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M (1931)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A stunningly wrought exploration of the city-wide hysteria brought about by an uncaught child murderer, M retains its power to shock even today. On the cobbled streets of Dusseldorf a killer prowls, snatching kids at random and silencing their voices for eternity. To bring this bogeyman to their level, children throughout the city sing of the man who will take you away. Upon hearing such chilling tunes, mother's shudder and consider the worst. Unfortunately the nature of the crime ensures few clues, so the police are far from solving the case. Led by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) detective's work day and night, with painfully little to show for their efforts.

On her way home from school, for lunch, Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) plays with her brightly coloured ball. Suddenly a soft-spoken man wearing a fedora, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), sidles up and engages her in conversation. Convincing Elsie that she should trust him, Hans leads her away; like a favourite uncle he gives Elsie a balloon, bought from a blind peddler (Georg John). The following day Dusseldorf mourns another victim. The pressure on the police intensifies, yet they seem powerless to halt Hans' reign of terror. Given the slightest excuse, members of the public mob and assault innocent men. As nightly shakedowns kill their trade, villains of all type sweat and bemoan their fate. It takes Schraenker (Gustaf Gründgens), a feared and respected criminal, to unite the scattered gangs.

Astonishingly, almost searingly, frank in its depiction of a child molester, M is also ambiguous (especially so in the re-release version). The heart and soul of the film is Lorre, playing the role that typecast him for the remainder of his career. Yet for much of the film Lorre is physically absent, only glimpsed infrequently. Instead it is his deeds that overshadow the parallel investigations, propelling and disgusting them, and it is upon these that Fritz Lang concentrates. Fluidly cutting between the police and criminal enquiries, Lang stresses the irony of their unknowing co-operation. While the former persecute known offenders and search houses, the latter keep an eye on wandering children and scour the streets. Trapped between these two forces, the invasive aura of M the concept is diminished to M the man, a small, sweaty individual. Metaphorically bouncing round his attic "cell", there is nowhere left for him to run to.

The constituent which raises M far above any similarly plotted film, such as its 1951 remake, is Peter Lorre. This is not to say that other elements of M lack merit, because that would most emphatically be untrue. The point is that M without Lorre would be unimaginable, a hollow experience. Even though Lorre is given few chances to expand upon his character, beyond some well-lit establishing shots, his single scene of nerve-shredding catharsis is worthy of the price of admission. Facing his prosecutors, Lorre embarks on an impassioned defence; part confession, part challenge and part denunciation. An awesome example of characterisation, Lorre's pleas rivet your attention and show the scope of his talent. Against this the rest of the cast pale in comparison, though as a group they are believable. So, for example, Wernicke (the chubby detective) shows a neat about-face when his captured burglar (Friedrich Gnaß) reveals the true object of their mass break-in.

Technically this is a very curious movie. Lang's first foray into the extra dimension of sound and his final German film, M exhibits the uncertainty of these times. In its use of sound M is striking, innovative and idiosyncratic. Absolute silence reigns throughout much of the film, interrupted only when speech or a sound-effect is unavoidably required (rarely do these elements coexist). Thus M is a bridge between the silent and talkie eras, utilising methods from both to great effect. Where there is sound the impact is to embolden certain motifs, such as Lorre's haunting Peer Gynt whistle. Elsewhere the eye is drawn into the Expressionistic visuals, into focusing on action and environment (brilliantly evoked by Lang when he introduces the underworld of the beggars union).

In its direction and photography, M is highly stylised and yet no less effective for that. The story has clockwork pacing, relentlessly turning towards the moment when Beckert is caught; it's an inexorable movement, building both pressure and an uneasy atmosphere of constriction. Through crosscutting Beckert's impact on the city, rather than the man himself, is seen at all levels. He remains an indistinct figure, revealed as repellent and pitiable only when brought into the light. Yet even then Lang leaves space for uncertainty, the possibility that Beckert is putting on an act. From the moment of his open letter, which implies a conscious decision to commit these depravities, there is the chance that Beckert can control his behaviour; a truly unsettling thought.

M remains a landmark, wonderfully understated film. Memorable for its treatment of an emotive subject, M wraps this theme with an engrossing script and triumphs by the casting of Lorre. It should be noted, however, that the version seen was that restored by the Munich Film Archive. Once again 118 minutes in length, a re-recorded digital soundtrack and updated subtitle translation make the approach to Lang's classic even more rewarding.

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