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M

I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis many years ago and don't recall being particularly impressed. Having now seen his other masterpiece M however I'm going to have to revisit that film.

M (for murderer and monster) deals with the worst crime Lang (and wife and co-writer Thea von Harbou) could envisage: the serial killing of young girls. This, in a movie made in 1931, mind you. Despite the sordid subject matter M is not without humour - another bold choice.

It's a clinical, procedural film that documents - almost coldly - the impact of the murders on every strata of society: the victims' families, the police, shopkeepers, other criminals, the beggars.

There's no music (except that which the characters themselves create) and in some scenes the sound cuts out entirely in a - so I discover from the extras - quite deliberate fashion. It's a particularly alienating device today but I wonder what the impact would have been in the 30s, when the age of silent movies had not so long been gone.

The camera - either moving like a nervous bystander or at high, voyeuristic angles - is another way in which the tension is maintained.

It took me a while to notice the textures and chiroscurio compositions, and the unusual aspect ratio: M was shot in 1.19:1 - an almost square frame. (Most movies today are shot in 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 and the standard TV aspect ratio is 1.33:1.)

The DVD transfer is crisp if sometimes spotty which is a churlish comment when you watch the DVD feature on the restoration - the amount of visual and audio crap cleaned up is astonishing.

The hunt for the murderer (played by Peter Lorre) in the building is the definition of tension on a slow fuse - it takes a while to sink in how captivating it is.

And the final trial is nothing less than brilliant. Without going into details it's a fantastic inversion of justice, like seeing the negative of a film print come alive. But at some point, like in those experiments where people's vision flips right-side-up when wearing upside-down glasses, the morality of the trial inverts again so the ethical argument presented is just as compelling - maybe more so - than in a traditional court room, despite its setting and players.

I didn't make it through all the extras before returning the DVD, but one feature worth watching is the film interview with Lang conducted in German. Lang reveals himself to be an articulate, compelling, natural storyteller in real life not just through his works.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 12, 2005 10:37 PM.

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