#52: M [1931]



It's films like M which make me seriously doubt my film-reviewing credentials, or at least show me how much work I have to do. I might have crashed a few film lectures, but I definitely haven't studied it in any great detail, and I get the impression the modern viewer seriously needs to know their stuff before tackling this film which is widely regarded as Fritz Lang's masterpiece.
This wasn't my first exposure to Lang (see my post about Metropolis), but that didn't improve my situation at all. Set in Berlin, the film depicts the capital city crippled by terror as several children have been kidnapped and violently murdered. The film has a significant lack of protagonist, although towards the end of the film the murderer Hans Beckert (a brilliant Peter Lorre) becomes the main character. At first, however, we skip erratically between scenes and characters, Lang seemingly attempting to capture the city-wide panic in its entirety. We follow both the police's attempt to identify and capture the murderer, and the criminal network's efforts to put a stop to Beckert's economically disruptive activities.
The latter is fairly amusing, as the mobsters decide the best way to catch Beckert is to summon an army of beggars to patrol the streets to be their eyes and ears. Touchingly, the down-and-outs become the children's guardians, watching over them and ultimately identifying the culprit. Then comes the chase.
Once caught, Beckert is dragged before a court of beggars and thieves, an interesting image of the voice of the people. In the film's longest scene, Beckert appeals for mercy as he describes his mental struggles with insanity. Can a man be held responsible for what he cannot help? Lorre's performance is impressive, especially for its time, but still bizarre. The themes and plot in general were rather brave, though all the violence is left offscreen. Many more progressive steps have been made in cinema since, however, rendering M an arduous experience for the modern viewer.
If I'm completely honest with you, it's all quite... slow. Sure, parts of it are 'interesting', and if I knew more what I was talking about then I'd have a lot more to unearth for you. As it is, I wouldn't recommend this as a casual night in movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure I ruined my brother's night by making him watch this with me. Each to their own though.

Comments

  1. Nice review, I saw this film many years ago at the Scala Cinema, Kings Cross. Not an obvious one to be in the top 100 either, but a should see for anyone seriously interested in the history of cinema especially Pre-war German Cinema, Peter Lorre was a great actor but sadly typecast as just a creepy villain when he went to Hollywood..

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    1. No it didn't seem an obvious pick for this list, but I suppose it's all the film students putting it there. It seemed much more like a movie you'd study for historical and technical significance, but not necessarily one you'd simply enjoy. And yes I recognised Lorre in Casablanca as a criminal, and it seems a lot of actors were typecast then, such as German Jewish actors being cast as Nazis - not exactly sensitive hmm?

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    2. Comes down to the bottom line, pays the bills. No doubt ethics and morals are a luxury many couldn't afford.

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