The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges 1974), adapted from Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972)

 

[another of those pieces written for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Narrated from the perspective of the doctors treating him, particularly psychiatrist Janet Ross, Crichton’s novel tells the story of divorced, thirtysomething computer scientist, Harold Benson. He suffers from blackouts during which he becomes extremely violent. Since orthodox medication has no effect on his Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome, he agrees to a radical surgical procedure, conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (NRU). Forty electrodes are inserted into the damaged section of his brain and a nuclear powerpack into his shoulder. A computer implanted in his neck will detect the onset of a seizure and abort it with a shock through one of the electrodes. Ross considers Benson, who believes that machines are ‘competing with human beings’ and will ‘ultimately … take over the world’ (15), an unsuitable candidate for this procedure. Professor Manon is also opposed to the operation since it will do nothing to cure Benson’s psychosis, but the ambitious Dr Ellis justifies his decision to proceed on the grounds that it will at least stop Benson’s seizures and the accompanying violence. On the eve of the operation, a young woman called Angela Black visits Benson.

After the operation, Roger McPherson, head of the NRU, is troubled by Benson’s continued conviction about the machine threat. Monitoring Benson’s brain activity, Ross notices the increasing frequency of stimulations as he starts to ‘initiate seizures in order to experience the pleasurable shocks’ (131). Benson escapes from the hospital. A computer projection indicates that within hours he will be receiving almost continuous stimulations, making 1317932233_9him uncontrollably violent. The medical staff set out to find him. Shortly after the tipping-point passes, Angela is found murdered, her skull crushed and her body repeatedly stabbed post-mortem.

When Benson attacks Ross in her home, she uses her microwave to disrupt his powerpack, but Dr Morris, who tracks him to a hangar, is brutally beaten. While Ellis spins the story for the media, the LAPD’s Captain Anders discovers that Benson obtained plans for the hospital’s wiring system. Ross and Anders descend into the labyrinthine basement housing the hospital’s mainframe, and when Benson attemps to destroy it, Ross shoots him dead.

 

The selection of Mike Hodges – director of the quintessential British neo-noir Get Carter (1971) and the self-reflexive black crime comedy Pulp (1972) – to adapt Crichton’s novel might seem a curious choice. However, even if Hodges’ background in documentary (including ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action (1963–99) in the early 1960s) had not recommended him for the project, it certainly assisted him in crafting the most aesthetically (and least financially) successful Crichton adaptation. Crichton uses various techniques in an attempt to lend his potboiler a kind of documentary realism, including: the same title format for each chapter (e.g., ‘WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1971: Implantation’); a timeline of the history of psychosurgical therapy, culminating in an entry which reads ‘Harold Benson is operated on in Los Angeles’ (the October 23 1971 date of this introduction, like the chapter titles, implies that the novel is a record of something that has already happened); sundry computer outputs; facsimiles of LAPD crime and death reports; and a six-page bibliography. While Hodges’ documentarian skills might suit him to these and related aspects of the novel, his black humour and leftist political sensibilities are utterly at odds with Crichton’s distinctive reactionary blend of moralistic earnestness and hysterical technophobia.

Crichton presents his novel as a cautionary intervention into technoscientific developments and the failure of a purportedly democratic system to foster informed popular debate about key social issues and trends. Whatever degree of hucksterism this involves, it is presented as a genuine concern. However, although the novel does evoke concerns around the dehumanising potentials of technology, it fails to articulate a coherent position in relation to them. This ideological fuzziness, typical of Crichton’s work, may in part account for his phenomenal success.

The key contradiction shaping the novel is between linear and non-linear determinism, articulated through a dislike and simultaneous embrace of authoritarian structures, and through an equally muddled championing of individualism and moralistic disdain for the ways in which certain people ‘misuse’ their freedom. Crichton’s reactionary leanings often take on a pseudo-pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-big government tone (for example, substantial passages are devoted to characters arguing that violent behaviour results from physical brain damage, while no-one even contemplates any of the other potential causes suggested in all the ‘bad theory floating around, written by sociologists and paid for by good taxpayer money’ (41)), which completely contradicts his growing awareness of complex determinism.

