Kareem Farooq European Film History Final Paper NYU Fall Semester 2003 Fight the Might: A Look

at Anti-Fascism in European Cinema As a medium, film has the power to captivate and distract an audience. Films dealing with superficial characters and artificial interactions and avoiding any kind of higher level thought-process are simply a diversion from reality and usually can only be accredited for their entertainment value. Today in Hollywood, films of this stereotypical nature are commonplace, serving no purpose other than to entertain and sedate. What is left out of these films is the critical voice of the artist. Using the medium as an art without intentions to please everyone, filmmakers for decades have used their talents to express deep social and political ideals and philosophies. While films of this profound nature have never been great moneymaking successes, they achieve a level of societal value as well as scholarly validity that far exceeds entertainment value. When a film has no happy ending because there are no winners (at least no winners still alive), leaving the audience left to ponder about and question not only the film but also themselves and the society they live in, that film has truly engaged its audience, providing a valuable message and teaching the audience to learn from past mistakes. While the meaning and themes of such social significant films are universal, these films are still products of their own time and place. An art movement is a catalyst to such great films, giving the artists involved a similar arsenal of aesthetics and archetypes to express view that are sometimes controversial but always valuable. A movement in the arts occurs in response to social inequalities or happenings, such as tensions between classes or an expansion of creative freedom. M and Rome Open City provide a social critique of pre-Nazism and post-Nazism in accordance to the time and place they were made, while sharing the common critique of any society that regulates freedom by governing its people through fear and suspicion. Fitting in to the genre of crime/thriller drama, Fritz Lang’s M tells a story about a serial killer terrorizing a German town, the frustrated police struggling with the investigation, and the town’s underground mob bosses and common criminals tired of putting up with the police’s constant, futile pestering. Using the aesthetics of German Expressionism, Lang plays with his audience throughout the film, constantly shifting our views of the characters. He introduces the serial killer, Franz Becker, played by Peter Lorre, as a dark shadow glooming against his own wanted poster and hovering over the young Ellie Beckmann. Lang also connects the audience with the killer through sound. Becker whistles an eerie tune while buying Ellie a balloon from a blind street vendor. Lang’s lack of sound in key moments, such as just after Ellie’s disappeared and her balloon is caught in the telephone wires, also adds to the chilliness of the film. The audience never sees Becker’s face until half an hour into the film, when he stares at himself in the mirror as a voice over is heard psychoanalyzing the intentions and motives of a psychopath. However, it is not until the second half of the film that we finally see Becker regularly as a character. By this time, Lang has taken the audience through several scenes involving different groups of men sitting around tables, smoking, and talking about the murders. These repeated similar scenes confuse the audience at some points as to who exactly the police are and who are the criminals. Because of the ambiguity of the film’s central characters, the

