M (1931)

M (1931) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The Castro Theatre features any number of films, double features, festivals or special events that I so want to go to but mostly miss out on.  What makes certain showings more accessible or compelling is a combination of my own capriciousness and the capriciousness of my schedule.  But when I saw that a double feature of Fritz Lang films, M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) were on the bill for the day, I very much felt compelled to take them in.  On top of that compunction, I was keen to take Felix and Clara, too.

In reality, I figured that Metropolis was the more accessible of the two films, visual as it is, fantastical, far out, and with a robot.  Also, it is not a film about a child murderer.  But again, scheduling being what it is, Clara took the opportunity for a playdate and Felix and I took the opportunity for a double feature.

Not exactly a kid-friendly film, M doesn’t really even have a central star outside of Peter Lorre, the serial killer of children.  And the film is not from his perspective.  In fact, we only see his face as he reflects upon it in a mirror, tormented by his compulsions.  He’s initially a shadow, then a mysterious figure.  The rest of the film is an array of non-central characters: the police and the upright citizenry and the criminal underworld.  Certain characters get more screen-time and focus, especially the chief detective and the head of the safecrackers, but the story is not about other individuals, rather it’s about humanity in its structural groups.

The detectives, as part of the establishment, work hard to find the killer.  The criminals, due to pressure from the establishment, organize themselves to hunt the killer as well. Both converge at the same time, but the criminals hunt Lorre down first and set him to a trial in the basement of an abandoned factory.  Though they all want his head on a stick, he is given a begrudging defense attorney and who argues that the child killer is a sick man and needs to be treated as such.  What is fascinating about the way that this whole trial plays out is that the killer receives a fair trial but looks to still get lynched by the mob, only when the authorities finally step in and pull him away.  We never hear what happens in the main court.  Judgment is suspended. Punishment is ambiguous.  The edict is one about protection and vigilance about one’s children.

Felix liked the film, though I’m not sure how well he kept up with the subtitles.

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