This fire! This voice! This Agony!
I rented a movie a year ago called M. It's directed by Fritz Lang and was released in 1931. It was one of the first audio films made and is considered by film buffs to be one of the most influential and best-made films in cinematic history. I still agree.
Based on real-life events (Peter Kurten, "The Vampire of Dusseldorf"), this story follows Berlin Police and Underworld as they race to catch the child killer. The Police use every modern technique and technology available to them, while the Underworld rely on complex networking.
The film is visually stunning, and nothing ended up on film that was not meticulously scrutinized by Fritz Lang. Unlike most talking movies (even contemporary films), M is not dialog-intensive. There is no score, and no sound-effects that aren't of importance (you can hear the sound of a coo-coo clock in one scene, but there is absolutely no audio for several scenes showing police driving around town, arresting people, etc). Sound is used strictly for plot development and, critically, to allow the audience to visualize the world outside of the shot. For the first time in cinema, one did not need to see The Monster to know he was around - audio (in this case, whistling) alerts audience to danger.
Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, the Monster. His performance is one of the most realistic and horrifying I've ever seen. During one scene he delivers a monologue pleading for his life and explaining his sickness:
"Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it? Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out and I can't listen anymore!"
Normally I don't recommend "films" to people unless I know they are into "films," but I have to recommend M to everyone. Pay close attention to details when you watch it the first time, and then watch it again with commentary on. Nothing is there by accident.
In the year that has passed since I first watched M, I have watched many, many films. I took a film class over the summer, and was left ultimately unimpressed by most of them. Part of me puts the blame on how amazing M is. It's a brilliant piece of poetic history - not just the cinematic kind. This movie sums all the reason I'm ashamed of American cinema: With all the technology and developments in the film industry, we have yet to make a film as good as M. However, I would like to add a short list of other recommendations to this blog post. If you are no into "film" you will probably not enjoy any of these, but each is an incredible example of the power of film.
Pelle erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror) By far my favorite on the list, it is a depressing look into the lives of Swedes and Danes at the end of the nineteenth century. A father and child, immigrants from Sweden seeking relief as indentured servants on a Danish manor, adjust to the struggles of their new life alongside those who are struggling with their old lives. It is a meandering film with no apparent climax, but is gut-wrenchingly realistic.
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) Another meandering film about the secret police in East Germany. The main character is a member of said task force and is portrayed by Ulrich Mühe in a performance that is so excruciatingly pathetic I had chills whenever he appeared on screen. Mühe is visually stunning in a Guy Pierce sort of way: whenever he's on screen, he's all you can see.
La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children) This film was my selection for "Mise-en-scène" and while I didn't enjoy watching it at the time I will definitely be watching it again - if for no other reason than to see how tenderly One warms Miette's little body. "Radiateur."
The Conversation The one American film. From the literal fog of a nightmare, Gene Hackman attempts to alert a woman in danger. "I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder." Haunting.