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Review: M (1931)

M (1931) was Fritz Lang’s first attempt at sound cinema, after an impressive corpus of silent classics including the Dr. Mabuse trilogy and Metropolis, the highly expressionist style of which earned him the epithet as the “Master of Darkness.” To be making films during the dawn of sound era, the filmmakers had the privilege and the license of exploring many unchartered territories- the effects of sound as incorporated with motions and images was a vitalising experimentation for many; given the luck and the inherent ingenuity an innovative work of art was engendered. Such is not to write off the many legendary figures as merely “chancing upon” innovations whilst experimenting without a determinate aim, but to underline Lang’s remarkable assurance and skill of tackling a new medium like an old hand- as a seasoned auteur whose previous films were noted for their austerity of technique and style, Lang, throughout his long career, never once explored or experimented like a reckless adventurer.

As part of the preliminaries Lang spent eight days in a mental institution and interviewed several inmates who were convicted with child murder- amongst them was Peter Kürten, who was allegedly the blueprint on which Lang based his protagonist, Hans Beckert. With Beckert Lang created one of the most self-tormenting monsters of cinematic history. He made the character complex without dwelling too much on his complexity, reprehensible without accentuating his irredeemable wretchedness. In fact, nearing the end of the film we begin to sympathise with the serial killer; his senseless acts of violence, as he addresses the kangaroo court consisting mainly of runaway criminals, are the results of an uncontrollable urge of killing, and his ultimate guilt of committing the unspeakable crime only spurs on the evil side of his nature. With agony he cries out, before many startled faces of the unmoved jury, that he is no more ignoble than those present, whose intents for their wrongdoing are largely induced by ill-will. Despite his impassioned speech, the crowd declares it a flimsy argument- under the regime of law every event is subjected to only two categories: either that of right or wrong; if one’s behaviour belongs to the opposing side of right, one is bound to be punished.

M reveals the astounding aspect of an ignorant mass whose ideology is gravitating towards dualism. Such society regards as gospels words by the authority and the law, the operation of which brushes aside disdainfully any human elements, and recognises only the immutable rules, unjustifiable perhaps, that divide the multitude into the good and the evil. Herbert is, in some ways, a pitiful victim under this ruthless system- he pleads the crowd not to draw conclusion solely from the consequence of things, but take into consideration the reasons that make a monster a monster. Such well-reasoned perspective can, however, never fend off the established fact that he is responsible of the lives of a handful of children. The ending of the film cuts to three women crying- nothing can bring back their dead children now.

Though as a crime drama, the film is surprisingly littered with comic moments. Amongst them, an elderly man is almost torn to pieces by an angry throng when his involuntary kindness to a young girl is misconstrued as a suspicious act. Slapsticks like that highlight the insularity of the mass that manifests itself in time of restlessness- fear breeds extreme paranoia; a hunt of the murderer turns into a competition of intellectual prowess and physical recklessness.

Also noteworthy is the photography of the film, which is indebted to Lang’s right-hand manFritz Arno Wagner, who also contributed his expertise in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Pabst’s Three Penny Opera (1931). Those images of the night, especially, attain a murky beauty that is reminiscent of like quality in Brassaï’s photography. The film’s long take of a table brimming with odds and ends of the murderer’s accouterments recalls the unnerving mysteriousness of the Hungarian master’s FortuneTeller series.


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