[Note: This review has been cross-posted at FRED Entertainment, with a longer section on the specifics of the Criterion Blu-Ray release, its technical details and its supplements. The full review can be found here.]
It is somewhat customary in the review of a classic to point out the age of the opus in question before insisting that it still feels "as fresh as ever." It's a lazy shorthand that can be used for Wagner's Ring cycle, Joyce's Ulysses and Citizen Kane in the same breath, a write-off that attempts to reassure the reader that hallmarks of art do not have to sit in a museum, not even collecting dust because of protective cases. The statement is usually presented on its own, a QED "proof" without demonstration, allowing the writer to move on quickly out of fear that he or she has nothing to add on an already thoroughly analyzed work ("What can I say about ____ that hasn't already been said?" is also a trite shortcut that we have all used at some point no matter how much everyone hates to read the sentence). But, damn it, how can you talk about Fritz Lang's masterpiece, M, without pointing out its continued ability to grip, illuminate and provoke on the eve of its 80th anniversary?
Before one can address the subject of M, one must first consider Lang's career up to that point. The director spent his early career balancing between art projects and action-packed crowd-pleasers. Spiders, first earliest surviving film, is a two-part adventure epic that greatly influenced Spielberg's Indiana Jones series, while Destiny (or Weary Death if you prefer the more accurate translation) was a more Expressionistic story despite its own plethora of special effects (which were so impressive that Douglas Fairbanks bought U.S. distribution rights so he could bury the film until he figured out how to steal those effects for his own Thief of Baghdad). From that point, Lang began to bridge the two, making significant artistic leaps in his next epics, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Die Nibelungen, before starting to condense the grandeur of his work into shorter timeframes, starting with Metropolis and continuing with Spies. Spies in particular points toward M, having condensed and refined the crime thriller elements of Dr. Mabuse and lessened the Expressionistic material to a more realistic atmosphere -- even its abandonment of traditional dissolves in favor of faster cutting aided this effect.
Of course, the key difference between Spies (and Lang's next film, Woman in the Moon) and M involved the development of working sound technology and soundproof camera casings. Lang, already an operatic director, seems in retrospect the perfect filmmaker to show the capabilities of the invention.
Contrary to popular belief, M was not the first major sound film; it was not even the first noteworthy German sound film, as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel premiered a year before. However, in the four years since talkies hit in 1927, nobody explored the boundaries of the technology like Lang. The failure of the early talkies, brilliantly lampooned in Singin' in the Rain (a film that, as a musical, of course depends on sound), was in the tendency for filmmakers to treat the technology like a fad even though nearly everyone embraced it. Apart from the odd exception of Lubitsch's early musicals or von Sternberg's Blue Angel, talkies did not approach the level of the last silents, and when the Depression hit sound became a last-ditch effort to spike theatrical attendance when it first took a dive before later spiking.
But Lang establishes sound as an integral element of the film, inseparable from the rest of it. Sound introduces the child killer who terrorizes Berlin in the form of his voice and a shadow (the most overtly Expressionistic moment of the film and a audiovisual transition point of Lang's career), allowing the murderer to remain out-of-sight and unknown to the audience; later, it is sound that destroys the man when his whistling is the clue that leads to his capture. That whistling, of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," an innately foreboding song with is accelerando structure that builds from an eerily quiet and slow low register to a cascade, as well as the schoolyard rhyme the children sing at the start (carrying, like so many rhymes, a darker undercurrent) adds tension to the film from the start. And nothing conveys tragedy like the mother of wee Elsie Beckmann, the girl the killer abducts, as she calls for her daughter in panic, her disembodied calls played over shots of horribly empty places around the city (a all-too-common device today that was introduced here) before showing the ball the girl carried rolling out from behind a bush and the balloon the killer bought her floating into telephone lines.
