The key characteristics of Lang’s silent films became impulsive launching points: sharp camera angles, vast sets, irregular mannerisms in characters unable to hold back their surprise, and body language that suggested fragile nerves. Their presence adds dynamic weight in the absence of sound. The departure, however, comes in the form of a challenging story that, as opposed to being angular, is ripped straight “from the headlines.” In a small German community caught up in the hustle of everyday life, a dark presence creeps through the quiet alleys preying on unsuspecting victims. But these targets, shockingly, are children as opposed to adults, intensifying the crisis beyond the initial perceptions. How could a populace, honestly, even think that an innocent young boy or girl could be the intended victim of someone so clearly malevolent in his endeavors? Who ever heard of such ghastly ideas?
The first scenes evoke a tone that is alarmingly calm: a group of young boys and girls chant the words to one of those familiar childhood tunes about murder and mayhem, while the mothers of a tenement go about their evenings preparing for the return of families from work and school. One mother’s child, Elsie, strides down a public street while bouncing a ball. Her path is obstructed by a column, and the camera zooms in so we can see the words of a wanted poster – it warns us of a child murderer stalking the city. Then the shadowy profile of a man in a hat passes over the poster, staring down at the little girl who has intersected his travels. “That’s a nice ball you have,” he says. No face is seen. The movie cuts unsympathetically between shots of Elsie’s mother preparing food and waiting for her child to return home, and others in which the predator walks with Elsie, buys her a balloon, and whistles his ominous tune while she stares on without a hint of concern. Time and quiet pass on, and the girl does not arrive home like her little friends do. The mother calls for Elsie in worrisome tones, and her pleading is carried over static shots of the city and then the little girl’s empty spot at the dinner table. Her ball is seen blowing in the wind, and the balloon caught in the power lines. A murder has taken place, and Elsie is no more.
The city is enveloped by the predicament. Several of these kinds of murders have already taken place, and not all of the remains have been found. The local newspaper prints a letter they believe has been written by the perpetrator, and a handwriting analysis deconstructs its details in an attempt to profile him for legal authorities. While his revealing dialogue plays over the film, a striking shot emerges of the actual killer staring back at himself in a mirror, contorting his face to more closely resemble that of a “monster.” His motives are not entirely clear, but his thirst for murder is unshakable, and in a later scene he is seemingly brought to ecstasy over the sight of another little girl he spies from around the corner. Will she be his next victim? Does he actually perceive them as victims, or rather as victories?
His existence incites movement from varying walks of life. The police want him caught for the sake of easing social tension. Citizens want him seized so their children are no longer in mortal danger. The criminal underworld, meanwhile, wants him wiped off the map for two key reasons: 1) the hysteria his killings have caused have undermined their own endeavors as mere pickpockets and thieves, among other things; and 2) victimizing children violates a critical code even in the world of illegal activities, and doing so has resulted in the drawing of a battle line. As the movie progresses, legal authorities are slowly moved away from the foreground in order to drive the presence of the underworld into action: because this murderer isn’t caught in a timely fashion, they overtake the initiative because, you know, business can’t be conducted until his whereabouts are discovered.
The role of the killer (named Hans Becker) is played by the famous Peter Lorre, most known for his supporting roles in countless mainstream Hollywood pictures of the golden era, including noir pictures like “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca.” Similar to Lang, the level of insight required of him in this role is uncultivated, and demands certain forethought to anticipate how it could work in an era of constant experimenting. But it is startling and credible, revealing a creature at the center of an elaborate crime that, despite an endless charade of sharp deconstructing, comes off as a simple psychotic degenerate incapable of separating social norms from his perverse impulses. “I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me,” he insists. “The fire, the voices, the torment! It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently. ”
The technical aspects are some of the most distinctive and exciting of any movie made in that era. Notice how dramatic the photography is at creating a cityscape built up of menacing shadows and corridors – it is often shot from wide or high angles, and cameras stalk characters through frames rather than staying stationary, as if taking the viewpoint of someone hunting their prey. Lang’s cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner’s, worked on a handful of important films throughout the golden age of German cinema, including “Nosferatu,” and here he does a remarkable job of creating empty spaces that prickle with tension, and they propel the story to a series of later scenes in which the killer is apprehended by a host of eager criminals. Subsequently, a string of shots from an interior storehouse in which Hans is “judged” by a jury of countless delinquents is brilliant: in one continuous shot, for instance, a camera moves silently from one end of the room to next, revealing a series of stares that suggest the same sentiment: there is no sympathy to be had for a man who kills little girls. Not much has to be said, furthermore, of the hypnotic spell of black and white film, which reveals the same qualities in “M” as seen in countless others: the implicit sense of stark emotional qualities in characters, and an underlying terror in the narrative.
