That's the basic set-up to this masterful and profoundly influential film from 1930's Germany, M. One could extol its virtues along many lines - sophistication of cinematic technique, its pivotal position as an original formative touchstone within the crime genre, the unique historical moment it captured (just before the Nazis came to power), the position it holds in director Fritz Lang's brilliant career, his creative use of sound (and silence) in several key scenes, the brilliance of Peter Lorre's performance as the child-killer and more. What stands out to me, and seems especially worthy of reflection and analysis here, is the acuity of psychological insight that permeates the film from beginning to end. For a film made nearly 80 years ago, there's very little other than the actual time period it was shot that seems dated, quaint or uninformed. In fact, I would say that the script (written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou) is superior to most of what we see on big screens these days in terms of depicting in believable terms both the effects that crimes of this sort have on ordinary people and the mental state of a person who does such things. What makes M even more impressive and remarkable is that such a subtle analysis was radically new and unprecedented for the films and popular culture of its time.
Let's first consider the scenes that take place at the beginning of the film. The first sight and sound we encounter is a group of little children playing in the street. A young girl's voice chants in sing song and it's seems almost a darling scene until we grasp the disturbing import of her lyrics about a man who will "use his little chopper to chop you up" - a rather grim version of Eeny Meeny Miny Moe! The girl is scolded by an adult woman for singing such a horrible song and we follow the woman into her non-descript apartment as she goes about her scrubbing and other menial tasks. She's awaiting the arrival of her daughter Elsie home from school, doing her best to shake off the uncomfortable thoughts that the child's song stirred up. Then we see Elsie herself, narrowly dodging danger as she absently steps into a street full of speeding vehicles (not seen, just heard, one of many effective sonic tricks that Lang pioneered in this film.) A kindly policeman escorts her for awhile but she is soon left to make it home on her own. She bounces a ball to pass the time and comes upon a posted sign offering a reward for the killer on the loose. The shadow of a man slides across the poster as he makes Elsie's acquaintance. Mother, at home, prepares dinner and watches the minutes tick by. We see the man and girl walking the street as he buys her a balloon, for which she politely thanks him. Mother continues to wait, fretting just a bit more as the neighbor children all arrive safely home. She calls out the window for Elsie, but receives no reply. We see the empty stairwell that Elsie will never step on again. Mother's voice grows more tense, even slightly frantic. We see the girl's laundry hanging up in the attic. We see her empty place setting at the table. We see the ball she was bouncing roll out from some bushes and across the grass of a vacant lot. We see the balloon purchased for her just a few minutes ago floating loose, temporarily caught in telephone wires before the wind once again dislodges it setting it free to land randomly no one knows quite where. Fade to black.
From this point on, we are caught in the tensions between polarities of anger and resignation, between a sincere craving for justice and the cold calculation of pure self-interest that motivates different segments of society to take action against this supreme violator and disturber of norms. Petty jealousies and mistrust escalate into full-fledged suspicions and aggressive but false accusations. Pressures mount and voices rise. The adoption of extreme measures begins to seem more reasonable, even unquestionably necessary. Meanwhile, the killer makes faces at himself in the mirror, sinking ever more deeply into his tormented, isolated misery. His bemusement at his seeming imperviousness at being detected and stopped, of course, leads him to act out yet again, until he is spotted accosting a girl by the vigilant eyes of the lowest class of society, the beggars. Their ubiquity in all parts of the Berlin cityscape in which the story is set, and their presumptive disdain for everything except spotting the next source of money or sustenance, leads the killer, Hans Becker, to overlook the risk they present to him. A suspenseful and prolonged chase scene comes to its inevitable climax as Becker is finally apprehended and dragged into a cavernous warehouse cellar, where he's put to trial in the wee hours of the morning by a large jury of his criminal peers.
On that occasion, Lorre launches into a compelling, perhaps a bit over-the-top, portrayal of a haunted, bewildered, sociopathic pedophile. Quite disturbing to think what he must have tapped into to generate such a performance, but we'll leave that to Lorre's biographers to explain to us! What is worth pointing out here is that his explanation of the compulsions he has to deal with and his own suffering as a victim that led him to commit these outrages were practically unprecedented in film or other popular culture at that time. This was the era where villains were simply dark-hearted monsters who relished their cruelties and were only deserving of harsh punishment and swift execution. Indeed, that is very much the mindset of the criminal authorities who tried him in their kangaroo court and intended to snuff out his life that very night except for a change in circumstances I will leave you to find out for yourself. Lang and his crew were informing their audience of what was undoubtedly a new and unacceptable idea to many of them - that even criminality of such a bestial sort as what Becker did had causes that demanded to be taken into consideration before any pronouncement of judgement could properly be rendered - that simple categorizations of people as either "good" or "bad" were insufficient for an era when our understanding of the human psyche was rapidly expanding.
This was not a message that resonated all that well with the emerging National Socialist movement at the time. As was the case with Pabst's Threepenny Opera, within a few years, M would be censored as a scandalous example of "Jewish decadence" in the arts that needed to be resisted and forcibly removed. (Both films, of course, align themselves favorably with the underclass and reveal hypocrisy, corruption and banality in the more powerful quarters of society, which certainly had more influence in provoking the Nazi's wrath than the ethnicity of some of the filmmakers.) Lang was not Jewish himself, but did have a Jewish grandmother in his lineage. His expertise in filmmaking was never contested and he even received an offer from Josef Goebbels himself to become the chief filmmaker for the Third Reich, an opportunity that Lang declined and which led swiftly to his becoming an exile-for-life when he decided that Nazi Germany was not the best place for him or his family. The bonus features on ths two-disc set offer tremendous background information on Lang (who also directed Metropolis, another landmark work of science fiction and futurism, probably just about as influential and significant as M itself) and the era. An interview from 1975, filmed by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist among many others) provides later-in-life reminiscences, and a short film called "A Physical History of M", outlines the ordeal that the film itself went through at the hands of censors, most notably the Nazis themselves. A lengthy selection from one of their anti-Jewish propaganda films is included there, where they take Lorre's final scene performance out of context as a supposed example of how the Jews revel in depraved and sordid subject matter. It's an alarming thing to watch pure Nazi rhetoric and consider that what they were saying was broadly agreed on and ascribed to by so many honored and respectable people.
M has received a lot of praise and is a frequent flyer on the Top 10 lists of quite a few cinephiles. I think it's highly deserving of its reputation, and a genuinely fascinating, entertaining film as well. I know I've been pretty enthusiastic about practically every movie I've reviewed here so far (and don't expect that to change anytime soon - I love these films!) But among the titles I've watched up to know in this series, this is the one I would pull out with the least hesitation for its ability to connect with the general viewer of today.
Next: A Nous la Liberte