It is that minimalism, in fact, that makes M so unique among the director's German output. His previous features, even the smaller ones (or at least the ones that survive) had bombast, swirling in Expressionism and Expressionism-lite. An earlier crime epic like Dr. Mabuse, with its supernatural antagonist, grabbed its audience through an advancement of Feuilladian editing and through the artistic visualizations of Mabuse's mental powers. M, on the other hand, does not put anything in the frame that doesn't need to be there. Consider how much mileage Lang gets out of whistling, how he sets a horrifying leitmotif with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and later uses it to catch out Hans Beckert, who is himself freaked out by whistling when he is discovered by a lone searcher who then alerts the rest of his posse. Images are likewise spare, from the shot of the chalk 'M' a runner draws on his hand to slap on Beckert's back to tag him as the murderer to Beckert's last attempt to hide in an attic (an oddly and disturbingly prescient image in a film that criticizes the rise of Nazism) as footsteps grow louder until the door bursts open and a flashlight illuminates the culprit. Expressionism allowed artists to paint or film images that suggested ideas, a more universally legible portrait than the works of Impressionism, which convey only the artist's sense of the subject, but M is more immediately arresting than any of Lang's more aesthetically ambitious pictures. The images and sounds are all meticulously chosen to raise tension and put forward a social commentary, which is as didactic as you might expect but layered enough to provide more than a simple anti-Nazi sentiment.
Before M, crime films defined clearly good heroes and incontrovertibly bad villains. But Lang routinely contrasts the police who crack down on Berlin to find the child killer with the criminals who are so affected by the increased pressure that they also decide to hunt for the killer to return things to normal. The clearest distinction between the two groups, brilliantly intercut between planning conferences until it becomes difficult to tell them apart, is the simple truth that the criminals are more effective; in their conference, the criminals speak of forcing landlords and homeowners to allow access to their property for searching, at which point Lang cuts back to the authorities who speak of a similar plan, only for the wizened among them to warn against such a politically disastrous act. When Beckert is eventually collared by the thieving mob, the leader, Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens in the role that led to his immense popularity in Germany during the Third Reich), downplays the killer's demands for legal representation by slyly assuring the man, "We are all law experts here."
Not only does Lang blur the line between cop and criminal, he does so under the pretense of heightened realism (he even struck a deal with police to allow real criminals to work as bit players, and when shooting wrapped they scattered before cops could re-apprehend them). M opens with a gong strike which, according to the commentary track furnished by Criterion, linked the film to the radio newscasts of the day, as if establishing the film as docudrama. At first, M plays like a well-researched police procedural, as Inspector Lohmann uncovers tiny clues and examines them thoroughly as Lang inserts shot of blown-up photographs of fingerprints and psychologically breaking down the handwriting of the killer's note to the press. At this stage, the film's direction centers on the mystery of the killer's identity and follows the legal process as if showing an audience watching a newsreel how police intend to capture the fugitive. That Hans Beckert is based on serial pedophile/killer Peter Kürten, captured only a year before the film's premiere and executed several months afterward, only adds to the ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.
But Lang subverts his own film, itself already an innovation in terms of detail and precision, by showing Beckert's face, that of a young Peter Lorre, faced still lined with baby fat. That sudden shift establishes Lang's high-minded piloting of the events in directions the audience cannot expect. By revealing the face of the killer, Lang introduces a Brechtian element to the erstwhile realistic film that gives the audience a knowledge the other characters do not have. However, he subverts this influence, using Brecht's style often as another mode of deception, as the revelation of Beckert suggests a change to a more personal profile of the killer, which M never becomes; at times, Lang uses this more objective viewing to lure the audience astray even though it tells us the truth. Even taken on its own, the scene carries an importance, as the shot of Beckert is played with a handwriting analyst describing the killer's need for attention. As Lorre poses in the mirror, his facial contortions of menace and madness matching the descriptions of the analyst diagnosing Beckert's writing as a form of acting. As the letter was meant for the press, we can gather from Hans' sardonic attempt to look and act the way people expect him to that he not only exploits the press but is exploited by them, that the papers will turn him into that grimacing madman to sell more copies.
