Film Review: M (1931)

Also known as: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, lit. M – A city looks for a murderer (Germany)
Release Date: May 11th, 1931 (Germany)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Karl Vash
Based on: a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
Music by: Edvard Grieg
Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

Nero-Film A.G., Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH, Paramount Pictures, 111 Minutes

Review:

“Just you wait, it won’t be long, The man in black will soon be here, With his cleaver’s blade so true, He’ll make mincemeat out of you!” – nursery rhyme in the film (translated from German)

I had heard great things about Fritz Lang’s M for years. In fact, the director even stated that this was his best film. I thought Metropolis would be incredibly hard to top but Lang is right, M is his magnum opus.

As a person that has seen thousands of movies, it is very rare that I see something that is so chilling that it has a pretty profound effect on my senses. M is one of those very rare experiences.

I understood what M was, going into it, but it went into unforeseen territory and really peeks into urban Germany society, just a few years before the Nazis rose to power. Some of the things in this film unknowingly foreshadowed a looming darkness that was bigger than this picture. It is something that is hard to explain but the last ten minutes or so, show a German society on the brink of extreme anxiety, unrest and anarchy. While I don’t think that was Lang’s intention, as it would be hard to predict what would happen after 1931, he was a man in that country, affected by the societal issues and political narratives around him.

M is a German movie that came out a whole decade before film-noir became a cinematic style in the United States. However, M is very much noir in style and in its narrative.

Noir borrowed its lighting techniques and general cinematography style from German Expressionist films, an artistic movement that Fritz Lang was a key part of. Lang would also be a prominent director in the noir style after leaving Germany for Hollywood, in an effort to escape the Nazis. M is a perfect bridge between the two cinematic styles and is comparable to the missing link in human evolution.

The plot of the film is about a serial killer of children and the manhunt to catch him. Not only are the police trying to find the killer but the criminal underworld and the citizens of Berlin are looking for him too.

Peter Lorre plays the killer. I have been a massive Lorre fan since first seeing him alongside Vincent Price in several of those 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman. Lorre is a great actor, has a great range and has always delivered. However, never have I seen Lorre put in a better performance than what I saw here, in M. While this is a German film and has German dialogue, Lorre’s performance is not lost in translation or effected by the reading of subtitles. As horrible and as evil as his character is, he is still able to generate some form of empathy. His display of despair and panic is intense and transcends the picture. When you get to the powerful ending of the film, he shines like a supernova.

Fritz Lang was a true auteur with a skill set that was mostly unmatched in 1931. This was his first picture with sound and he made the transition as perfect as humanly possible. This is a film that was as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers in his prime, a few decades later. In fact, Lang was sort of the prototype to styles that would become synonymous with Hitchcock and film-noir in general. It is damn near impossible to question the director’s greatness after seeing M.

And while many might not consider it specifically film-noir, it is a grandfather to what was to come in motion pictures. It was a film ahead of its time and it is a lot darker than what American audiences were used to. Of course, World War II would change all of that.

M is a true time capsule that displays Germany’s societal paranoia just before Hitler was elected to power.

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