1974terminalman01When Benson arrives at the hospital, Morris signs for him ‘as if he were receiving a package from United Parcel’ (8), a subjection to bureaucratic processes that resonates with the patient’s psychosis. McPherson later suggests that Benson has been turned into ‘a read-out device’ for the implanted computer, ‘as helpless to control the read-out as a TV screen is helpless to control the information presented on it’ (83; italics in original). The hospital computer refers to Benson as an ‘auxillary unit’ (120), while he describes himself as ‘an automobile in a complicated service station’ (125). Morris begrudges his pager, which keeps him perpetually networked into administrative systems, and at one point suddenly notices that computers monitor and predict LA traffic flows. Such ruminations are given a sense of inevitable – and detrimental – consequence through the linear determinism espoused by several characters and by the frequency with which futurological and computer projections are treated as inarguable: in 1967, McPherson surveyed the fields of ‘diagnostic conceptualization, surgical technology, and microelectronics’ and concluded that it would be possible to perform ‘an operation for ADL seizures in July of 1971’ (197), a prediction which proved too conservative by four months; and the positive progression cycle, in which Benson’s brain learns to trigger seizures, is plotted from just three points on a graph, predicting to within a couple of minutes when he will go into continuous stimulation. Consequently, when Morris is told about July 1969’s ‘Watershed Week’ – ‘when the information-handling capacity of all the computers in the world exceeded the information-handling capacity of all the human brains in the world’ – and that by 1975 computers will ‘lead human beings by fifty to one in terms of capacity’ (159-60), the novel succeeds in conveying a sense of menace. This is achieved by conflating a not unreasonable prediction of quantitative change with the implication that it must necessarily result in a threat to humanity – or at least to our human qualities (which consist entirely of small-town, middle-American values).

Such linear determinism seeps out into Crichton’s depiction of a dehumanised social world. As Ross drives around LA, she muses upon the ways in which an automobile-dominated culture ‘thwarted some deep human need to congregate, to be together, to see and be seen’ (147), producing a depersonalized society of ‘recent emigrants and therefore strangers’ (147) who lack traditional institutions and infrastructures. LA offers ‘freedom’, but no ‘supports’, and tends to attract ‘people with problems’ (148), a euphemism for homosexuals, who are equated in the same passage with loneliness and suicide. The novel’s homophobia is striking (for example, Ross bemoans a short-lease culture which results in apartment buildings ‘full of hookers, full of gays, full of drugs and transients’ (171)), implying that any alternative to heterosexuality is a form of deviance born of dehumanising modernity.

terminal-man-photo-1Curiously, though, Crichton also struggles at times to express a sense of the complex, non-linear determinism underpinning his trademark narrative about the failure of complex systems, best – if still rather clumsily – articulated through the chaos mathematics he invokes in Jurassic Park (1990). In The Terminal Man, it is most clearly developed through Gerhard’s computer programmes, called Saint George and Martha. Designed to interact with each other, they are capable of responding ‘with three emotional states – love, fear, and anger’ and of ‘produc[ing] three actions – approach, withdrawal, attack’ (99). Despite this system’s simplicity, it ‘produce[s] complex and unpredictable machine behavior’ (115). After running more than a hundred times, Saint George, ‘programmed for saintliness’, ‘is learning not be a saint around Martha’ (103), even threatening to kill her. This is presented as a value-neutral experiment, but the obvious gender stereotyping suggests that the dependence on initial conditions need not be that sensitive to produce this result. The implications of a later discussion, in which Gerhard and Ross contemplate the possibility that after twenty-four hours of stimulations Benson’s brain has become something radically different than the one on which they operated and thus beyond their capacity to predict, are likewise countered by the utter predictability of the plot.

