Fritz Lang remains one of the most successful and influential German directors of all time, who not only created some of the most indelible masterpieces of silent era German Expressionism in the 1920s, but successfully made the transition to sound films in the '30s, and went on to enjoy a long and prolific Hollywood career specializing in crime dramas and film noir all the way through the '50s. In fact his first sound film, "M" is considered the prototypical film noir, the story of a child murderer who terrorizes Berlin.
What sets "M" apart as a thriller is its psychological effectiveness. There is very little onscreen violence, in spite of the subject matter. However, Lang's ability to conjure suspense and horror is fantastic. It takes only brief shots of a lost ball and an escaped balloon to tell the audience that the worst has happened to little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), but it's the juxtaposition of the frantic reactions of her poor mother (Ellen Widmann) that really drive home the impact of the loss. So disturbing are the crimes to the Berliners, we learn, that public outrage spurs the efforts of the local police to new extremes to find the culprit. Their efforts become unbearably disruptive to the criminal underclass, and they too join in the hunt for the murderer.
The monster of the piece is Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre in one of his first major roles. Lorre both began and ended his career as a chiefly comic actor, and often played colorful supporting characters, but in "M" he's the central figure of both sinister menace and pitiful insanity. Beckert is revealed to the audience as the murderer very early, and we follow his progress in parallel to the manhunt. What makes him so frightening is the fact that he appears so ordinary, and is able to hide in plain sight. There is nothing about his outward manner that instantly pegs him as a villain. However, he reveals himself unconsciously through one of the first cinematic musical leitmotifs - he whistles Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" as he stalks the children, a habit that a blind man eventually uses to identify and point him out. His looming shadow gives form to the creeping danger he poses to his victims. Then the tables turn and it is Beckert who becomes the target of an entire city that is out to get him. When Beckert is finally caught, his mental unraveling, revealing the depths of his madness, is one of Lorre's finest screen moments.
I love the subversive edge to "M," the way the police investigation lead by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is mirrored by the efforts of the criminals conducting their own manhunt under the direction of The Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens). In Lang's Berlin, even the beggars and the pickpockets depend upon a certain framework of social order that its members won't hesitate to protect from an outside threat. The police employ the newest crimefighting techniques like fingerprinting, but it's the criminals who find Beckert first through their citywide network of petty crooks and derelicts. They subject him to their own brand of justice, a raucous kangaroo court that threatens to become a lynch mob, until the police finally intervene. Though anarchic, the criminals' judgment feels more satisfying than the one ultimately passed down by the official courts.
"M" bears all the hallmarks of German Expressionism, full of eerie shadows and reflections that hint at the unseen depths of its characters and foreshadow their ultimate fates. The visuals are ambitious, featuring a camera that is constantly moving, and technically complicated shots. In the restored print that I saw, when one lengthy shot moves from the exterior to the interior of a building through a window, you can actually see the pane of glass being slid out of the way to allow the camera to pass through. High angle, POV, and even aerial shots are employed, heightening the mood of dread and suspense as paranoia takes hold in the city.
Lang uses similar techniques with the soundtrack. Sound film was still in its very early, rudimentary stages, so there are long periods of silence, and the execution of the sound effects is very rough. However, "M" was one of the first films to have a complex soundscape, using a mix of ordinary incidental noises - footsteps, ticking clocks - to create anticipation. Dialogue rises in volume to delirious heights in the climactic scenes to match the dramatic visuals.
"M" remains one of the most influential movies ever made, a key precursor to so many films and films genres that its presence still looms large in cinema today. However, it's my favorite Fritz Lang film for the way that it got me to sympathize with Peter Lorre's hapless killer even as I rooted for his capture, for its vision of a city that rises up to combat an evil that the people will not tolerate, and for the way a chill still runs up my spine when I hear "Hall of the Mountain King."
After 80 years, "M" is still a thrill to watch.
What I've Seen - Fritz Lang
Dr. Mabuse, King of Crime (1922)
Die Nibelungen (1924)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
You Only Live Once (1937)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
Scarlet Street (1945)
The Big Heat (1953)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)