Directed by Fritz Lang.
Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke and Gustaf Gründgens.
When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.
Within Fritz Lang’s first film made in sound, 1931’s M, there’s fascinating evidence of the period’s – and, of course, the director’s – ongoing transition from silent cinema. It’s there in Peter Lorre’s hysterical performance as whistling child murderer Hans Beckert (the mania’s exacerbated by the fact Lorre was acting for Lang in the day while appearing onstage in a Valentine Katayev play at night). It’s there in the emphasis on the image, in those strong, German expressionism-afflicted visuals – Lang is here still telling much of his story with his camera, stalking through the paranoid Berlin streets after both killer and prey. It’s there, outstanding, in the grand set design, another signifier of a period in cinema history where the look of a movie meant everything, because it had to.
And yet, aside from those indicators (plus the drab fashions of working class Europe circa 1931), what’s amazing is how surprisingly modern M now seems. It’s a realisation aided by the almost immaculate new print, which restores the film to the closest to the director’s vision that it’s ever been. M is now 117 minutes long, and most of what’s been restored can be found in the procedural component of the film, which accounts for a good deal of why M still feels relevant. After another young girl goes missing at the film’s beginning, the Berlin police hunt for the culprit in earnest, performing citywide searches and analysing clues, like the handwritten letter Beckert sends to the newspapers about his crimes.
Later procedurals like The Boston Strangler and Zodiac carried on what M essentially started; the blueprint for the contemporary cops-catch-a-killer movie is here. The villain, who’s not introduced until the second act, is even portrayed with balance. We first see him self-analysing in the mirror, and we know he’s damaged, out of control, rendering this ‘threat’ a diminished one for whom we have a sort of queasy sympathy. The fascinating Beckert is who we become primarily interested in, slightly to the film’s detriment; the cops on his trail aren’t developed as characters, while the mob who later pursue Beckert in a chest-beating fit of vigilante justice are almost as faceless.
The idea that the hero can, in his single-minded pursuit, become the villain is explored in the final act, as frustrated Berliners form a violent posse and take it upon themselves to catch the murderer who’s been terrorising their neighbourhoods. It’s not quite as interesting, especially not while we’re in the company of some forgettable side-players, but the film rises again when it comes back under the command of Lorre. The final scene, in which Beckert is forced into a public trial in an anonymous basement, before the judge-jury-executioner throng, is an unforgettably claustrophobic piece of cinema. As Lorre howls and agonises over his own guilt in an eruption of dialogue, you know Lang has made his successful first step into the world of sound.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.