Directed by Gordian Maugg
Review by Ron Merk, Editor in Chief, Indieplex Online Magazine
I decided to write this review for two reasons. The first is that I’m a big fan of Fritz Lang’s films, both those he made in Germany and France, and those he made in the USA after he fled from Europe as the Nazis rose to power.
Lang was clearly a very complicated man, with a dark side, many personal secrets and a cruel, sometimes diabolic, side. But this was balanced, at least in his professional life, with a brilliance that illuminated the characters in his films, many of whom were outsiders or villains. In fact, there are clear parallels between Lang and his characters, especially the evil ones. It has never been as clear to me as when I watched Gordian Maugg’s chilling portrait of Lang, which details Maugg’s brilliant speculation on how Lang came to make his first sound film “M.” While the film takes liberties with the truth and actual facts of the story, there is a different kind of “truth” in the film that cannot be denied. What’s more interesting, the truth or a great story? That’s always the balance that must be struck when doing biographical films about people we think we know.
The film explores Lang’s fascination with violence, including his own violent treatment of the women in his life. Director Maugg does not make it clear if his first wife killed herself, or if he shot her, so that he could take up with his new amour, film script writer Thea von Harbou. We also see Lang picking up a streetwalker, and practically raping her in the vestibule of the building where she invites her customers for a quick assignation. As Lang takes her from behind, and ruthlessly and violently plunders the poor woman, he throws her against the front door, and as he thrusts himself into her like a marauding vandal, he looks at his reflection in the glass as this all takes place, clearly excited by both what he was doing and what he was seeing, a porno film in which he was the star and which no one else would ever see. This scene is the most brilliant use of filmmaking in the film, and gives us a view into Lang’s soul, for just one fleeting moment, but an indelible one.
At the beginning of the film a great deal of period footage is intercut with the acted scenes, establishing a strong parallel between Lang and film, itself. As he rides down the street in a taxicab, footage of the late 1920s and early 1930s is composited with the taxi. Then as he looks out, we see moving shots of the streets of Berlin filmed during the time the story takes place. In a very short time, the director transports us to Berlin and the environment in which Lang was working. But it also shows us how connected his life was to his work. He even passes a theatre playing one of his films in the taxi sequence. It is very clear that he enjoyed his status as one of the great directors at UFA, and that he used that power to get what he wanted, no matter who might stand in his way. Less period footage is used as the film progresses because the director has totally transported us to the time of the story. But occasionally Maugg drops in a shot or two from the past in which you think you see the actors of the film. Brilliant use of archival footage, just brilliant.
When Lang reads the story of a serial killer at large in the city of Dusseldorf, who has killed both women and children and drunk their blood, he immediately departs Berlin to learn more. Because of his personal contacts and reputation, he is able to insinuate himself into the investigation, and ultimately helps the police apprehend the killer, Peter Kurten.
Because of his status as a cultural icon, and his ability to always get what he wants, he is given unprecedented access to the evidence, and even to the killer. Many meetings with Peter Kurten provide Lang with the information he ultimately develops into the film “M.” There are a couple of very chilling shots where Lang’s mind is truly revealed to us as we see the real killer with a shot of Peter Lorre’s portrayal of him from the actual film.
The parallels, both in concept and execution, between Lang and his subject and his world are brilliantly illustrated by director Maugg’s use of editing and imagery. The film has a chilling effect on the viewer, just as “M” did. We can hardly believe what we are looking at. Both the real killer and Lang come across as monsters. Perhaps Lang’s fascination with Peter Kurten was that he truly identified with him, unlike anyone in his “real life.” Of course, that’s a speculation, but this film certainly makes it sound like a solid one.
The actors, the production, the editing and photography in beautiful black and white are top notch. The script and concept of this film are unique, perfectly constructed and chilling. The direction is superb, as good as Lang’s. This is a film to see. But be warned, it is graphic and hard to watch, especially the murder scenes. Be prepared to be horrified, but also be ready to see a masterpiece of filmmaking.
In German, with English sub-titles.