johnlink ranks M (1931)

M is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I am a big fan of Peter Lorre, though most of what I have seen is through his long association with Bogart. Perhaps this is too honest, but I had no idea M was a foreign language film. I knew that director Fritz Lang eventually fled Germany to make movies in America (after a short stop in Paris), and I thought M was made after that happened. Nope. This is the first sound film from Fritz Lang, and it is most definitely German.


I watched M (1931) on 3.16.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

This is a film which is heavily influenced by Lang’s career as a silent movie director. Sections of this are shot without sound. I initially mistook these passages as bits which were later added back into the film, but have since learned that Lang felt the silence heightened their dramatic effect. Regardless, even the moments with sound and dialogue are shot by a man who was very comfortable working with silent film actors: plenty of over-exaggeration, plenty of metaphorical imagery.

This heightened reality creates a world which feels more like German Expressionism than it perhaps intends to. This is juxtaposed by a very real and scary plot: Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a child murderer who is literally abducting young kids off the street in broad daylight.

Despite being the star and subject, much of this film features what the existence of such a monster does to others. We see the fear families have for their children. We see the police attempting to manage an investigation at which they are clearly not resourceful enough to be successful. We see the criminal underground, their business hurt by all of these shenanigans, deciding to take matter into their own hands by employing beggars to be the eyes and ears of the city.

Germany, in the early 30s, was still recovering from World War I and more than a little bit on its way to the atrocity of World War II. M feels like a movie made in and by a country figuring out who to trust and how to trust them. The police and the criminals do similar things to the point that it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. The criminals are effective in apprehending Beckert (in an amazing building-capture sequence), and they attempt to be judge and jury in a remarkable final scene. They lack the sophistication, the level-headedness, and the aura of infallibility. However, to say they are wrong in their prosecution of Beckert is to, at some level, condone what Beckert has done. Interestingly, the film ends after the police get Beckert but before we see what happens to him. The film lacks enough confidence in the system to follow the story to its rightful conclusion.

Peter Lorre is astonishing in this, most notably in his final monologue as he pleads his case for insanity. Throughout the film we see him struggle with who he is and what he is doing. The final scene allows him to vocalize this struggle. It is interesting how Lang manages to turn this child murderer into a pitiable character. It says something about the system in which he is entangled: When you can’t tell the police from the criminals, how do we begin to lay blame for abhorrent activity?

Hitler and Josef Goebbels respected the heck out of Lang. In 1933 they banned both M and his subsequent film, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. Lang tells a story that Goebbels apologized to Lang for banning his films right before he asked the director to be the head of the Nazi filmmaking propaganda machine. This led to Lang fleeing Germany as he had absolutely no desire to join the Nazi party. It is telling that people see what they want from his films. Who are the heroes, who are the villains, who is sympathetic, and who is not? The whole of M is a sort of Rorschach test.

The visuals in the film are absolutely stunning and sophisticated. And while the movie takes a little bit of time to become exciting, there is an odd sense of humor which permeates this film. You will never again hear Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” without thinking of this movie. In fact, I think about movies which have used the theme (most recently Hanna as a potential assassin is introduced to music) without paying homage to M.There is an absolute morbidity to this movie which is nearly palpable. For those who think that it is impossible for a 1930s movie to be truly disturbing, go see this. It is expert and unique filmmaking from a true visionary.





~ by johnlink00 on March 17, 2013.

2 Responses to “johnlink ranks M (1931)”

  1. My favourite film of all time.

  2. I had the privilege of seeing this classic quite a few years ago. BBC 2 was doing a “cult” film type thing and it was on late at night. Such a powerful film and Peter Lorre is suitably scary and creepy. Great review mate!

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