A hypnotizing film of horror, suspense, and brilliant storytelling, M is about a man who commits crimes that lead to the overarching accusation of the state rather than the criminal (who is a child murderer, at that). M takes viewers on the hunt for a serial killer that resembles the surprises, angles, and shadowy disembodied voices of a funhouse in hell. A cast of underground misfits and completely inept investigators prowl toward the child murderer like sly cats and lumbering dogs through the night, until eventually the group that finds and prosecutes their man (in a completely just, fair manner) comes as a surprise with a grand staging of a heist where nothing but the man himself is the prized booty.
Lang presents a gorgeous, complicated, spectacular, and intricate narrative that is a surprise for 1931 cinema – so much so that Schneider’s book notes that one of MGM’s top producers “assembled all his writers and directors for a screening…then criticized them en masse for not making films as innovative, exciting, profound, and commercial as this.” Of course, nothing like this would fly in the United States – even today (unless perhaps as a book?) – but it is no wonder that it is Lang’s favorite lifetime achievement. This film chugs along like a steam train, leading toward a brilliant climax and haunting final words. I watched this film on Criterion DVD, and was surprised and sat in wonder at this spectacular achievement in production, direction, and performance.
This was a film I knew nothing about going into it – and to make matters even more ridiculous, the whole first half of the film I thought “gee, that guy is really similar to Peter Lorre” without having looked at the cast list. Then I did, and felt stupid. I knew it was a Fritz Lang film and have seen some others, but this was an early venture and knew nothing about it. It isn’t surprising to me that this was what he considered his great work.
Story aside, there was some real magic happening on the screen. I will likely never forget the notable long single shots of the city’s underbelly as the camera weaves among patients at a dive penny delicatessen or drinking and partying at one of the city’s seedy criminal bars. The camera suspensefully waits for the audience, sound merely leaking from off screen while Lorre’s eyes scream in silent terror along with a lack of a soundtrack carries the film. The really great ensemble cast of hundreds whose individual and principal stories don’t become clear (like the mystery) until the third act but follow a very modern CSI sort of suspenseful execution before it was a thing. The almost obsessive geometric framing of each frame, such as the use of the compass on the map, Lorre’s character cornered in the street by the gang that’s tailing him with the camera looking straight down into the conflict, and the investigator looking through the folder that explains the investigation so far. The simplicity and suggestiveness of some of the more sparse shots from the very beginning with the shadow stalking the little girl, the ball bouncing out into the grassy field, and the balloon with cheap paper embellishments hitting the electric wires that may have unwittingly predicted the Hindenburg disaster the year president Hindenburg beat the Nazi party into office in 1931.
The story’s execution as an ensemble piece was also pretty interesting. Most mysteries of the time used Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie structure as a template, bringing together the criminal and the single gumshoe at the end. This mystery is more of an ensemble, city-wide operation with little flits of information making it to the audience throughout the first half. The protagonist and antagonists are as mysterious as the unsolved crime, and the audience only catches one glimpse of the criminal as momentarily as the other hundred characters make an appearance. The horrifying realization and little devices that Lang presents through the hour and forty minutes all come together in the end in a satisfying terrific denouement that highlights the true talent of a young Lorre in his beautiful end monologue.
This was very modern for the early days of film, and Lang beautifully executed some cool, experimental things with the way the story is told and took a lot of edgy chances with camera angles and focal points to create suspense. A brilliant, paranoid portrait of prewar German society that literally is on the razor’s edge of Hitler’s rise to power.
Finally, it is great to have watched this and understood a variety of mentions of the film – including many in books I am currently reading such as Wright’s Going Native – to fully understand the implications, strength, and weight Lang’s piece carries in modern consciousness. A great movie.