Art Dept: Edgar G. Ulmer Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke and Gustaf Gründgens
M, the story of a serial killer of children in Germany. While there’s something to be said for realism, I don’t believe that’s Lang’s intent at all, or at least it’s not in very specific ways. Like Hitchcock, Lang preferred the complete control that studio settings gave him rather than the uncertainties of location shooting. Also, his shots are so thoroughly composed that they could hardly said to be attempts to convey realism. And yet there is something very realistic about the film that comes through the obvious artificiality of the settings, and that’s the characters. Again, like Hitchcock--or is it the other way around--the focal point of all his films are the people and the emotional gauntlet that he puts them through.
The film begins with children at play, cutting back and forth between a mother going about her daily business and her child who is abducted and killed by a shadowy figure. With pressure being put on the police, they start cracking down on all illegal activity in the city in order to show some sort of effort. The problem with that is organized crime in the city is virtually shut down by the raids and their anger turns not toward the police, but toward the child murderer who has been the cause of all the turmoil. The fascinating thing about the plot becomes the seemingly unified effort between the police and the criminals in the city to catch the killer. Peter Lorre, in his first starring role, plays the killer Hans Beckert, one of the most extraordinary roles in all of cinema. He is an obviously repugnant character and Lorre is the perfect choice to play him, especially in the finale when he is finally tracked down, not by the police, but by the criminals of the city and brought before a kangaroo court to be sentenced.
This is an exquisitely filmed story, with Lang using all of the techniques he had at his disposal for this type of film. Many overhead shots, again, stress the unreality, as if the audience is being jolted from their traditional point of view to a place that is above the action. Lang’s camera pushes through windows, moves through rooms, pans up from the street to the rooms above. It really is a masterful use of the camera. Set design by Edgar G. Ulmer is wonderful as well, with dark corridors and wet streets all presaging their iconic use in film noir over a decade later. Lorre is also brilliant, clearly conveying the sense that he cannot control his passions and that his compulsions have free reign over him. At least a third of the film is silent, which only adds to the tension and makes the use of sound all the more powerful. But in the end the social commentary is what drives the film, the idea stated by the police that the average person doesn’t care about the crimes, combined with the fact that it is the criminals who ultimately catch the killer, is extremely telling about modern, Western societies throughout the world.
Social and literary critic Morris Dickstein provides the essay in The A List and would seem the obvious choice, being an expert on the 1930s. But in typical A List fashion he instead gives me much to argue with. Like the commentators on the Criterion Collection’s audio track, he claims that Lorre’s child killer is a victim himself, which from a psychological viewpoint may have some validity, but the killer has not been “created” by society or by the city and clearly belongs in an asylum. And his absolutely ludicrous claim that the desire of the lynch mob to kill him is the same impulse that the killer suffers from in his desire to murder children is insulting and destroys, at least in my mind, the rest of his argument. Where Lang went to great pains to show the similarities between the police and organized crime, Dickstein claims the police are “rational” while the criminals are “intuitive.” In the context of the film, this is just plain wrong. With their surfeit of manpower, the criminals make the more rational pursuers.
I don’t know what film Dickstein watched, but his claim that the audience is manipulated into sympathizing with Lorre is patently false as well. The audience is clearly on the side of the captors--a manipulation that goes uncommented on--and Lorre’s begging is clearly meant to rouse and anger as he pleads his lack of self control. Dickstein doesn’t even mention the allegory with World War One, which the commentators on the Criterion Collection mangled and misunderstood as well. Lorre, in this view, is the embodiment of war. He takes a mother’s child away and she doesn’t know why or where . . . until the child is found dead. And nothing, not even the conviction of the criminal, can make things right. When the black-clad mother at the end of the film admonishes all of us to be vigilant it is not only for the literal predator, but the allegorical serial killer that murders millions: war. M is a brilliant film that, for all its praise, still seeks to be better understood symbolically. As a work of film art, however, it is clearly a masterpiece.