Friday, October 23, 2009


I watched Fritz Lang's M the other day. It's a great film. Visionary, innovative: a masterpiece. But what really amazed me about the film, was how much smoking was going on in Germany between the wars. Nearly every character in the film smokes incessantly and at times it seems as though the set must be on fire as clouds of the dense white fog drift across the screen, often totally obscuring characters and action. Many characters smoke cigars, some pipes, others cigarettes and lots are smoking with bizarre equipment I can't even identify. I saw funny little pipes with tiny cigars sticking out the top, cigarettes in holders that might double as a monkey wrench in a pinch, cigars that looked like gentleman's hosiery wrapped loosely around a fistful of oak leaves. I'm glad I don't smoke, but if I lived in Berlin during the Weimar years, I don't think I could have resisted.

The Germans are, of course, still dedicated smokers. The first time I lived there in the early 90's, smoking was permitted everywhere with the welcome exception of specific train cars. Lunchtime at the university cafeteria put me in mind of an iron smelting plant I visited once as a kid in Pittsburgh. Dinner out had to be planned for a place with outdoor dining and forecasted winds of at least 7 on the Beaufort Scale.

Since those days, the European Union has dragged Germany kicking and screaming into the modern anti-smoking world. During my most recent year there in 2008-09, new laws were passed by each of the German Länder that outlawed smoking in many public places such as restaurants. Each State has its own laws but as soon as they were passed, a variety of interest groups began negotiating for exceptions. We were initially delighted by the ability to dine out smoke-free, but the reality was, that in most restaurants, there was always someone smoking. Usually it was wafting out from the kitchen, where the waiters and cooks were lighting up. Sometimes it was a diner at the table next to yours, which, the waiter patiently explained, was the "smoking area." But more often than not, it was just people ignoring the ban. Few people, pro or con, seemed to know what the law really said about banning smoking and fewer people cared. Normally very law-abiding, this was an aspect of German behavior that I wasn't ready for.

Over time, we identified a few places where the ban was enforced and avoided the rest. On the train platforms, smokers were relegated to small areas marked by a painted box and mostly smokers seemed happy to restrict themselves to those areas. Ultimately, I forgot about the issue entirely. Entirely, that is, until I watched M again this week. Could it be that the smoke was Fritz Lang's clever symbol for man's inhumanity to man, or maybe a veiled thumbing of the socialist nose at a growing fascist movement during the 30's? Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were, after all, each outspoken about their opposition to smoking. I'll have to give Metropolis another viewing and see if the filming there was equally smoke filled. Until then, smoke 'em if you've got 'em.


Charlie H said...

I wonder if it's hard to capture normal smoke on B/W film, and the filmmakers added something extra (fertilizer? peat moss? hickory chips?)to make it more evident and "realistic." The pictures you show aren't like any smoking I've ever seen!

Christopher T. Terry said...

Dear Charlie H, I do think the opacity of the smoke is a result of the filming process. The film was less sensitive to detail and tended to push contrast to extremes. But even allowing for that, this film is really something different. One of the clues the police use to track the Peter Lorre character down is his brand of cigarettes, so it could be that smoking really does have some particular meaning in this film. But after watching it again last night, I'm pretty convinced that Lang was only showing life as he knew it. Everyone smoked, they smoked a lot, and the smoke shows up as very white and dense on the film stock he used.

I want to track down a still of a guy who shows up pretty early on in the film: he's smoking what I can only describe as a smallish french horn with a cigar stuck in it. If I can find it, I'll use it as fodder for some future post.