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Sunday, March 19, 2017

The inspiration for 'M' as told in Gordian Maugg's 2016 Fritz Lang

Today the Coolidge Corner Theatre screened the 2016 film Fritz Lang as part of their partnership with the Goethe-Institut Boston.  The film series focuses on new German cinema, with emphasis on works early in the careers of their directors.  I've enjoyed films in this series before, and was excited to see a film on the subject of the great Austrian director who made landmark films in Germany in the early years of cinema, and after his emigration to the U.S., found work in Hollywood, gave us noir classics such as The Big Heat and Scarlet Street.

Written and directed by Gordian Maugg, the film is a mixed bag.  I'll admit to enjoying it overall, for its gorgeous black and white cinematography, gauzy evocations of Weimar Germany, an extremely flawed but fascinating central character, strong performances, and references to and clips from the film M, Lang's first talkie.  For it is this film, that served as the inspiration for Herr Maugg, to create what appears to be a mostly fictionalized imagining of this particular segment of Lang's professional and personal journey.
Heino Ferch as Fritz Lang
The film starts with a middle-aged man seducing a young woman in a secluded park, and then stabbing her to death in the neck with a pair of scissors and then drinking her blood. Rapidly switching away from this brutal scene, we meet Herr Lang, who is between projects and seems to be unhappy with his career, and his wife, writer Thea von Harbou.  After reading a newspaper article about the search for a serial killer, he goes off to Düsseldorf to indulge his fascination with the case.   The head of the investigation just happens to be the police commissioner, Gennat, who investigated Lang 10 years earlier for the death of his first wife, Lisa.  It's never made clear in the film if he shot her, or she committed suicide after discovering her husband in the arms of his lover (later to become Frau Lang).  [According to the notes at the end of the film, what really happened to Lisa never came to light.]  Once the serial killer, Peter Kürten, is found--it's a real case, read about it here--Lang is granted interview privileges, and when drawing out Kürten, begins to relive his own scarred past (childhood family trauma, PTSD from WWI, etc.).  The parallels between the two men are underscored, but they ultimately chose different outlets to channel their repressed anger and anguish.  Ultimately, Lang produces his masterpiece, M, from all these experiences. 
Peter Lorre in M
Apparently, most of the film's plot is speculation.  Lang never revealed much about his early life, and denied even that M was based on the Kürten case.  I'm not sure what Maugg's intentions were.  A primary theme of M, that of questioning vigilante justice, is not dealt with in the modern film. I did take away from screening that we were to believe Lang himself empathized with Kürten, as he ultimately did in Peter Lorre's character of the child-killer in M.  As the 'older' Lang, Heino Ferch was terrific.  He created a portrait of a self-important artist, a national celebrity, who demanded and got what he wanted.  He snorted cocaine and was prone to risky sex and destructive rages.  Certainly, this was not what I had imagined Lang to be like, and the film obviously did not intend for the audience to sympathize with him.  That is, at least until near the end where he begins to become more human, facing his own demons through his interactions with Kürten.  Another way this film parallels M.
Cross-fade of Peter Lorre in M and Samuel Finzi as Peter Kürten
The structure of the film is non-linear, with surrealistic imaginings and flashbacks in time.  Inserted throughout are what appears to be newsreel footage of life in early 20th century Germany, and clips from M.  A short article I read on Maugg mentioned his specialty as a director is mixing archival footage with fictional scenes.  The black-and-white cinematography evoked Lang's own films.  The primary questions I had when I left the theater were:  Was Fritz Lang really this bombastic, chauvinistic, and unpleasant?  If so, why?  What really did happen to his first wife?  All in all, a dark exploration of the early days of cinema that was at least an entertaining couple of hours at the cinema, if not providing any trustworthy insights into the enigma of Lang's early life.  

Fritz Lang (from


  1. The film certainly sounds like a fascinating exploration into a life and an era, but the blurring of lines between fact and fiction must make it an unsettling experience. I imagine that must have been Maugg's intention.

  2. Exactly. The film deserves further examination, especially from the angle of a contemporary German director looking back at a classic director in the period before the war. I will say, this is a Lang I'm not sure I would care to meet.