M tells the story of a child murderer, Hans Beckart, who has been stalking the streets, luring young girls to their doom with the promise of candy & balloons.
M is shockingly contemporary in its psychological complexities. It explores the psychology of individualism vs. group think while showcasing how a state of fear can be inflicted upon a populace when a government fails to protect society from a single individual terrorizing the people.
To say that M is ahead of its time is an understatement. One can draw fair comparisons from M to nearly every genre thriller after it. In the realms of American film noir, a sub-genre Lang would later contribute to, many directors would borrow a lot of its production design and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting to emphasize the cold and dangerous tones of the cities in which their stories took place.
Lang in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich in 1965 says that he was concerned to get a documentary feel to the film and specifically asked his camera operators not to try anything too fancy.
In an eerie propagandist fashion, the phrase “in the name of the Law” is repeated over the last two scenes of Fritz Lang’s M as a child killer is brought to justice. If “L” represents the State and the Law, then “M” is meant to represent the Individual (who in this case is a Murderer). Lang boldly asked us way back in 1931, whose rights come first: the State or the Individual? A master of his craft, Lang leaves the question open-ended and lets the audience decide.
Rather than use today’s typical gratuitous violence Lang signifies a horrible death through the use of empty clothes in an attic, a ball running away with no child in sight and balloons trapped in telephone wires. The last two objects being signs of innocence betrayed by what can only be imagined as an awful death.
M is also a masterpiece for its technical aspects. The way in which Lang uses his camera to move through windows, capture shadows, reflections, empty spaces, and shift points-of-view is staggering even by today’s standards. He also played with the new technology of recorded sound with extensive voice-over narration and dialogue used to overlap and transition between scenes.
Lang used sound as if it was a visual element and developed it further to overcome space and time. For example, when viewers are introduced to the shadow as he speaks to Elsie, we only hear the conversation and not the person talking. This is followed by a parallel action sequence of intercutting shots with Elsie’s mother. Each shot brings about even distant cries before culminating in a faint echo.
Significantly, in the famous parallel action scene of the police and the underworld meeting separately, Ken Dancynger states that “Rather than simply relying on visuals parallel action, Lang cut on dialogue at one point, starting a sentence in police camp and ending it in the criminal meeting. The crosscutting is all driven by dialogue. There are common visual elements: the meeting setting, the smoking room, the seating, the prominence of one leader in each group. Despite these viusals cues, it is the dialogue that is used to set up the parallel action and to give the audience a sense of progress. Unlike Griffith’s train chase, there is no visual dynamic to carry us toward a resolution, nor is there a metric montage. The pace and character of the dialogue establish and carry us through this scene.”
Eventually, for the audience the film becomes a race between the police and the vigilante force as both start to close in on the killer. The police following up a lead from the released inmates of the asylum just miss Beckert as he emerges in search of another victim. Just as he has found a potential victim, the beggars are alerted by a blind balloon-seller who hears Beckert whistling a few bars from the Peer Gynt Suite. It is the tune diegetically associated with M and his madness signifying a monster deep inside the personality which emerges suddenly. The balloon seller heard the tune when he sold a balloon to M who had bought it for Elsie Beckmann the little girl murdered at the beginning of the film.
A parallel court is established later after the capture of M. It is at this scene where Peter Lorre’s acting skills emerge for his powerful performance in pleading for his become exemplary. This scene was Lang’s opportunity to raise the issues of capital punishment very effectively. M is given a “lawyer”, who gamely argues in his defence but fails to win any sympathy from the “jury”.
Ultimately, when I look back at the brilliance and craft of M, I am always much more interested in its central question: should we kill someone we find evil just because we think it will make us feel better?