A highly influential German psychological thriller and artistic landmark
“M” is one of those extraordinarily rare films which is artistic and entertaining. Directed by Fritz Lang, this is a landmark psychological thriller rich in the language of film. Using visuals and sound in a nonrealistic, cinematic manner, it is a feast for the eyes, ears, and imagination. “M” appears on many “greatest films” lists, including being voted the greatest German film of all-time by the Association of German Cinémathèques, and the sixth greatest film of all-time by the French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma.
Produced on the heels of the highly stylized and symbolic German Expressionist films of the 1920s, “M” retains much of that movement’s artistry. Expressionist films came about in Germany after the devastation of WWI, while films from other countries were banned (starting in 1916). These films largely expressed the gruesome reality and suffering felt in Germany at the time. They strayed from depicting straight forward reality, and instead created film techniques to capture inner conflicts, fears, sufferings, desires, and emotions. As a result, these films and their directors revolutionized the language of film. Part of the movement's lasting impact came because several key Expressionist directors (including Lang) would later move to Hollywood to make films, bringing their style with them. New approaches introduced by German Expressionism included high and low camera angles, high and low-contrast lighting (also known as chiaroscuro lighting), use of shadows, expressive acting, and exaggerated sets. While "M" is more realistic than a typical German Expressionist film, there are still many Expressionist elements in the film. The two most famous German Expressionist films, both masterpieces which will be featured on this blog, are Robert Wiene's 1920 film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", from 1927.
The plot of “M” delves into the effects on a town fallen prey to a child serial killer, and the hunt to find him. As mass hysteria ensues, police intensify their search for the killer, which infringes on the underworld's crime business. The criminals take matters into their own hands, deciding to find the killer themselves, and a race between the police and underworld begins. Real criminals were used to play several criminals in the film. While the film's story is fictitious, prior to “M”, there were several famous serial killers in Germany, including Peter Kürten, who Lang interviewed while researching the film (though Lang later claimed “M” wasn’t based on him). This film is provocatively original, posing various questions while answering few. It was the first filmed psychological thriller to get inside the mind of a killer, and paved the way for serial killer and psychological thriller films in the decades that followed, including those of today. “M” presents questions about morals and guilt while touching on many themes, including social evils, mass hysteria, mistrust, paranoia, the legal system, punishment, and justice itself. Chillingly, all the themes presented in this 1931 film are still highly pertinent, making me wonder (apart from technology) how much humans have genuinely evolved in almost a century, if at all.
“M” was directed by one of silent film’s trailblazing directors, Fritz Lang. He was a visionary in expression and visual composition, and created cinematic storytelling methods still in use today. One such example is his breakthrough use of sound in “M”. Made four years after the advent of talking pictures, “M” was Lang’s first sound film, and true to his artistry he used sound in new and inventive ways. At the time, sound in films consisted almost exclusively of music, ambient sound, and dialogue. In this film, sound is just as vital as the images, sometimes even more so. The film opens with sound not visuals, as it begins in blackness with the ring of a gong, followed by the voice of a girl, setting the tone for the unnerving scenario about to unfold. About a third of the film is in complete silence, which adds to the uneasiness and tension. There is no music score, only a combination of silence, sound effects, and dialogue. In addition, “M” was the first film to use a leitmotif (a recurring theme of music associated with an idea, place, or person) - in this case the simple whistling of the killer. Sound overlaps and blends scenes, indicates off-screen people or action, is used as voice-over, informs plot, and often is not generated by what is shown in the visuals - all new approaches to sound. “M” was a film ahead of its time and is just as inventive and engaging when watched today.
Lang’s expressionistic visuals are equally extraordinary, and include unusual camera angles, bold shadows, and strong lighting sources. These qualities, combined with “M’s” dark look and feel, were very much the inspiration for the birth of film noir (I mention more about film noir in the “Double Indemnity” post). A lot of "M’s" action takes place off-screen (including the violence), indicated by shadows or sound, leaving much to the imagination. The editing in “M” is also innovative, with montages and seamless cutting between various scenes and locations. Through editing Lang makes a point to compare the underworld with the police as both search for the killer. They are portrayed as being identical, although the police seem to always be two steps behind. When you watch the film, be sure to notice the scene which stunningly moves back and forth between the two groups. Lang is one brilliant filmmaker.
After fighting in WWI, and being wounded (losing the sight in one eye), Fritz Lang, worked a bit as an actor and then a screenwriter in Vienna. He moved to Germany briefly writing screenplays, and started directing films in 1919. The next year he met writer and actress Thea von Harbou, whom he would marry,. Together they wrote many of his silent masterpieces including "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler", “Die Nibelungen”, and “Metropolis”, as well as “M”. In 1933, Lang’s film “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was banned by the Nazis. He fled Germany for Paris, divorced von Harbou, and moved to Hollywood, making his first film there, “Fury”, in 1936. He continued to work there, directing films in several genres including westerns. But with his dark tone and style, he excelled in film noir, the genre for which he was a major influence. He would later return to Germany where he would direct his last few features. Among his other notable films are "The Big Heat", “The Spiders”, "The Woman in the Window", "Rancho Notorious", "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt", and "The Blue Gardenia”. He was married three times, including his marriage to von Harbou. Fritz Land died in 1976 at the age 85. He was a major force in cinema.
While “M” is certainly a Fritz Lang film through and through, it is also very much a Peter Lorre film. Peter Lorre give a powerhouse performance as the child killer “Hans Beckert”. There is something almost childlike about him, along with an uneasy mystery. Although we don’t fully see him until later in the film, Lorre’s presence is felt all along. He brings “Beckert” to life in such a way you almost feel sorry for him. This is a tormented human being who can’t control himself. Lang discovered Lorre while seeing him in a play, and knew he was the one to play "Beckert", since he was someone you would never think of as a child killer. “M” was Lorre’s first film (other than two insignificant previous parts). He is unforgettable, and with this performance Lorre became a star and internationally famous. Because he is so believable as “Beckert”, this character would typecast him for much of his career as a dark, somewhat creepy, eccentric type. You can read more about Lorre in my “Casablanca” post.
This spectacular piece of filmmaking is a treat for the mind and the senses. Completely engrossing and gripping, “M” is one classic film you definitely need to see, and one you will definitely remember. Enjoy “M”!
Just a reminder for those who might have just tuned in, that this blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that by doing so, a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity with important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME PAGE, which explains it all, and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications of each subsequently recommended film every Tuesday. At the bottom of that page you can also find a list of all films currently on this bog. Please subscribe and share this blog. Thank you so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
While his motive remains a mystery, “Beckart” is clearly a criminal and a victim. The kangaroo court are also criminals about to commit murder. The film states that we are all guilty, and portrays how all of us have a shadow within (we are introduced to “Beckart” through his shadow). While “M” may not provide answers, in the end the film does have a message - a cry to look out for one another, especially our children.