audience is forced to identify with Franz Becker, making him the film’s protagonist. Lang paints an Expressionistic portrait of Franz bloodlusting over a girl he sees in the reflection of a mirror through a store window. When the girl’s mother picks her up, foiling his plans for this possible victim, Becker seeks relief with a shot of cognac from a local outdoor café. Framed behind tree branches and leaves in the foreground, Becker calms himself down. The audience understands the protagonist’s inner struggle. Meanwhile, the town’s mob bosses have organized every streetwalker and criminal in the town to go out and lookout for the killer. At the same time, the police finally get somewhere with their investigation, discovering Becker’s apartment. After leaving the café, the blind street vendor recognizes Becker’s whistle, and the hunt begins. The mob bosses resort to crime—not surprisingly— breaking into an office building where the killer is hiding. After they catch their killer, Lang uses static shots throughout the building to illustrate the ruthlessness of the criminals, showing the guards knocked out as well the damage they caused while searching the building. At the climax of the film, the people have congregated in an abandoned warehouse for a mock trial against Becker as organized by the head mob boss, Shraenker. The crowd looms in the shadows, and now it is Becker who is in the light. It is clear that these criminals have become Becker’s antagonists. Becker’s begging and pleading fall onto def ears. He cries that they cannot kill him because it would be murder, to which they laugh. Shraenker, who is wanted by the police for three murders, tells Becker he will have his justice, yet, like the rest of the criminals, fails to see the hypocrisy in this trial. Just as the mob begins to rush at Becker, the offscreen entrance of the police—another German Expressionist aesthetic—saves him. The criminals all stop suddenly and raise their hands, and the audience understands what has happened. The connection made between M and German society at the time is never specifically stated. M was made in 1931 just over a year before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, and the disappearing of the Weimar culture—Germany’s first democratic period (Konzett, Delia; notes). Fritz Lang hints to anti-fascist motifs throughout the film. He presents the police as bumbling fools at times, illustrating a lack of order. At the beginning of the film, before Ellie Beckmann has been abducted, she is almost hit by a speeding vehicle while crossing the street. Luckily, a police officer is there to blow his whistle and safely walk her across—but where are the police when the killer found her? Also, the police are searching the wrong criminals night after night, going to this underground beer hall, where the people resemble caricatures from an Expressionist painting (Konzett, Delia; notes). As the police enter the hall, the regular citizens and criminals mock chief Inspector Karl Lohmann, taunting his name. The criminals have no respect for the police, and the audience is subjectively led by Lang to laugh at Lohmann. In one shot, just after the investigators discover Becker’s apartment, Lang shows Lohmann on the phone from a grotesque low angle (I’ve heard this shot referred to as the “crotch shot”), revealing Lohmann’s overweight physic as he smokes a phallic cigar. It is not until the film’s conclusion, when they rescue our protagonist from the evil mob, that the audience bears any kind of respect for the police. As the film’s antagonists, the criminals and streetwalkers of M oppose Franz Becker, viewing him as more evil and sinful than they ever could be. Lang highlights the hypocrisy of the mob through dialogue between characters. After the beer hall is raided, weapons are confiscated, and several criminals are arrested, a police officer has conversation with the owner of the beer hall. She tells him that the crooks and prostitutes would never provide and kind of refuge for the child murderer explaining, “Don’t you know how mad everyone is about this guy? Especially the girls. Sure, they solicit, but every one is a little mother at heart. Crooks get sort of tender when they see

kids. If they catch that murdering pig, they’ll wring his neck.” While these thugs are tired of the murders, the truth is they are sick and tired of having their personal freedoms impeded by the police every night; so the mob bosses effort to catch the killer is really an elaborate plan to get the cops off their back as soon as possible. Becker is left isolated and alone by the film’s end. Despite his own evils, the audience pities him because he is a product of his own environment. The police have trouble finding him because they’re looking at the wrong kind of criminal. Becker needs help, and he writes to the police for help, but they do not make any attempt to reply to him. So, he is forced to go to the papers—to voice his message to the people directly. Yet, the people are even worse than the police. They are quick to judge and hot-tempered. When a little girl on a scooter stops a short, older man, asking him for the time, he is suddenly stared at by several women, and then confronted by a beefy young man. Lang uses low angles on the large man and high angles on the smaller old man to exaggerate the confrontation. This visual choice illustrates the people’s distorted perspective. These people are too quick to suspect and do not bother with discussion. Becker really has no one to turn to for comfort. Sadly, the only sensitive characters in the film are the mothers of the children he killed. Before coming to power, Hitler promised the German people a strong Fascist state, where he would lead them back to prosperity. The sentiment of the German people at the time was that democracy was too weak—as weak as the police investigators in M. The criminals took the law into their own hands, just as Hitler forcefully gained the title of German Chancellor. The mob mentality of the people drove them away from justice, and, instead, to a pseudo-justice based on hypocrisy. The people were blind and failed to recognize that Becker is a product of their own failures and unfair pressures. To declare someone guilty without trying to understand why he did what he did, why he couldn’t stop himself, does not solve the problem. It hides it until the problem returns and maybe even comes back twofold. In the end the police are able to carry out justice, but the mothers of the children lost are left to ask, “And if they take his life? Will that bring our children back?” Unfortunately, these anti-Fascist undertones failed to be recognized or understood by the people in Germany over seventy years ago. Perhaps, if Fritz Lang had the freedom to name the film by its original title, Murderer Among Us, the undertones would have been more obvious. Fourteen years after M, immediately following the liberation of Rome from the Nazis, Roberto Rossellini was fortunate enough to begin working on Rome Open City without having to worry about any political restrictions. Before making Rome Open City, Rossellini worked on propaganda films for the Fascist Italian government. With the end of Nazism/Fascism in Italy, Rossellini was finally able to make films without totalitarian censorship. Made in 1945, Rome Open City is arguably the first Italian NeoRealist film, making Rossellini arguably the Father of Italian Neo-Realism (Salas, Hugo). While these beliefs are debatable, it is certain that a film Rome Open City could never have been made under Fascist rule, meaning the film experienced an artistic freedom of all those involved had not known for years. While Fritz Lang’s anti-fascist ideals in M are subtle and require interpretation and reflection, Rome Open City is blatantly anti-Fascist as well as anti-Nazi. The film tells the grim story of Italian citizens tired of living under Nazi rule in Rome 1944. When the leader of a resistance movement, Giorgio Manfredi, is nearly caught by the Gestapo, he flees to his friend, Francesco, for shelter. There he carries out his resistance plans with the aid of Francesco, his pregnant fiancé Pina, her son Marcello, and a priest named Don Pietro Pellegrini.

