NetFlix Review #19: M

Yeah! Here we go! French New Wave is for losers, all the cool kids love German Expressionism!

M is one of those classics that I'm amazed people don't watch or talk about more. It's still creepy, funny, affecting and strange. It's arguably the first real psychological thriller/serial killer movie. It's a parable, an exploration of compulsion, a political screed and a darn fun time.

The movie centers around Peter Lorre's character Hans Beckert, a child murderer plaguing a German city. As children continue to turn up dead the city goes into a panic. The police begin pressing hard against the underworld, the underworld begins to get rueful and angry that they're being equated with a child killer, and the press keeps stirring them both up. As things begin to boil over, everyone begins an all-out manhunt for Beckert.

It's hard to even know where to begin when discussing how great this film is. Let's start with Lorre and the character of Beckert. Long before Spielberg showed his brilliance by keeping the shark hidden, Lang keeps Beckert's true character always out of sight. We see Beckert stalking his victims, hiding from his pursuers , writing a tortured note to the press and, in one particularly affecting scene, making horrible faces in a mirror while the voice-over of another character speculates about his mental state. When his character first appears we're not shown his face, but his shadow cast against a posted announcement of his crimes as he approaches his next victim. Even his crimes are marked by his absence. At the death of poor Elsie, all we see is her abandoned ball rolling away and the balloon Beckert gives her tangled in power lines. Lang is building a monster out of Beckert that lives in shadows, creeps in corners and keeps a low profile. It becomes obvious what needs to be done - the monster must be eliminated, the only question that remains is how.

It is the how that becomes the crux of the picture. It's thrilling to watch the cat-and-mouse games of a whole city hunting down one man, but then, once caught, the "trial" scene tears the rug out from under the viewer. Lorre's performance here at the end is astounding. Everything that they've been hinting at throughout the movie, his psychoses, his anxiety, his fright, it all comes exploding out. But as much as the character is losing control, Lorre is masterful at crafting the rise and fall of each tic, each neuroses. It's a great study of compulsion, of the man who hates himself, but cannot help himself. Lorre brings such pathos and wounded weirdness to what could be a hammy, totally over-the-top cheese-fest, especially given the already heightened, more theatrical acting style of the time, that it truly is a wonder to watch. It's an interesting and telling trivia note that supposedly Lorre actually studied under Sigmund Freud at one point.

In addition to the great monster creation and character study that the central Lorre role brings, the movie also has an extraordinarily weighty political message. The movie was made in Germany during the rise of Nazi party. Lorre was Jewish and Fritz Lang was half-Jewish, so both of them were beginning to feel the heavy hand of persecution and oppression coming down on them. This time was also seeing the rise of the SS, and it's not too hard to see the parallels Lang was drawing between the gang of hoodlums who decide to take justice into their own hands, and Germany's secret police who decided to "uphold" the law by working outside of it. The film manages to have its cake and eat it to by being both overtly about the workings of the police, press and underworld, and then covertly being about the shifting cultural mood and the rise of dangerous fears, scapegoating, mob action and oppression.

In my Pierrot Le Fou review I talked about words that could only come from certain cultures, and I sort of dumped on poor old Germany, land of my heritage!, by calling out schadenfreude as being particularly German. Here's a somewhat nicer word: zeitgeist, literally "the spirit of the times." M is full of the zeitgeist for 1931 Germany. The movie was made while Germany was still in the midst of it's 1930 Great Depression, The Nazis were on the rise and everyone was getting antsy and tensions were rising, but the relevance isn't just in the topical subject matter, it's in the form as well. Lang's use of black and white is beautiful and affecting, making the streets and rooms seem filled with dark pockets where any sort of horror you could imagine might lurk. This was also Lang's first film with sound, and it has the feel of a master crafstmen tinkering with new toys. From Lorre's character whistling Peer Gynte (trivia note: the whistling was actually Lang, as Lorre couldn't whistle!) to the chase through the empty building that is full of echoing footsteps, jackhammers, rustling keys and alarms, there's a fun sense of exploration and play with the sound that is affecting and endearing. The editing is also brilliant, the way Lang cuts back and forth between all levels of society, the businessmen, the police, the underworld and the derelicts, drawing parallels and divergences between them all. It's also a deft move to have Lorre's capture be largely at the hand of the homeless derelicts, because "nobody sees them," as one character notes. There's also the famous way the camera treats Lorre's character in his first and last scenes. Lang puts us in his place. When we see his shadow appear on the posted warning the shadow is coming from the camera/viewer/us. We are the thing causing that shadow. And then, in the final trial scene there are large portions where we see the crowd of criminals from Lorre's character's perspective. Lang puts us on trial facing a hostile and blood-thirsty mob.

That's what I love about this movie and what drives me nuts about Godard - every shot has a beauty to it, and a purpose. Look at the incredible perspective Lang gets out of the shot where the abandoned criminal who has broken through the floor in the building Lorre is hiding in is pulled up to the next level by the police. The shot isn't just stunning to look at, it's a visual representation of one of Lang's central themes, the need for a good, just society to pull the lost and the criminal up out of their holes. It's through this "rescued" criminal that the police eventually find where the underworld gangs have taken Lorre and go to capture him and bring him to actual justice. This is thoughtful filmwork of the highest caliber.

Lang isn't just a technical master, he knows how to play with expectations and audience desire as well. The beginning of the film taunts and horrifies by putting children in mortal danger, then Lang shifts the focus of the film away from the children and towards the monster, where eventually we don't even think about the children anymore, we're so wrapped up in the killer and the manhunt. Then, in the film's haunting coda, we see one of the mothers of a murdered child weep directly into the camera and mourn that justice still will not bring back her child, and that it would behoove us all to take better care of the children. It's an admonition to the audience that has gotten just as wrapped up in "justice" as the mob at the film's end, and also an admonition to Germany at large for taking their eyes off of thoughtful reconstruction and focusing on hateful blaming and destruction. It's a powerful end to an extraordinary and artful film.