise it as the murderer because of the whistling. The audience now starts to associate the murderer to the whistling. The first time we legitimately saw him, he was taking Elsie with him. Now, as he writes the letter to the press, he whistles. This also brings up the recurring theme of sound.

Now the audience watches a crowd reading a notice on the news boards. It is a reward for informers. This goes back to Lang’s point that murders are sold off as entertainment by newspapers. The crowd is not so much as concerned citizens as horrified readers.

In mid-sentence, the scene cuts to the head policemen reading the newspaper notice out loud. They are sitting in a circle, which is yet another recurring theme. Just like the children, the full circle is broken.

Cutting a few scenes, we get back to the newspapers. A newspaper has printed the murderer’s, Beckert’s, letter. The newspaper was sure to print it. What more could boost their sales than a letter written by a murderer currently ‘popular’? Not only is their murder-is-entertainment as a point here, Lang also shows the detective process for seeing who wrote the letter. The documentary feel pops up again as the audience is sees the fingerprints, detective science and graphology. As the graphologist speaks of what the handwriting tells of the person who wrote it, we watch as Beckert makes faces in the mirror, bringing image to what the graphologist is saying. Then, while the police chief is talking of how taxing the manhunt is on his men, we are shown a series of examples on just how tired the policemen really are and what they are doing to find Becket. Leading again to a documentary feel. As he continues the talk about widening the search for the killer, a map of the area is shown and the town is circumscribed several times, giving us more circles.

The police raid one of the underground clubs, and they do so in complete silence. There is no background music or talking or sounds of cars and people. It brings a greatly noticeable attention to the heavy silence and when a whistle and car horns pierce through the silence, they are more harsh and prominent than otherwise.

The policemen search the people in the underground bar (arresting many), display all the weapons, flasks, cutlery and other objects they confiscated. How they display the items mirrors documentaries and how they display items.

After the police raid, the movie cuts to the head criminals. They’re waiting for the Safekeeper. The four of them sit down at the table, creating an almost circle. This, yet again, brings back the circles. The Safekeeper finally comes, completing the circle. While Safekeeper talks, the scene continuously cuts to the policemen talking about the same thing. Every time a man talks, he stands up, breaking the circle. When he is done, he sits back down and someone else breaks the circle. Both parties want to stop Beckert and want to find him first, bring their own justice on the man. Even though the police and the criminals are on the opposite sides, they both agree that Beckert must be caught, no matter what.

The criminals decide to use beggars as a way to find Beckert. The audience is given a show of cigarettes and cigars, metals, food and cards. Yet again, reminiscent of a documentary.

The policemen have a list of people they suspect. Lang shows us the papers, slowly, making sure the audience can take a good, long look at it. This is another documentary-type shot.

Beckert walks up to a window and we see him through the shop. The glass reflects what is being displayed (murder weapons, knives, mostly). Some fo the knives form a box and it frames him. In a mirror in the display, he spies a girl. She also is framed by these knives. Not only is the murderer and victim is framed by weapons, but the display also has the hint of a documentary feel. As Beckert moves to stalk the girl, the whistling resumes.

After a beggar recognises his trademark whistling, Beckert finds a girl, buys her candy and ends up being followed. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a knife. That causes a moment of suspense. We put the three (Beckert, little girl and knife) together and momentarily believe he is going to hurt her. However, he begins to peel a fruit. The tracker pretends to trip, marking Beckert with the M. Lang ends the shot by zooming in to Beckert’s newfound trademark.

The audience already knows that Beckert is the murderer, but the police are far behind both the criminals and the viewers. We are given another documentary shot when the police find Beckert’s red pencil and where he wrote his letters to the newspapers.

The girl finally spots Beckert’s M and promptly tells him he has something on his shoulder. We are then given a spectacular shot of Beckert looking at his shoulder in the mirror. The people stalking Beckert realise their ruse is up and begin whistling to each other. The sounds are piercing and are audibly blatant. This, yet again, brings attention to sound.

The men continue to stalk Beckert and the shot widens up. We are given an aerial view of the streets as the men try and corner Beckert. This is a common shot used in noir. The characters look small and insignificant in the large city. A fire truck passes by, creating a clamour, bringing more attention to sound. We are given a look around the rooftops and one particular shot reminisces to The Casket of Dr Caligari. Bells toll and loud horns and many people are heard. The second attention brought to sound in the scene.

The next scene is of the criminals breaking and searching for Beckert. It is the most extensive documentary example. We are given a run-through of how the criminals break through the building (and into every office). A man trying to figure out how to bypass the alarm system hears a taping. This is Beckert, trying to get through the locked door. This is yet another sound example. By now, Beckert’s shots have gone from open streets to a storage room, to an even smaller storage space. In an attempt of trying to not to be found, he shrinks deeper into the stuff. As he gets closer to being caught, the space he occupies shrinks until there is nothing left to shrink into. That is when he is caught. After they finally apprehend Beckert and hurriedly run off, the building is empty and we see the damage done. Guards tied up, broken doors, a smashed storage space and a nice circle through a ceiling, which brings us to the police arriving at the scene a few hours late as usual (although it does tie the two scenes together cleanly).

Beckert is brought forth to the criminal underground for a hearing. We find a gigantic crowd staring at us, the audience. There is complete silence. The Safekeeper holds up pictures of the killed children, and as he brings the pictures down, we see the crowd staring at us.

From smoking to open streets, M has aspects to it that are noir. The way it is filmed is closer to noir, but it is not. It has still yet to abandon expressionism. The story and the way it is presented holds roots in expressionism. M is the branch between the two genres. It also holds importance to sound and how murder is entertainment. To hold up that murder is entertainment, scenes are played out as though it was a documentary.

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