Quite a famous film, this one. It's Germany's first talkie, made in 1931, and with Metropolis one of Fritz Lang's two landmarks in cinema. It's been called the most important German film ever by the Association of German Cinematheques. More importantly it stars Peter Lorre is a serial killer of children. I don't need to say any more, do I?
I'll try to say intelligent things soon, but I'd better get the Neanderthal comments out of the way first. The film looks like shit. However that's not Lang's fault, but simply the picture and sound quality on my DVD. Maybe it's a bad transfer, or perhaps that's the best surviving print. Anyway, what I watched was an image that regularly flared up to the point where you couldn't see black text on a white background, accompanied by a hissing soundtrack on which everyone's talking German anyway. This movie looks like a silent film, but with sound. Does that make any sense? Silent films look different. The picture quality undoubtedly played a part in this perception, but a lot of it's also in the way Fritz Lang frames his compositions and uses images to tell the story. It's not cinema as we know it. It looks different, it's paced differently and it's plotted differently. M has more in common with German Expressionist silent cinema from ten years earlier like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
than it does with 1931 Hollywood films like Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.
On the face of it, it's about hunting down a kiddie-killer. What it's really about is the relationship between society and bad people, of which there are quite a variety. Most obviously there's Peter Lorre himself, who's absent for most of the film but gets a terrifying speech in his trial scene at the end. He's fantastic. Until he got this role he'd been mostly a comic actor, but from here on he'd be typecast as a villain. For those not interested in subtext and historical significance, Lorre's the reason to watch this film. He'll be younger than you'll be accustomed to, but every bit as toad-like. [Note to self: buy more of his movies.]
However we also have organised criminals, who aren't happy about all this increased police activity and so set out to deal with Lorre personally. He's bad for business. What's particularly interesting here is the cheeky way in which Lang intercuts their backroom discussions with the similar-looking police gathering on the same subject. The criminals and the police even conduct their investigations in similar ways and manage to identify Lorre at about the same time. This film's most striking scene is the trial towards the end, in which the criminals put Lorre in some kind of dock and even appoint him a defence council. The verdict's pretty much a foregone conclusion, but ironically these people are experts in the law. They're undoubtedly planning to murder him in that cellar of theirs, but it's quite something to see Lorre's defence council give an impassioned speech on his behalf.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. The Jewish Lorre and the half-Jewish Lang would end up fleeing to America. There's obviously a political element to this film, but it avoids feeling dated through its secret ingredient... ordinary people. Watched today in Britain in the year 2008, this movie is frighteningly topical. You've got kiddie-snatcher hysteria. You've got suspicion, ready to curdle at any time into a lynch mob. Most obviously you've got the film's terrifying last words.
"That won't bring our children back to life. We should keep a better watch on our children."
It's hard to know what message Fritz Lang was trying to send. Those words and their placement would appear to suggest that he means them, but equally he paints a deliberately ugly portrait of mob psychology. It's a brutal, claustrophobic world and the most shocking thing about it is the knowledge that it's real. It is 1930s Germany, shortly before the Nazis took control. Its fictional events are as nothing compared to the violence that would take place. M isn't a particularly easy film to watch, but it draws its power from the fact that it plays fair by both sides of the argument. Even Lorre gets an unforgettable speech in which he explains why he's compelled to abduct and murder children. All the parties I've described above are equally horrifying, which produces a world rich both in evil and in the potential for still more of it. There's nothing comfortable about watching a German in 1931 advocate snuffing out lives like a candle.
Germany between the wars was a strange, sick place, if only for its cannibals and serial killers. Karl Grossmann, Fritz Haarmann, Peter Kurten, Bruno Ludke, Karl Denke, Gesche Gottfried... this film mentions Haarmann and Grossmann, but was also apparently inspired by Kurten.
It's also interesting just as cinema. It doesn't drown you in dialogue, unlike many early talkies, but instead loves to take us on wordless journeys through these scary, paranoid streets. There isn't even music. Instead there's just silence. Ah, no, I tell a lie... the exception to that rule is another big cinematic innovation. Lorre's character loves to whistle In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg's Peer Gynt. You hardly see him in the first half, but you'll hear him. The acting also comes across throughout as being naturalistic, despite at times being fairly extreme.
On the downside though, it's too long (as opposed to Metropolis which is much much too long) and a bit dull in the middle. You can still show a classic Universal horror to anyone, but something like this today will have a narrower audience. It has much to admire, but it's from a cinematic tradition that's not chiefly interested in narrative and storytelling. I think a child's reaction to this film would be a mix of boredom and terror. Come to think of it, that's how I felt about it too until I started thinking about it afterwards.