Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Fritz Lang Watch: M (1931)

Watched:  04/01/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Fritz Lang
Selection:  Me

I've been meaning to get to this one for at least fifteen years.  Maybe much longer.  And if I can keep my act together, I'll watch another Fritz Lang movie soon, Ministry of Fear.  

But M (1931) was priority as it's on a lot of "best movies ever" lists, and cited by academics as wildly important and influential - and I'd argue - as this is 1931 - so influential it's imprinted itself onto mass media to such a degree that tracing it back would be quite the cladogram.  

Also, it turns out: the universally praised movie is, in fact, shockingly good.

Essentially what delayed my viewing of the film was what I assumed the movie would be about, and any enjoyment would be largely academic.  And the movie is about the things I suspected, in part.  But stunned was I when the movie took a hard pivot and became about something far more nuanced and difficult to wrangle.

Here's what I knew:  M stars Peter Lorre in his breakout role.  In 1931 Berlin, someone is murdering children.  A frantic manhunt begins.

Those things are correct.  


As the film opens, we've already lost enough children to the murderer that kids have developed a nursery rhyme about it they're using for a game.  Yet another girl is brutally murdered, but before she's killed, we see her led away, buying a balloon with a whistling stranger.   

While panic rises in the streets, the pressure is on the police to find the killer.  But the criminal underworld begins to take note of the killings as the heightened police presence and activity has made it hard to get any criming done.  Meanwhile, the public is becoming hysterical and paranoid, and is looking to accuse anyone.

While the cops start deploying more and more avenues to uncover the identity of the murderer, causing issues across the city, the criminals themselves put together a network, employing the beggars as their eyes and ears.

We also learn who the killer is - and see the killing is a compulsion - he's mad and he knows it.  

Soon, the blind balloon-seller hears the looping whistle of Lorre's murderer and points him out to another beggar.  The beggar marks his hand with white chalk in an "M" for "Morder".  He's seen by other vagrants who alert the leaders, and soon take the building where Lorre is hiding.  They extract him to a second location, and hold a trial.  

Lorre begs to be sent to the police, giving an impassioned speech that he's not in control, but the criminals sitting in judgment have all made choices.  

I had expected the movie to be entirely the pursuit of the criminal by the cops through darkened alleys with a final face-off of some sort.  What I did not expect was for the movie to delve into the breakdown of societal norms with the shared stress and trauma of the deaths and un-ending manhunt.  The needs of cops and criminals are thrown into contrast as they both seek to stop the killer, and it's no small irony that the criminals are able to employ the people instead of jailing them during the search.  

The collection of characters is wide but not deep, minus Lorre's, and perhaps the surprise of the defense counsel at the film's climax - the moralist among the thieves and crooks.  The cops are the archetypes we'll get to know in American pressure-cooker films.  What is interesting is the arc of the film as you may find yourself rooting for the criminals is the film is interested in justice, not the kind you think works after too many Dirty Harry movies, but capital J Justice, and still acknowledges:  no little kids are coming back no matter what happens here.*

Lorre is phenomenal, still relying on some of the expressiveness of silent film to great impact as he realizes his situation and  pleads his case. For an actor who probably now exists in the popular consciousness as a voice we do at Halloween thanks to Mel Blanc copying him in Looney Tunes, Lorre is amazing here and gets to play a range of things.  

But, damn, the film is gorgeous to look at, employs camerawork I find baffling for the era - including tracking shots.  And - just a few years into the sound revolution - is nearly silent, with the only music coming from the whistling of "In the Hall of the Mountain King".  The cinematography is laying out what top tier German Expressionism looks like and paving the way for the look of American film in the post-war era. 

So many films have borrowed from the first half, it's more or less writing the rules for serial killer films in real time as the movie unspools - with the cops burning the midnight oil and the killer living badly, going about their day, undetectable.  Some show the struggle of the killer who can't fight their compulsions.

What almost none of these films have done or thought to do has been to have criminals put the killer on trial and the splintering of moral certainty that occurs for the audience, facing down a gallery of criminals ready for blood.  Like Metropolis, it's not the most subtle social commentary, but like that film, it's insightful and cutting.  And more humanist than what Lang would do in his American films.  

There's an American remake of the film, which Lang - who had fled Nazi Germany, did not make.  I can't imagine the stones on the people in Hollywood who decided to do a remake - and I'd be curious what it looks like, but will take  a minute before I watch.  Further, there's radio dramas, plays and even a John J. Muth comic based on this film.

Thrillers owe a lot to the styling, and arguably you can see what would come with noir photography, but I'm not going to do the easy lay-up and say this is noir.  I'd leave that to someone else to determine (I don't think so, but will hear arguments).  

Anyway, like a lot of these movies you're still hearing about 90 years after their release, this one is well worth the time.  

*so watch your kids, goddammit

No comments: