Author: Anton Kaes
Fritz Lang’s first sound film and possibly his finest work M captured the imagination of serial killer-obsessed Weimar Germany when it was released in 1931. It’s since proven itself a classic of world cinema, cropping up on “best ever” lists left, right and centre. Any companion text to a stone-cold classic of M’s stature is likely to have to stand up to considerable scrutiny, and it’s to Anton Kaes’ credit that this volume, part of the BFI’s terrific Film Classics series, does.
Kaes’ approach is broad: a tangential account of the film’s plot, zooming in on important scenes and with an emphasis on M’s historical context. In this way, the text resembles a particularly enlightening and scholarly DVD commentary track.
The premise of Lang’s drama is simple: Berlin is gripped by the story of a prolific child killer (Peter Lorre, in the role of his career). In reaction to the murders, the police and organised crime race to find the culprit, while public paranoia spirals out of control.
As you’d expect of an accomplished film scholar, the scene descriptions are technically knowledgeable and highly detailed, but Kaes never gets so bogged down in the specifics that his prose fails to zip along. The result being that the guide is a joy to read, evoking the experience of watching the source material for the first time, while always enlightening to reader as to the methodology behind Lang’s work.
The behind-the-scenes insight is second to none – we learn about Lang’s approach when adapting to the then-new genre of sound film and of his relationship with Peter Lorre, who was juggling acting commitments as he was also appearing at the time in one of regular collaborator Bertolt Brecht’s plays. Little trivia morsels provide ample pub fodder, like the fact that the tune from Grieg that Lorre whistles, iconically marking his transition from man to monster, was actually performed by the director, as Lorre couldn’t whistle.
The historical context is given ample verbiage by the author and is as fascinating as the film itself – interwar Berlin, with the rise of the Nazi party on the horizon and the nation gripped by a string of real-life serial killings, the influence of which is evident in the film as Kaes reveals. As Harry Lyme’s iconic “cuckoo clock” speech in The Third Man discussed, social unease and violence proved powerful artistic stimulants in Lang’s Berlin.
An appendix, detailing the famous lost scene, and a section dedicated to the 1950s film noir remake complete what feels like a definitive handbook to a true classic.