That mixture of social commentary with the personality of the killer has kept both the examination of Beckert as a killer and the society that hunts him fresh. Lorre gives one of the greatest breakout performance in all of cinema -- there cannot be five others to match it -- as a killer whose motivation is never explained away by a cruel childhood but who nevertheless does not fit into the role of a completely repulsive creature. In contrast to the nefarious blackguard of earlier films, Beckert does not wish to commit his crimes, and Lang often frames the killer in a way that suggests that his actions are out of his hands. He spots one girl in a mirror (portentously framed by a display of knives) and begins to whistle compulsively; he abducts her under the eye of the street rats who watch him, and Beckert must face all of his self-loathing and fear of his uncontrollable urges when the man who marks the killer makes Hans drop his knife, which the girl innocently picks up and hands back to the man who intends to use it to kill her. It's a sublimely edited and framed sequence that shows how Beckert, while unforgivable for his crimes, deserves more consideration than the mob will show him.
Naturally, compassion is the last thing on the mind of a mob. In the wake of the Beckmann murder, Berliners turn on one another, from upper-class men accusing each other and vowing to take each other to court for slander to crowds forming with alarming speed around a kind old man who tells a young girl the time, a move perceived as a lure. Made just before the Nazis took complete control of Germany and overthrew the Weimar Republic, M shows how mob rule both signified the current system, with a section of the criminal community living in open luxury from wealth gained through theft and cheating, and prefigured what Nazi policies would become when they took control, with citizens pointing fingers and naming names against those deemed suspicious. The mise-en-scène of any communal location, particularly the scenes of plotting, are swathed in cigarette smoke, choking the frame as if visualizing the noxious impotence of the authorities to right society's wrongs and their inability to stop the rising tide of fascism and the rampant corruption of a society that more or less posited the cleverer criminals as the aristocracy.
The film culminates in a farcical underground trial run by the thieves, who know full well they will kill Beckert and whose decision to hold their kangaroo court anyway demonstrates how many legitimate trials are just for show. Lang seeps this sequence in irony, with the criminals swatting down Beckert's initial protests that he cannot help himself by derisively saying how none of them can help himself when he's called to the stand. Who better to see through the tricks and excuses than the other people who use them? But Hans throws it right back in their faces, saying they simply rob and swindle and could cease their crimes by looking for work. He, on the other hand, is driven to kill; in one of the most memorable monologues in cinema, Lorre contorts in despair and loathing, passionately recounting how something inside of him takes hold and directs him against his will to murder. "Who knows what it's like inside me?" he cries, and for a moment the mob is struck dumb.
I first saw the film when I had a reactionary view of extreme crime. I scarcely wanted trials for rapists and murderers, much less compassion (even now, as an outed liberal, I will come down swiftly on rape). But M had a profound effect on me, dispensing with sob stories of childhood, an explanation that has by now become cliché in film and in reality, yet still examining how even the most abhorrent crime is not as black-and-white as we would like to believe. There is no forgiveness for murder or rape, but there must be understanding and empathy so that we might find a way to identify the mental imbalance and combat that as a method of crime prevention instead of focusing all of our outrage onto those who have already done their deeds. Lang stresses this in the final shot, after Beckert has been seized from his mock trial to attend an equally pointless one in a true court (he slyly hides how quickly the trial passes through editing, as the arm of an officer lands on Beckert's hand in the kangaroo court as the man says, "In the name of the law" before cutting to the actual courtroom as a judge continues from that phrase and prepares to declare his ruling). Just before the judges hand down the inevitable death sentence, Lang cuts to three of the mothers who lost their children to the monster, who morosely note that no punishment can bring back their children. Even as the director shows the misery and horror Beckert has caused, he also points out how capital punishment only feeds our own thirst for revenge and does not truly administer justice.
