Wednesday 22 August 2012

M (1931)

There is something monumental about one-letter titles. As if saying that with one letter we have said it all, it is enough, the associations generated speaks for itself.

Of course it is far-fetched, but if one movie deserved such a monument it would be “M”.

I can just as well say it right away: Among the 100 first movies on the list this is my favorite. On any scale it is a top ranker and I know I am not the only one with high regards for “M”.

What is then so special about “M”? Is it not just another crime flick?

With an overbearing smile I shake my head: No no no no, “M” is truly special.

“M” was, I believe, the last movie Fritz Lang made before he left for America. Ironically the reason was that it was rumored that Hitler wanted him to be his director, so it was time to leave Dodge City. Ironically, because Lang in his movies and particularly in “M” is quite anti-fascist. Hitler was just too stupid to see that.

Fritz Lang was part of the highly skilled group of German directors who trained in the German expressionist school were able to tell stories on many levels even simply through the cinematography. This is done extensively in “M”, so that the ambience is dense. The fear and anguish when the mother at the opening of the film waits for her little Elsie to come home and it dawns on her that she may have been taken by the murderer. Or the desperation of the law enforcement when they are getting nowhere no matter how much they try.

The city is haunted by a child murderer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who mysteriously spirits away children. We do not see him commit the acts, but when we hear him whistle Grieg’s “I Dovregubbens Hall” we know he is on the prowl, and the neck hairs start rising. We want to scream to the child to get away from the monster, but in the end we just see the toy roll away and we know it is too late. This is so skillfully done that it is just as effective today for a jaded audience as it was in 31.

The city is working itself into a frenzy over this child murderer. Really the worst threat is a threat to our children. Who is the murderer? It could be anyone. Somebody a little too friendly to a child and he is immediately a suspect and the parents guard their children from just about everybody. Pedophiles are just about the most horrible kind of people, but today we a frequently hit by pedophilia hysteria not unlike what we see in “M” and it is incredibly destructive to the cohesiveness of society, but a total disaster for those falsely accused. The libel of a suspected pedophile is unshakeable and guarantees isolation.

The police are totally upbeat about it. With German thoroughness they literally comb the city for any trace of the killer. Lack of success just makes them even more thorough and the people who take the brunt of that effort is the criminal underworld.  The smugglers, thieves, bootleggers and gangsters are feeling threatened by all this attention from the police. They figure it is the murderers fault so the solution must be to get him out of the way. He is ruining it for everybody. In a spectacular scene we switch back and forth between a police planning meeting and the war council of the gangsters and they are saying exactly the same things. If this is to indicate that the police are using gangster methods or the gangsters have taken over from the police I do not know.

In each their ways they are now getting somewhere.

The police find out who he is, not through a massive and brutal police effort, but through classic detective work, by being smart.

The gangsters set the beggars to look out for the murderer. They can cover the entire city and nobody takes any notice of them. And true enough soon they got him spotted. One of the beggars plant a chalk “M” on his shoulder and now his is literally a marked man.

Beckert flees into an office building and the gangsters now make a veritable heist to get to him. This is definitely one of the many highlights, like an early “Ocean’s Eleven”. They get him and take him to a court of their own to judge him. Here we have one of the most talked about scenes of the movie. In this mock court of law Beckert admits to his crimes, but still pleads innocent. He has no control of what he is doing. How can he be punished for something he cannot control? They, the judges, they are criminals by choice. They could stop any day, but do not. Who are guilty here? Who are they to judge him?

Just when we thought this was as simple crime case it is turned upside down, because we too are busy judging him. Do we buy his defense? Against such crimes is there any defense and would we listen to it?

“M” is expertly made. It is innovative in many ways, but it is the shear suspense and imagination by the director which drives the movie. And the relevance. That has not changed. The fear, the hysteria, the overzealous police, the eagerness to judge and of course criminals who threaten our children.

But man, you get smoker’s lungs just from watching it…


  1. SUCH a stunning movie. So glad you're just as thrilled with this one as I am. I love the use of Grieg in this movie; very very scary, just as you said. "M" is an old movie that feels like it was far ahead of its time.

    1. Indeed. This is one movie I return to gladly. I have been showing "M" for relatives and they were equally into it. It is not just for vintage enthusiasts like me.

  2. One of the things I love about this movie is that Lang starts to play with sound not as the new, exciting thing in film, but as another tool in his toolbox. Most directors were so excited by the advent of sound that they didn't look into it as anything more than what it is. But Lang played with it, announced characters with it, and even included sound-based jokes in this film.

    Beyond that, how gutsy is this film? How radical to attempt even in this slight way to make a child killer sympathetic?

    1. Yes, exactly! This is so much more than just a crime flick. It went new ways, explored the medium and the story in ways that were unheard of at the time and in case of the story are rare even today.

  3. Good review. As you read in my recent review, I felt this movie was decades ahead of its time. I agree that the trial scene is the best part of a great movie.

    1. Yes, I totally agree with your review. In fact I needed to put a bit of distance to it or I would just have copied it.

  4. Lang was very deft at using symbolism. The story is gripping, too. Unfortunately for Peter Lorre this film pigeonholed him into playing creeps for the rest of his career.

    1. Yes, he got typecasted, but then again, he was an excellent creep.