A generous reader might construe the material about Saint George and Martha as Crichton’s commentary on his own deployment of blandly named, more or less indistinguishable characters. One might even see such characters, typical of Crichton’s fiction, as an elaboration upon his screeds against the anonymity of modern, urban life while working within an American popular fiction idiom which privileges the description of externalities from which the reader is to infer interiorities. However, Crichton does describe several characters’ interior lives, albeit perfunctorily, and just as the novel reads like the treatment for a screenplay, these formulaic passages seem like notes for the actors who might step in and bring them to life. A more conventional adaptation would undoubtedly have sought to animate them through the verisimilar and melodramatic strategies typical of Hollywood productions (such as Crichton himself deployed, with some success, in adapting Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) in 1978), but Hodges takes a rather different path. He transforms Crichton’s dyspeptic, incoherent jeremiad into a rigorous critique of totalizing institutions (here, medicine, combined with legal and penal systems, as well as the police and patriarchy) which can be understood as modelling the deeper logic of social, political and economic structures governing everyday life – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman 1975), but without its sentimental desire for heroism and redemption.

the-terminal-man-main-reviewThe film opens in pitch black night, the only light emanating from the cockpit of an insectile police helicopter facing the camera, the only noise that of its engines as it takes to the air; the helicopter will become an aggressively loud presence, signalling the powerlessness not merely of Benson (George Segal) to avoid it but of the audience in the face of the system it represents. The film cuts to a restaurant, in which doctors Ellis (Richard Dysart), McPherson (Donald Moffat) and Friedman (James Sikking) discuss Benson and ADL syndrome. Benson’s back-story is related, with impressive economy, through a series of photographs that the three men examine – Benson with his wife and daughter, Benson being arrested, the battered face of Benson’s wife – while planning the media coverage of the operation. To Hodges’ regret, he added this sequence to help allay studio concerns that ‘the film had no one to root for’ (personal email) rather than cutting 2013-03-22-1atermdirectly to the title sequence: a black screen with white credits, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25; footsteps approach in a corridor; a key chain rattles; there is a scraping sound, a peephole opens on the right of the screen and an eye peers through, looking out at the audience; the men in the corridor, functionaries of some institution, discuss Benson; the caption ‘tuesday’ appears, and the film cuts to Benson being delivered by the police to the hospital. Three more times during the film the screen goes to black, a peephole opens, and these anonymous, uneducated men – it is not clear if they are prison warders or asylum orderlies – discuss Benson. The film also ends with a version of this shot, in which one of the voices says, ‘They want you next’, to which the other responds ‘Quit kidding around’. These final words comically deflate the clichéd threat intoned by the first speaker; but beneath the end credits, the police helicopter descends through the night, coming full circle, yet instead of the deafening rotors there is silence, and then a cold wind howls. This hesitation – erasing then reinstating the film’s ominous implications – indicate Hodges’ wry amusement at the materials with which he is working and, simultaneously, a genuine sense that, despite their pulpiness, they can be utilised to critique contemporary social realities.

Hodges’ damning depiction of the total institution depends upon four major strategies. First, there is the film’s remarkable production design, in particular its use of colour. The title sequence establishes The Terminal Man’s oppressive palette; it is as close as a colour film can get to a black-and-white production, with several shots among the most overtly expressionist to be found in Hollywood outside of classical film noir. The walls, floor and furniture of the hospital lobby are black, and its windows open onto utter darkness outside. Throughout the hospital, if walls are white, then doors and furnishings are black. The staff all wear white, except for when, off-duty, they wear black. If there is a source of light, everything around it is pooled in darkness. The only relief – slight that it is – comes from occasional blue-greys or flashing orange lights. Until the final stages of the film, there is no indication that daytime even exists, but once we are there, bright clear light and whiteness – from the walls of Dr Ross’s (Joan Hackett) apartment to Benson’s choice of suit – dominate, although black furnishings remind the audience of the night to come. Day or night, there is no escape from these carefully orchestrated constraints.