It is strange how so broadly sociopolitical a film is personal enough to speak about it from a first-person perspective. Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda minister, adored the film upon its release, missing the anti-Nazi sentiment expressed within entirely and reading the ending as an endorsement of the death penalty. If that proves anything, it's that the Nazis perhaps weren't as calculating and intelligent as we believe, or maybe they were and could not process the emotion of the film. Goebbels himself rejected what he called "degenerate art," and while he initially made some exceptions for Expressionism he clearly cared more to see clearly defined objects and not the emotions they represented. Here, he saw a film operating in documentary-like fashion to attack the rampant crime of Weimar Germany and the necessity for harsh reprisal to force the seedier elements in line. (It was his reaction to M, in fact, that led Goebbels to seek out Lang to work for the Third Reich, leading to that infamous meeting between the two that has been greatly exaggerated, if it ever took place at all. Goebbels would, however, ban the film after Lang made an unmistakably anti-Nazi feature with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which used literal excerpts of Nazi doctrine, and then fled the country.)
For me, however, M offers not only, within the context of film history, the chance to see the language of fully synchronous sound being developed for the medium for the first time but, in terms of its sheer impact as a movie to be watched, an emotionally devastating statement by a director who was about to quit his country in complete disgust and fear. Thus, M is unmistakably didactic, but its messages are interlocked with its emotional and aesthetic directness. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this comes with the final lines, as a grieving mother makes the most obvious social statement when she proclaims, "You must look after the children. All of you." Clearly a message, the moment nevertheless retains a power when one considers that, at that very moment, the Hitler Youth's membership was growing and would soon become a social mandate for the children of Germany and Austria. These first-wave additions to the Hitler Youth would hit recruiting age by the time the war erupted, ensuring that they would be sufficiently brainwashed just in time for the Third Reich to call upon their loyalty. Lang certainly could not have known how deeply the Nazis would take root and pervert the nation -- much of M's incisiveness is applicable in retrospect -- but that ending runs deeper than a mere Nazi protest.
When different versions appeared in international releases, for example, this ending was typically cut in favor of a happier shot of children frolicking once more, now safe after (we assume) the state put Beckert to death. This is, of course, entirely antithetical to the proper ending, which calls for constant vigilance, not only to physically protect children but to prevent poisonous social ideas from rotting their minds. It's a far more contemplative ending that calls for intelligence and skepticism, and the fact that other countries would remove this out of discomfort of its promotion of questioning authority makes Goebbels' blind reading all the more hilarious. (That the last line, "All of you," was originally "You too" before the final word got lost in irreparable print damage only further emphasizes the importance of the task Lang assigns to parents.) The true ending makes everyone culpable, both for cleaning up crime and raising a more vigilant and noble generation to replace us, all the while balancing the emotion of the scene on its own terms.
And now, I find myself back at the start, doing everything just short of begging to insist one last time that M will grab and provoke you regardless of your politics. When I say that it is superior to the psychological thrillers, sociopolitical statements and police procedurals released today, I do not do so to denounce all contemporary cinema as inferior to the "classics" nor to promote my "refined taste." I merely want to impress upon you how incomplete the life of any film lover is without seeing it -- and we live in a sad time when many people will speak of their love of cinema and never branch out of their own country's output nor even delve deeply into that nation's cinematic history -- and how I can still find this much to write about it after a number of viewings. M will make you ask more of the crime films you watch; more importantly, it will genuinely make you question the justice system and whether capital punishment is acceptable just because it makes us feel a bit better about life. Above all, though, it will show you (or remind you, if like me you haven't watched a Lang film in a while), that Fritz Lang is one of cinema's true originals. This is confirmed by Claude Chabrol, who made a short homage to M for the French TV program Cine parade. When asked about remaking some shots and making his own Langian spins on others, the New Wave director, famous for his own psychological thrillers, noted the difficulty of reproducing Lang's precise detail. I've spent nearly 3500 words discussing why the film sears into me, but Chabrol nicely cuts through the technique, the blocking, the commentary and everything else with six cautionary words to those who would aspire to this film: "Trying to imitate Lang is madness."