(1931) dir. Fritz Lang
I hadn’t seen Fritz Lang’s M since my first film class back in 1987. Oddly enough, it had remained in my mind all this time, but I don’t even know that I have even seen another Fritz Lang film again in all that time, even his seminal silent science fiction film Metropolis (1927). I guess it’s hard for me to even conceive of why this is, but there you go. I think, after all this time, I felt compelled to see M again.
M was Lang’s first sound film. Lang himself, with Metropolis and M as the prizes of his German film career, came to the United States as the Nazi’s came to power, like many of the German film greats of the period. It’s fairly safe to say that Lang, while immensely influential, never actually achieved again the brilliance that he achieved with this film, one of the truly great films of cinema. A safe statement, which I am willing to stand by.
The film is the story of a serial child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, in an utterly seminal role, in fact, a role that ended up helping to stereotyping him throughout his career. Set in Berlin in the period of its time, the film follows not only the tracking of the serial murderer by the police but also by the criminal underworld, a complex web of safecrackers, thieves, and homeless who watch the streets in a stark contrast the world of the “overworld”.
The film culminates in a trial by the criminal underworld, who have caught Lorre, and who attempt to prosecute him by an lynchmob’s ideals. The irony is that he gets a fairer trial than many might have on the overworld, which leaves him to the main world of 1931 Germany to determine both his sanity and the nature of his crime.
A pre-curser of Noir and an extension of German Expressionism, the film is an utter archetype, a brilliant, beautifully realized vision of cinema. Much like my recent viewing of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), it’s hard to fully express the power and significance of this film outside of its historical and artistic context. And yet it’s also hard to deny its inherent cinematic beauty and importance. It’s one of those films that is so notable, so significant, that it’s hard to fathom the experience outside of that.