M (1931)

2010 #20
Fritz Lang | 111 mins | Blu-ray | PG

M is a film of immense significance, not least because of its place on numerous Best Ever lists (even if it is a nightmare to find quickly on any list or website thanks to its single-letter title), and not to mention it being director Fritz Lang’s favourite among his own work (consequently he definitively moved away from his fantastical work on the likes of Die Nibelungen, Frau im Mond and (of course) Metropolis, choosing to largely direct crime pictures, including a significant contribution to film noir). As with any film of such acclaim, where near-endless essays and articles and whole books have been penned discussing every notable aspect, it’s unlikely I’m going to have much either new or significant to say after one viewing (never mind “ever”). Just so you know.

But I can sing some of its praises. Like Peter Lorre’s extraordinary performance as child killer Hans Beckert. He could have survived on his naturally unusual looks, which fit the role perfectly, but he also skillfully conveys the realistic complexities of such a character. Beckert’s psychology feels completely accurate, something you might not expect from an 80-year-old film. To show such care in making a conceivable human being out of a villain who has committed some of the most horrendous crimes imaginable, and not just going for the easy approach of showing an incomprehensible monster, is a vital step in creating a realistic crime movie — a step that’s often been ignored, and still can be today.

And Lang did set out with the express aim of making a realistic factual film, albeit still a fictional one — it’s ‘inspired by’ real cases, not specifically ‘based on’ them as some have claimed. Along with his writer (and wife) Thea von Harbou, Lang drew on innumerable press reports about murders and their investigations, spoke to police officers and psychoanalysts about their jobs and what they had learnt about such criminals, and generally researched every area he aimed to cover on screen. His intention was for the film to constantly shift its focus, examining every aspect of a high-profile serial killer case, and so it does: we see the victims and their families (before and during the crime, though not after it to any significant degree); the public reaction and hysteria; the police’s flailing investigations and increasing exasperation; the criminal underworld, who begin their own manhunt because police inquiries are “bad for business” (despite sounding like a filmic conceit, this element was directly inspired by a newspaper article); and the criminal himself — trying to lay low, but constantly having to fight his urges… and ultimately giving in to them again.

Such a diffuse set of perspectives could lead to a messy structure that revealed each facet in only half-hearted broad strokes, but Lang never allows this to happen. The opening sequence, depicting the latest in a long line of kidnap/murders, is exemplary: every shot and edit contributes to a growing sense that Something Horrible Is About To Happen… and when it does, not a glimpse is shown on screen. An empty place setting, a balloon caught in overhead wires, a ball bouncing to a stop… They, along with each viewer’s imagination of the worst possible fate for little Elsie Beckmann, convey all the terror — and a palpable and heartbreaking sense of absence — that’s required.

And then Lang shifts focus: public fury, paranoia. A series of scenes that each typify broader social reactions. People are accused for nothing more than following a girl up some stairs, attacked because they’ve been arrested, the crowd simply assuming they’re the killer. Such scenes remain disturbingly relevant and plausible — the bit where a surly bloke confronts a man who was merely giving a girl the time feels like something one might see occur on our streets today.

And then it’s the police: a distinctly procedural style as a long sequence describes the police’s investigative efforts — how they follow up leads and how they lead nowhere; how they search crime scenes with a fine-tooth comb; another sequence shows their methodology for staging a raid; and so on. Such precise and clinical methods ultimately pay off: it’s a pair of tiny clues, carefully reasoned and sought out, that reveal the killer’s identity — and if it weren’t for the criminals getting there first, they’d’ve surely caught him too. Indeed, were it not for this breakthrough then the film might hold a Life On Mars-esque observation that only the criminals and their, shall we say, alternative methods can finally catch Beckert when the police have failed.

One of Lang’s aims in being factual — or, responsibilities he felt by being factual — was to present a debate on the morality of capital punishment. So Beckert murders children because that was the worst crime imaginable to Lang and von Harbou, and still when he’s dragged before a court (albeit an impromptu one made up of the criminal underworld) a debate is had on the merits of the death penalty — disguised, of course, in the decision of Beckert’s fate. The baying mob of criminals want him killed; his sole defence representative cites the law to show why such a punishment is wrong. Lang’s point — the one he wanted to make, even if he tried to present it as a debate — is that even in this instance the death penalty is wrong. Somewhat distressingly, the moral and legal points raised throughout the film remain highly relevant today.

Even leaving these aside, M is packed with beautiful moments of pure cinema: the shadow on the wanted poster; the intercutting of the police and criminals’ meetings; Inspector Lohmann dropping his cigar at the news the criminals were looking for the child killer (on his audio commentary, Peter Bogdanovich wonders how this would play to a modern audience, implying it wouldn’t really work — well, it did for me); the roving camera in the beggars’ market — a decade before Citizen Kane, Lang employs his camera in ways Welles seems to get all the credit for (I’m sure Welles pushed boundaries too, but some of his ‘innovative’ ideas — like tracking from outside to inside through a window within a single shot — are present here). M’s individual moments of brilliance go on — perhaps my favourite is when the police arrive just after the criminals have apprehended Beckert. We don’t even see an officer on screen, but the burglar’s reactions let us know who’s there. Its a funny moment (even if we’ve seen it dozens of times since) and a lovely shot too.

M was Lang’s first sound film, made at a time when the technology was still very new. So he uses — indeed, establishes — a variety of techniques: voiceover; selective hearing (e.g. the audio cutting out when a beggar covers his ears); silence (or only selected sound), used to represent how a space appears to sound rather than the genuine noise one would/could hear; conversations continuing across scenes (such as when a criminal begins a sentence and a police officer finishes it, in completely different rooms at different times); not to mention that the killer’s whistling is a vital clue, both in terms of the plot (it’s how the criminals first identify him) and for the viewer (indicating when he’s about his sorry business).

This is the longest existing version of M, restored from multiple negatives and prints held in several countries, which stands about seven minutes shorter than Lang’s original cut. IMDb’s alternate versions section claims the film originally showed the full trial at the end, implying this is among the lost minutes. In Masters of Cinema’s booklet, Anton Kaes instead details a scene early in the film pertaining to false confessors. Kaes has evidence that his scene existed, IMDb doesn’t present any; and in one of the audio commentaries Lang and others discuss the ending as-is — even if there was another ending at some point, it certainly wasn’t Lang’s intended one.

This definitive one, then, is suitably downbeat: Frau Beckmann — the mother from the opening sequence, her first appearance on screen for over an hour and a half bringing the tale full circle — bemoans that dispensing justice to the murderer won’t bring the children back, and warns viewers to watch out for their own. It’s not the triumphant “we got him!” that concludes most serial killer films, but a blunt warning that, though Beckert has been caught, there are always more out there, waiting to strike. History has sadly proven her right; but while the world has produced many men and women like M’s villain, it hasn’t produced many films quite like M.

5 out of 5

Masters of Cinema’s new edition of M is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. One of the special features is Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang, which I’ve briefly reviewed here.

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