Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Fritz Lang; Thea von Harbou
From article by: Egon Jacobson
||The Maltese Falcon
|Peter Lorre|| ... Hans Beckert (child murderer)|
|Ellen Widmann|| ... Madame Beckmann|
|Inge Landgut|| ... Elsie Beckmann|
|Otto Wernicke|| ... Inspector Karl Lohmann|
|Theodor Loos|| ... Police Commissioner Groeber|
|Gustaf Gründgens|| ... Schraenker|
|Friedrich Gnass|| ... Franz (burglar)|
|Fritz Odemar|| ... Dynamiter|
|Paul Kemp|| ... Pickpocket|
|Theo Lingen|| ... Bauernfaenger|
|Rudolf Blümner|| ... Barrister|
|Georg John|| ... Blind beggar|
|Franz Stein|| ... Minister|
|Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur|| ... Police Chief|
|Gerhard Bienert|| ... Secretary|
|Karl Platen|| ... Nightwatch|
|Rosa Valetti|| ... Elisabeth Winkler (landlady)|
|Hertha von Walther|| ... Prostitute|
Review by Edward Hicks (posted on 15-May-2007)
Shocking in its subject matter for the time, M is a suspense-thriller from legendary director Fritz Lang, a fine example of German expressionist film-making, and an important predecessor to such films as Silence of The Lambs, and Se7en.
The film follows the search for a prolific child-murderer, played by Peter Lorre. As the police race to find him before he kills again, a similar effort is launched by an organized crime element. As both sides struggle to put an end to the brutal murders, the actual actions of the murderer become secondary in an examination of what a prolonged state of fear can do to a populace.
The interesting thing about M is not that it was Lang's first film with sound, but that he was able to use sound so effectively with no prior experience with it. Rather than just adding another layer to the visuals, sound is often completely divorced from the visuals, creating two distinct elements working in concert. Another thing that marks M is its' subject matter, which was many years ahead of it's time and influenced countless other films while making Fritz Lang an enemy of the Nazi party.
From the very beginning of the film, characters are heard before they are ever seen. We hear children playing and singing a violent nursery rhyme as they camera tilts down to reveal them on an eerie downward angle. Hearing the voices off screen, and without music makes for a haunting, almost ghostly screen presence that Lang will use again and again throughout the film, particularly with the killer Beckert.
Borrowing a technique from opera known as Leitmotif, Lang first introduces Beckert by having us hear his whistling "Hall of the Mountain King" off screen, then representing him as a shadow on a wanted poster. From this moment on we understand that when we hear this tune, the killer is prowling. In fact, this is how the blind balloon seller recognizes Beckert in the end.
One particularly memorable scene occurs shortly after the first child is abducted, when the child's frantic mother calls out for her repeatedly, with increased panic as we are shown several dark, empty scenes culminating in a small, childlike balloon figure caught in power lines before coming free and silently floating away.
Almost as important as the technique used in this film is it's content. While much of our entertainment today involves psychotics and dark, violent stories, it goes without saying that in the late 20's and early 30's, the subject matter of film was somewhat tamer. M received heavy criticism from the Nazi party not for this however, but for the scenes in which the narrative switches back and forth between the police and the criminal element as they both discuss ways in which to catch the dangerous serial killer. This, along with the fact that the criminals beat the police to Beckert, supposedly degrades law enforcement by showing it as incompetent, although this is debatable, as the police would have caught Beckert soon anyway.
There are also undercurrents of socialism in the film, which undoubtedly made the Nazis a little nervous. The criminals talk of pooling their money and using it to support the families of members temporarily incarcerated. At one point a policeman even says, "each individual is responsible for what happens to the poorest child on the streets". At another time someone is heard to lament the effects of fear on a desperate population, " there's no privacy anymore". For a government built on fear after the Reichstag fire, this might have been seen as sly criticism.
Impressive films wisely use new technology in ways that push the boundaries of film. Classic films use bedrock principals of good storytelling to keep our interest and stay relevant even many years after their creations. While it's not often that a film can combine both of these elements to create a truly great film, Fritz Lang's M definitely qualifies. This is a groundbreaking film with a potent message that touches on debates about the nature of criminality and the ultimate responsibilities for actions. Debates that are still occurring more than 70 years after this films release.
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