M (1931, Fritz Lang)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

We talk about how many films in our own time are infused with dread and menace — and then we see this, from a time and a country (Germany in the early 1930s) when terror truly was imminent, a fog of economic strife and social unrest all-encompassing, and realize what a true artistic and cinematic reaction to such permeating fear looks like. Eighty-plus years after it was unleashed into a world that may or may not have been ready for it, M is still one of the scariest and darkest (quite literally, and otherwise) films ever made. The great Fritz Lang — one of the most important directors in cinema, both silent and sound — imbues his impeccably photographed shots of foreboding street corners, forgotten basements and dank crawlspaces in the seedier parts of Berlin with a paranoia that seems as genuine and contagious today as ever. Even as a political film, despite its Weimar republic origins, it remains a compassionate screed that has not dated.

M was one of the first foreign films I ever saw of my own accord — it may be a terrible thing to admit, but I was interested because of its title, which seemed so odd and intriguingly surreal, and its supposed allusions to the 1929 Peter Kürten killings (I was reading a lot of true crime then). We learn the meaning of that title at around the midpoint of this tantalizingly brief thriller: the “m” is for “murderer,” and the “m” is a Hawthorneian mark scrawled in chalk upon the perpetrator of a series of brutal rapes and murders of small children. A world of what I thought were the censorship-ordained limits of movies from this era shattered when the haunting opening sequence allows us to see the unbearably tense final moments in a young girl’s freedom and life. Lang doesn’t show anything lurid because he doesn’t have to — we only see Peter Lorre, as the charming and bug-eyed killer, being sweet on school-age Elsie who’s just moments earlier been seen playing games and walking happily down the street. Lang plays the tragedy in terrifying, subtle shots of a ball and a balloon, and in the gutwrenching cries of the girl’s mother into the darkness: “Elsie?? Elsie??”

In those first moments, M establishes its setting beautifully: the slums and tight spaces of Berlin. The film is focused wholly upon a working class that had been hit hard by the economic devastation in Germany after the first World War. These are the victims of the world as well as of Lorre’s sinister psychopath, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as he wanders nervously down the street seeking the next subject of his horrible game. M comes from the first three years of widely used sound in European film, and at many points it strongly resembles a silent picture. This is to its benefit — Lang uses sound sparingly, wisely, so that the whistling and the anguished cries for help are set against an unforgivingly bleak silent backdrop, and so that his clipped and precise dialogue is burdened with no more than is necessary. Among everything else, the film’s elegance and simplicity are startling.

That strange, muddled, often dead-quiet soundtrack (there is no musical score, another consequence of the era that makes the film more effective) and Lang’s deliberate rhythm make this so intense and full of pregnant, nail-biting moments that you notice less how many genres and cinematic tropes are being created than how absorbing its steady experimentation remains. Lang essentially creates the police procedural as we know it here, and at a time before film noir became a genre; it’s possible indeed that film noir exists in part because of M. The second act consists of a frustrated police force doing their best to contain street-level hysteria, quite believably, and suffering with a near-complete want of clues. The cops do the job they must do with sufficient competence, and Lang makes sure to put the tedious nature of much of their detective work on plain display while never downplaying the horror of the crimes that have occurred.

The movie’s stroke of story genius would work even without Lang’s innovation and embellishment. Its thrusts into high gear when it posits that the manhunt is so inconveniencing Berlin’s seamy criminal underworld that the outlaws of the city must come together and attempt to capture the child killer themselves — the gangsters and crooks then spring into action, casting themselves as circumstantial, unwitting protectors of young children. Eventually, Lorre is spied romancing another little girl and a phenomenally gripping chase scene follows at approximately the same time the police discover his identity — a giddy, taunting layabout named Hans Beckert living in a rented bedroom. Anyone with a fascination toward big empty office buildings is bound to be intoxicated by the remainder of the narrative, which culminates in a fearsome kangaroo court sequence in a dimly lit basement, then to that final tormenting shot of the three mothers, pleading to the camera that executing the man who took everything from them will not repair their pain, pleading that we watch over our children as the film fades to black and leaves us terrifyingly alone with our thoughts.

Lorre’s performance as the pedophile Beckert is a landmark in screen acting. It was the first serious role in what would turn out to be a great career, though one that frequently required him to align to stereotypes and hide his deeper gifts. (He fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and was given his first break in English language film by Alfred Hitchcock.) M makes the surprising choice of not skimping on the graphic horror of Beckert’s actions but also never forgetting that he is a human being with an illness. Its bold delicacy and sensitivity to its villain is a throttling twist — and a demonstration of how complex even a deeply moral picture can be. No one forgives Beckert’s actions; not even he seems to forgive them or excuse them, despite the pathology he displays by writing a strange note to the press. But when Lorre pleads directly to the camera for mercy, no matter how much this is the same plea for sanity that he himself denied, our heart goes out to him and his unmistakably troubled, tormented soul. Lorre is absolutely perfect, up to and including meltdown, and Lang is a hero for allowing him to be.

M is an icon, obviously — an influence upon everyone who’s made a movie since, especially in the thriller and crime genres but even outside of them; note the way that Lang focuses on the bureaucratic paperwork and evidence in the film and the modern mind will likely wander to Wes Anderson’s attention to even printed-on-paper detail. It’s hard to know what to say about it all except obviously one gets an overwhelming sense that the beginning of something is being witnessed, and yet this is not the primary emotion associated with it. Instead, what you remember is that sense of pervasive dread and fear and tension that takes you over — because at the end of it all, Lang is driven by emotion, by the human core of his story and by the very different but harrowingly evocative world he captures. M still plays us because we are still human beings, and it shall always remain a masterpiece for harnessing the heart and mind of every audience member as well as it harnesses foggy, strange, surreal 1931 Germany.

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