The structure of the movie plays on the paranoia that was abundant in German suburbs during the early 30s. Written by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou (who wrote all of his earlier pictures, including his masterpiece “Metropolis”), the screenplay draws comparisons to the events of a series of gruesome homicides that were going on in Düsseldorf at the time, and the apprehension of a madman named Peter Kürten, who went to trial and was convicted just a few short weeks before the film’s premiere. In portraying the material with such emblematic implications, Harbou and Lang briefly became the pariahs of international cinema (the famed German critic Gabriele Tergit referred to their movie as “tasteless,” and concluded they “brought Satan himself into the business calculation”). Early audiences howled at its implications, particularly over the one that suggested a killer could be “out of control” of his own impulses when committing such heinous acts. Lang and Harbou’s intentions may not have been entirely isolated, though – German society was being lured by the persuasive oratory of the rising Nazi party, and their views on the matter were out of step with early consensus (think of the Hans character as a fascist military man instead of a lowly degenerate, and you might reveal added layers). The Nazis were not always in tune with Lang’s irony, however, and seeing his “Metropolis” as a utopian ideal rather than a commentary on social disconnect, they offered him the job of minister of movies. Eventually the couple (along with Lorre) would flee Germany and be welcomed in the arms of Hollywood, but not before they left behind the whispers of dissent in additional films, including “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (and later still in “Ministry of Fear,” which was released after the war).
The defining importance of “M,” however, comes down to its distinction as a link between the standards of the past and the promise of cinema’s inevitable future, molding those ideals in an almost prophetic way. With the integration of sound placing Lang in a state of professional limbo, German moviegoers also became starved for fewer fantasies and more serious yarns, especially in a climate of early 30s political unrest. Somehow, the movie was destined for an unlikely marriage of the fundamental production values of Germanic Expressionism and a new undertone of storytelling that emphasized harsh realities: the kind that, some argue, would go on to inspire Film Noir. Seeing the movie as a bridge between both of those genres, it occupies that elusive space of purity reserved for very few “touchstone” pictures, and its handling of the material seems astonishing (especially when one considers the aesthetic parallels of “Detour,” “Double Indemnity” and countless other classic Noirs).
Today’s audiences, additionally, will recognize its sway over more familiar material: namely, that of the modern serial killer thriller. Nearly every root of these psychological character studies can be directly traced back to this film, the first of its kind to approach the vicarious subject matter from critical angles in order to understand the motivation of its perpetrator as well as the paranoia he inspires. Even the Lorre performance, as coarse and jagged as it might seem, hits all of the familiar notes we have come to expect of the Hannibal Lecters of our time. The basic idea of this kind of story being explored through film in 1931 is an astounding one, and Lang’s motivation was perhaps more solemn than those of modern filmmakers (ultimately, he saw it as “preventative” in nature as opposed to “entertaining”). But in considering all of these facets within that conceptual timeframe, the movie looms over our cinema like a hand of consequence, haunting us with its austerity and power long after others have faded from the mind.
Written by DAVID KEYES
"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which exist to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at Criterion.com.
"M" is the sixth article in this series.
"M" is the sixth article in this series.