M (1931)

D: Fritz Lang
S: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann

Though arguably the progenitor of the 'serial killer' film, M is a breathtakingly original work of cinematic art. It is best understood relative to the environment in which it was originally conceived, though it still has the power to grip an audience today.

By 1931 many German filmmakers had fled to the United States, fearing the rise of Nazism. They took with them a substantial chunk of their culture, particularly the expressionist style which had defined their cinema since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919. Its use of exaggerated light and shadow, its concern with the darkness of the human soul, and its ability to craft haunting images was ideal for tales of the fantastic, and it had begun to emerge in American horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931).

In Germany, a few of the remaining practitioners had started to move in new directions. G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1928) and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) had both delved into the sleazy underworld of the Weimar Republic, making explicit the connections between the symbolic and the actual. Both addressed social and political conditions directly rather than by inference.

Fritz Lang's M is of a similar vein. Its subject is a child murderer loose on the streets of Berlin and the public outcry which results from his activities. The ineffective response of the authorities eventually forces the criminal underworld to track him down to relieve pressure on themselves.

Eschewing vampires and other monsters from the id for disturbed human beings, co-writers Lang and Harbou refigured many of the themes and ideas explored in the more fantastic films of the 1920s to operate in a contemporary urban setting.

M is a film with a strong social conscience, but it is not simplistic in its treatment of the parties involved. The police are not so much incompetent as slow-moving, hampered by the necessity to follow procedure yet hounded by the press and public into a fast response. The criminal underclass are shown organising themselves in ways similar to those on the opposite side of the law, and their own shady morality is eventually called into question by the killer himself.

Peter Lorre plays this character with a frighteningly child-like innocence, an impression enhanced by his physical appearance; moon-faced and wide eyed, often chewing candy and frequently vulnerable. An unimportant Hungarian-born actor, M was Lorre's first major role and it made him an international star. The audience has a mixed response to this would-be villain, sharing his feelings of anxiety at several moments despite rooting for his capture. His final speech before a nightmarish jury of city low lifes carries with it stern warnings for those who would rush to judgment.

Yet the film strongly cautions German mothers to protect their children, which in hindsight is a politically ambiguous message. At the time it was intended to be practical and humanist, but considering political developments in the next few years casts a new complexion on its meaning.

Visually, the film is stunning. Its portrayal of the urban landscape as a dark labyrinth is reminiscent of earlier expressionist films, yet Lang is careful to maintain a realistic edge which makes it all the more affecting.

Its evocation of the murders is also startling. In its opening scenes a young girl is lured by the unseen murderer, who buys her a balloon. Shortly after, an image of the balloon caught high up in telegraph wires tells us all we need to know. The consequences are also shown through intercutting this with scenes of the child's mother at home anxiously awaiting her return. Death has a context, and violence is never explicit or exploitative.

Mis also a masterpiece of sound cinema, even though the technology was still new. Its sparing use of city sounds, its clever use of echoes and its haunting use of a whistled segment of Grieg's Peer Gynt (performed off camera by Lang himself) are particularly effective.

Note: The Region 2 DVD has limited features.
Note: The Criterion Collection DVD has good additional features but the print itself is disappointing (although complete).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.