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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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Greater Boston's March Classic Movie Scene

A few days behind because of a vacation in a warmer climate (!), but there are some exciting classic film screenings to check out this month.

First, my neighborhood Coolidge Corner Theatre comes back with another entry in the 'Sounds of Silents' series this Tuesday, March 7th, at 7:00.  It's billed as the comedic 'Battle of the Century', featuring two short films by the great Buster Keaton, going head to head with a very early short film from France, and a film from the classic duo of Laurel & Hardy.  The headliner is, of course, Battle of the Century (1927) with Laurel & Hardy; this film until now was considered a partially lost film, but it has been recovered and restored just in 2015.  So seeing this film at the cinema will be a rare treat.  The 'battle' referred to in the title apparently at least in part relates to an epic pie throwing scene (in fact, the blurb for the film at the Coolidge indicates there may be some *actual* pie-throwing antics at the screening.  Note to self: bring a change of clothes!).

However, first on the bill is The Dancing Pig (1907), a four-minute French film (Pathé Frères) featuring, you guessed it, a porcine actor light on his hooves.  The Coolidge website says no animals were harmed in making this film, and I really hope that's the case.

Once we're warmed up, we're treated to one of my favorite Buster Keaton shorts, Cops (1922), an absurdist masterpiece which in which poor Buster tries to elude several dozen traffic cops chasing him on foot through some city streets.  It's one of the greatest, and funniest, chase scenes ever.   This is followed by The Electric House, also 1922.  This one shows Buster gamely but ineptly trying to wire a house to do all kinds of tricks, such as setting up a toy train to bring food to the dinner table.

All films will be accompanied live by keyboard/percussion musicians Joanna Seaton and Donald Sosin.
Buster Keaton & Virginia Fox in The Electric House
Fast forwarding to Tuesday March 28th at 7:00 PM, the Coolidge will screen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) as part of its Science on Screen series.  For this screening, environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben will speak on his specialty, climate change, prior to the screening.  The film of course is the classic John Ford/Henry Fonda black and white interpretation of the John Steinbeck novel about the dust bowl during the 1930s and the migration of the 'Okies.'  I recently saw this for the first time and was blown away (pun intended!) by the cinematography.  Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of 'Ma'.
Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath
Moving across the river to Cambridge, the Brattle Theatre has announced a 'Year of Women in Cinema'.  Woo-hoo!  Patrons will be treated to multiple series showcasing the films that were significant for the women who contributed to them.  First up, just this week is Part 1, 'The Women who Built Hollywood'.  You can see the entire list here, several of which have already been screened, but Tuesday and Wednesday March 7 & 8 will feature pre-code 35 mm films from the 1930s: Red-Headed Woman (1932) -- screenwriter Anita Loos, starring the lovely Jean Harlow without her usual 'platinum' locks; The Big House (1930), a prison drama with screenplay by Frances Marion, Man's Castle with Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy, edited by Viola Lawrenceand Bombshell (1933)another Jean Harlow comedy (her blond locks are back), edited by Margaret Booth.   I really enjoy Jean Harlow -- to those less familiar with her work, her name might evoke glamour and sophistication, and rightly so, but she also conveys sweetness, innocence, and girl-next-door qualities that add to her captivating screen presence.
Gorgeous 1930s 'bombshell' Jean Harlow
I'm really looking forward to more series in this year-long celebration of women in cinema, and continue to highlight these, especially when special guests will be present.

Patricia Neal & Andy Griffith
Just up Massachusetts Ave. ("Mass ave") in the bustling Davis Square is the Somerville Theatre, which is also offering some classics that should be on your list.  First, on Wednesday, March 15th at 7:30 is A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.  It tells the story of a country musician becoming a TV star, who then reveals all kinds of megalomaniacal characteristics (hmmm...).  Not the guy we know from TV's Mayberry.  It's a film I haven't seen, but would love to.  

Then on Saturday March 18 are two silent features accompanied by the terrific Alloy Orchestra.  The first is Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926) at 4:00 PM, and the second, at 8:00 PM, is the German silent Varieté (1925) with renowned actor Emil Jannings.  The latter is the same film screened at the Coolidge last year with the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  I wrote about that here.  It will be interesting to see what the Alloy Orchestra does with it.
Douglas Fairbanks doing what he does best, in The Black Pirate