Second, there is Hodges’ meticulous shot-construction, perhaps the most significant aspect of which is his frequent partial obscuring of Ross. Marginalised by the medical establishment for being a woman, a psychiatrist (rather than a surgeon), and more concerned about the patient than the procedure, Ross is often pushed by Hodges to the edge of the frame or picked out, diminished in the distance, from between foregrounded the-terminal-man-_-joan-hackettsurgeons. While Crichton does acknowledge the sexism Ross faces, including incidents and passages of introspection, Hodges’ low-key spatialisation of patriarchal hegemony is far more effective. This spatialisation of gendered power is further emphasised during the sequence in which Ross’s discomfiture, when alone with Benson during the testing of his electrodes, is ignored by the male doctors observing them through one-way glass positioned high on the wall above them. The Foucauldian aspects of commonplace surveillance are even more clearly evinced during the lengthy surgical procedurals – articulated through an impeccable low-key precision, self-consciously devoid of the melodramatic imperatives shaping such sequences in Crichton’s E.R. (1994–2009) – as a crowd gathers around to observe the operation from above.

Third, there are the performances. Joan Hackett’s self-conscious awkwardness as Ross is essential to the critique of gender politics. The very different physiques, looks, mannerisms and accents of Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and, as Dr Morris, Michael C. Gwynne provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the senior medical staff than can be found in Crichton’s novel, but Hodges does not permit them to become more than components of the systems within which they function. An occasional line or gesture suggests that they are fuller human beings than their social roles allow, but such moments (for example, Ellis’s off-colour comment to McPherson about Ross, or Morris’ attempt to terminal-man-2flirt with Angela (Jill Clayburgh)) seem to bemuse the other characters. Retrospectively, George Segal seems an unlikely Benson. Despite a successful career as a dramatic actor on stage, television and film, by the early 1970s he was focusing on the kind of comedy roles with which he has subsequently become most closely associated. By effectively casting him against type, Hodges produces a soft-spoken, genial everyman who is overtaken by external forces (the pre-credits material is, indeed, a misstep, giving Benson too much specificity, and counteracting the effectiveness of a later scene in which a recording of his litany of suburban lifestyle elements and possessions plays on multiple diegetic screens). He is particularly effective when his actions – stabbing Angela, attacking the robot on which he had been working – become mechanical, taking control of his body.

the-terminal-man-1974-dvdrip-xvid-andrei-avi_snapshot_01-39-49_2011-12-22_17-52-47Finally, there is the revised ending of the story. Rather than seeing off Benson’s attack with her microwave, Ross, fearing he might attack her, holds out a knife towards him. In a moment of lucidity between stimulations, he walks onto the blade. Instead of launching an assault on the hospital computer, Benson then heads to a cemetery and descends into an open grave. The police close in and while Ross struggles to reach her patient, the police helicopter appears once more, bearing the sniper who will shoot Benson. People rush forward, and from the bottom of the grave we see them forced back by police whose vizored helmets recall not only those worn by the surgeons while they operated on Benson but also the brutally anonymous robot police of THX 1138 (Lucas 1971).

Thanks to Hodges’ stylistic innovations, The Terminal Man should be spoken of in the same breath as other films of the period in which Britons brought a European arthouse sensibility to American genre fiction, such as Point Blank (Boorman 1967) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg 1976). In terms of its political critique, however, it belongs alongside Medium Cool (Wexler 1969), Punishment Park (Watkins 1971), The Parallax View (Pakula 1974) and The Conversation (Coppola 1974). It is without question one of the most accomplished and important sf films of the 1970s.

 

References
Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man. London: Arrow, 1996.
Mike Hodges, personal email. 5 July 2009.

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Crumbs (Miguel Llansó Ethiopia/Spain/Finland 2015)

crumbs-the-first-ever-ethiopian-post-apocalyptic-surreal-sci-fi-feature-length-filmUltimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population

slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.

Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol,[1] before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).

Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.

The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.

Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…

I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of  Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.

It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).

There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.

Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).

Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.

Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably  the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.

We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.

If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations.  That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.

[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]

Bibliography
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49. 
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.

[1] A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here  – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.

The City in Fiction and Film, week two

really

lorrem

Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three