This is Fritz Lang's other film. Other, of course, to 'Metropolis' (1927), a film almost everybody, hearing about this blog, has recommended I watch. 'Metropolis' (like his lesser-remembered 'Die Nibelungen' - 1925) was fantastical, vast, full of crowds, epic vistas and expressionist images. 'M', by contrast, is smaller, grounded in the real world of downtown Berlin. Streets, apartments, offices, warehouses. Perhaps this was a practical move to offset the cost of audio for these newfangled talkies - or perhaps silent films, like mime or ballet - can afford to be more flamboyant without seeming silly. Nonetheless, despite this move towards something like the real world, this film is not without flair or dynamism.
I watched this the same week I revisited 'Shaft' (1971), and despite the four decades between them they have a similar flavour. Crime, the streets, men looking cool in their long leather coats, a gradient of morality between the police and the criminals. The authorities here are embodied by Inspector Lohmann - a brilliant performance by Otto Wernicke for whom I've much praise. The antagonist, despised, feared and sought by the whole city, is the Kindermörder, the child-murderer, a no-less-striking Peter Lorre. Between them is Berlin - its crowd has a better claim to being the main character than either of this pair.
If this was made today, I suspect the implication of paedophilia would be found somewhere in accusations against the murderer. A man abducting children merely to murder them seems almost naive by today's standards, though I understand it has been done, notably to Fanny Adams. Anyway, nothing is known about the child murderer, and the whole city gets itself into a frighteningly familiar lather of paranoia and groundless accusation. Any grown man so much as saying hello to a child is a candidate for condemnation by the lynch mob. The police are working overtime, and raiding the usual haunts of criminals with such frequency that the whole criminal underworld band together to track down the child-murderer, just to get themselves some peace and quiet. It's a brilliant concept. Soon the cops and criminals race to catch the unknown killer.
When we finally meet the child-murderer, he's presented quite alarmingly sympathetically. This is not a man filled with malice and evil - just an ordinary person. He's pathetic, pudding-faced, wide-eyed as a bush-baby. When he's finally challenged over his crimes he grows distressed: it's a compulsion, an addiction. He's driven to it, this obsession. There's no apparent motivation, and we're left with the frightening suggestion that such a person could appear at any time, in any society, with a feeble inability to quash their urges to befriend and dismember infants.
Peter Lorre is better-known in the West for his appearances in American film noir, but this was his first big role - an astounding, upsetting performance. He makes this compulsive murderer's impotent fear real, and manages to seem inexplicably amiable even as he pursues his quarry. Otto Wernicke's Inspector Lohmann is no less engaging, and it's little wonder Lang brought him back to play the same role in 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' (1933). He manages to bring some excellent moments of comedic business to what could be a doomy film: at one point being so shocked by a revelation that he drops his cigar from his mouth, and lets his hands spend some time looking for it before his mind can catch up.
Kriminalkommissar Lohmann in shock
There's a lot of fun to be found here. My favourite moment likewise features Lohmann, who devastates a petty criminal with the false news that the man he'd punched unconscious has died of the injury - before the director allows us a fade to the 'victim' in question, alive and enjoying a slap-up meal of sausages and beer. Though Fritz Lang undoubtedly has a dark and upsetting message to convey about humanity's propensity for evil, he's made a lively film, full of wit and invention. It was this movie, along with 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Heimat' (1984) that convinced me German films were very good films indeed, and caused me to seek them out hungrily. And if you follow this blog for long enough, I suspect you'll be reading about a good many more of them.
P.S. Some time next week I'll find time to comment on this this film's semi-sequel 'The Testament of Dr Mabuse' (1933), but for variety's sake the next two updates will be 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Up' (2009).
This is certainly a film worth watching, and German cinema is always worth a look in. Why not get yourself a copy, or just borrow mine, or we could all watch it together and have pancakes if y'all would pop over.