Tuesday, 4 January 2011


26. M (1931)
Dir: Fritz Lang

When Fritz Lang's first sound film 'M' was released, MGM's head of production Irving Thalberg arranged a special screening of it for his writers and directors, after which he chastised them for not making films of the same power and quality as this masterpiece. To his credit, Thalberg also admitted that had any of them pitched him the idea of a film about a serial child murderer, he would have turned it down flat!

Lang's 'M' is a film whose power has not been diminished even by the passing of eight decades. An examination of the effect a serial killer of children has on a Berlin town, 'M' starts off with a daring premise and goes on to realise it with incredible invention and gripping storytelling. Peter Lorre made his name in the role of the murderer. It was a daring part to take on, especially considering that Lang hints strongly that Lorre is a paedophile as well as a killer. In recent times, the topic of paedophilia has inspired increasing hysteria and paranoia amongst tabloid readers, making 'M's portrayal of that same hysterical reaction seem utterly topical. As the murderer's hold over the town intensifies, anyone even talking to a child comes under suspicion. Accusations fly, tempers rise and yet the police can find no trace of this elusive child molester.

Uniquely, 'M' does not offer us a good guy detective to root for. Instead, Lang focuses on the entire community's hunt for the killer, following different characters for the small amounts of time that they play a relevant (or sometimes less than relevant) part in the investigation. But rather than make 'M' into a whodunnit, Lang makes it clear that Lorre is the murderer almost from the outset, meaning that the only continuous character the audience has to cling to is the monster himself. With his hooded eyes, creepy grin and impulsive whistle, Lorre is unforgettable. Lang uses this latter trait to particularly impressive effect, showing his inventiveness with the then new innovation of sound. The sharp whistling of the tune 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' becomes an indication that Lorre is close by and it puts the audience on edge whenever it is heard, particularly on those occasions when Lorre is off-screen.

Without a central good guy, Lang focuses on an expansive citywide plot, hopping smoothly from location to location and protagonist to protagonist. This is exceptionally effective in giving the viewer a sense of the exhaustive process of tracking a killer who could be anywhere and anyone. But Lang has further narrative tricks up his sleeve. As the police crack down on known criminals and increase the number of raids on shady establishments, the criminal underworld decide to pull together and find the child killer themselves so that they can resume business without constant harrassment. So now Lang has two large groups of people pursuing Lorre, effectively working against each other but to the same end.

As the net begins to close around Lorre, the focus shifts from a citywide search to the ransacking of a large office building in which the killer is trapped. Even in this condensced environment, Lorre proves difficult to track. Finally, however, the criminal gang manage to capture him and haul him off to an abandoned distillery where they assemble their own version of a court of law, assigning Lorre his own "lawyer". So begins the film's famous climax, in which Lorre gives an amazing performance as he defends his actions to the court by saying that he cannot help himself, he is compelled to commit his crimes, unlike those trying him who choose that lifestyle. Lang thankfully avoids portraying the terrified Lorre as a sympathetic character but what he does do is portray him as an understandable character. 'M' is an exceptionally important film in recognising paedophilia as a mental illness rather than a choice, a viewpoint that people seem even less willing to consider these days than they would have been in 1931. Lorre compares his own uncontrollable impulses with the lucid crimes of the criminal court, which include three murders commited by the judge himself, thus raising many questions about the nature of evil in relation to mental states.

'M', then, is a phenomenally important film in terms of the issues it addresses and the innovative narrative structure it employs. However, it doesn't end there. Despite its bleak themes, Lang makes 'M' massively exciting and entertaining. For every discussion around a table there is a tense moment of action. There are also several moments of tastefully executed humour. These could have been incongruous and damaging to the film but, instead, they enhance Lang's satirical, realistic vision of a paranoid community. Besides all of this, 'M' is also visually striking. The catalogue of unforgettable images is too vast to recall in its entirety: the shadow of the killer appearing suddenly on a poster, the branding of the killer with a large letter M and his subsequent discovery of this brand, the pan across the assembled, intimidating rogues gallery of the criminal kangaroo court. These images alone are testament to Lang's visual genius, indicative of a man who made his name in silent films.

'M' is that rarest of things: a film which maintains the same degree of controversy and relevance as it had upon its original release. A cinematic landmark designed to inspire intelligent debate through its own multi-faceted portrayal of a burning issue, 'M' is not only one of the great masterpieces of German cinema, but of cinema in general. Irving Thalberg was right to cite it as a touchstone of quality and narrative power.

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