Fatigued and desperately waiting for the end of the war, Rossellini’s characters maintain exceptional heroism, despite inevitable suffering. Rossellini blatantly displays the cruelty and uncertainty of the Nazi officials by the end of the film. When the Gestapo carry off Pina’s future husband, she flees after him, running in the street with her arms reaching out, only to be shot dead before the eyes of the entire community and her son. Marcello runs into the street, holding his mother’s lifeless body and crying. Soon after, Manfredi’s drug-addicted lover, Marina Mari, betrays him, selling him out to the Gestapo for a life of decadence and leisure. Back at Gestapo headquarters, Ferrari is brutally tortured for hours by the Nazis, who are trying to get him to talk about the resistance. During the torture, one of the head Nazi officials, Major Bergmann, retreats to the lounge where other officials and a few women, including Marina and her refined, (lesbian?) friend, Ingrid. Here Major Bergmann questions the superiority of the German Nazis to the Italians. He gets in an argument with another official over the fate of the Nazis, who have brought about so much hate and pain. Flustered, Major Bergmann hurries back to the torture room and relentlessly tries to convince Don Pietro Pellegrini to get Manfredi to give up and speak in order save his life. In this moment, Don Pietro falls to his knees before the dying Manfredi and prays to God. Pellegrini’s humility emphasizes the savageness of the Nazis. While they talk properly, dress formally, and behave cordially around each other, this moment between the priest and Giorgio reveals what animals the Gestapo truly are. On his way to his execution seat, he admits to a fellow priest, “It is not difficult to die with dignity, it is difficult to live with dignity.” He is slaughtered before the eyes of the children he taught at church, while speaking the words Jesus spoke before dying on the cross, “Forgive them Father, they no not what they do.” Sadly, he does not die after the first round of shots fired, forcing a Nazi official to do the job with a pistol point blank in his head. This brutally tragic ending reminds audiences of the uselessness of unwarranted bloodshed. No one in the film deserved to die. They were all martyrs, and Rossellini’s film honors the memory of those killed unnecessarily in the years just before the film was made. The aesthetics of NeoRealism, while not completely in tune with the later established style of Neo-Realism, adds to the somberness of the picture. With the studios destroyed, Rossellini chose to shoot on location. Lacking a proper budget, he was forced to use whatever film was available, even though that meant using different stocks, adding to the film’s rustic look (Salas, Hugo). Despite the troubles associated with the making of the film, the film was one of the first post-World War II films to be made, giving the anti-Nazi sentiments of the film a genuinely gratifying feel. While Rossellini directly denounces the violence of Fascist rule with transparent condemnation in his film, a film resulting from another opportune period of unopposed freedom presented the same anti-Fascist/Nazi sentiments of M and Rome Open City only with a more genuinely human and less dramatic perspective. In his Oscar-award winning film, Closely Watch Trains, Jiri Menzel presents a story of a railway employee, Milos Hrma, working just outside of Prague during German occupation. While the presence of the German forces remains a critical social threat in the film, this threat is overshadowed by the protagonist’s sexual insecurities. He has failed in bed with his girlfriend, Conductress Masa, and no longer wants to go on living, so he tries suicide, only to fail once again. His actions get him into official trouble with his German superiors, declaring his suicide attempt as an effort to avoid his duties of service for the Reich. When he returns to work, he wishes to solve is sexual dysfunction, constantly going to others for advice. He explains that his doctor referred to it as “premature ejaculation.” The naïve Milos does not understand why he no one can explain to him how to fix his problem. Fortunately, his co-worker, Dispatcher Hubicka, is able to introduce Milos to a woman,

Victoria Freie, well educated in the ways of the body. After a night with her, Milos has lost his virginity and gained a newly found confidence. Unfortunately, this does not last long. Our protagonist goes ahead with a resistance plan, involving a bomb and a train, supported by Hubicka and Victoria. Milos carries out the plan, blowing up the train, but, alas, he dies in the process. Jiri’s film presents a period in Prague’s history subjected to wartime turmoil, but manages to leave the audience almost unconcerned with social pressures. Instead, the audience is concerned with Milos’s sexual pressures. This personal touch adds to the emotional build up of the film. The audience appreciates Milos’s naïve honesty and humility about himself. Menzel never demonizes sex or exploits sexuality. He uses sexual innuendos throughout the film. The sub-plot of the resistance fighters is always there, but is never the dominant concern. However, the notion of anti-fascism is still present throughout the film. Milos’s attempted suicide is condemned officially by the Reich, which is absurd because something as series as suicide is a personal matter, not an authoritative one, as is the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. After Dispatcher Hubicka stamps the underside of the station’s telegraphist, Virginia, he is charged with the vulgar misuse of official stamps and defacing the honor of the German Reich’s official seal. As insignificant as misusing a stamp may seem, Menzel uses this insignificance to mock the importance of these bureaucratic procedures. Also, Menzel uses the war as a visual storytelling tool. After failing in bed with his girlfriend, Milos awakes the next morning to a violent bombing that destroys walls of the building he is in. However, he is not at all concerned about his safety. He wants to die and will later try to get what he wants, but in this moment, when he is naked to the world, except for his hat, and some strange man is laying in a bed nearby laughing, all Milos can think about is his failed attempt at achieving his manhood. While Closely Watched Trains presents anti-fascist ideals, it also alludes to many of the problematic social structures of Czechoslovakia at the time. Artists during the sixties in Czechoslovakia experienced a liberal shift in politics, allowing for a more open-dialogue between peoples and other newly attained freedoms. This period, commonly referred to as “Prague Spring,” may be considered a kind of filmmaking phenomenon with some of the best films every conceived coming out of the period. These Czech New Wave films always dealt with social disparities, critiquing the politics and society of the time. The same useless officialdoms Menzel’s film mocked about the German political structure maybe applied to that of the Soviet Union, and its control over Czechoslovakia. Once again, Menzel denounces these suppressive official structures by humanizing them, making them something all audiences can laugh at and understand because human sexuality is something that every human being can relate to both physically and emotionally. WORKS CITED:
PRIMARY SOURCES

1) Konzett, Delia. NYU Professor: Tradition in Narratives, Spring 2003; class lecture notes on M 2) Salas, Hugo. “Roberto Rossellini.” Great Directors – A Critical Database.



http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/rossellini.html
UPDATED: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/rossellini/ British Film Institute. “Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery” http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/2000_01/lang.html UPDATED: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/43

3)

SECONDARY SOURCES 4) Merritt, Linda. “M (Murderer Among Us).” A Film by Fritz Lang.

http://www.mninter.net/~babaloo/mlorre.htm 5) Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1947 6) Stoil, Michael Jon. Cinema beyond the Danube: The Camera and Politics. Scarecrow Press, 1974 7) Walker, Alexander. “Fritz Lang.” BBC Interview 1967



http://www.geocities.com/mishaca/interviews/lang.html UPDATED: http://www.industrycentral.net/director_interviews/FL01.HTM

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