M, 1931

Like many great movies, M has a simple plot. It’s the cinematography, acting, and screenplay that make such an intense drama. There’s multiple levels to explore as well. Clearly, a psychological theme is drawn. Then, there’s a political aspect; the waning of the Weimar Republic must have been a palpable experience of doom for plenty of Germans. Also, there’s the theme of alienation; and, relatedly, the role of criminal underworld.

It’s fascinating that the search for the child-murder operates in a parallel fashion: obviously, by the legitimate authorities and, for reasons of self-interest, the criminal organizations as well. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which side someone’s on. When the underworld guys infiltrate M’s hideout, one is in police uniform; a sensible ruse. But most of the ‘criminals’ are actually just deputized street people, some are actually the victims’ families. The police haven’t been asleep, though, as they’re able, by good deductive methods, to find out who M is, and where he lives.

The police procedure is very logical and comprehensive. I had no idea that fingerprint analysis was so sophisticated in the early ’30s. Another detail: when the watchman breaks loose to ring the alarm, the police not only know what address to go to, but which exact spot in the building. But M captures much more than these flashes of urban technology. So many scenes just vibrate with atmosphere: not just the noir-ish use of light and shadow, but the juxtaposition of objects, both in disarray (the attic store room where M. Hides) and in arrangements (the toy store windows, the display of confiscated weapons).

There’s even whimsical stuff–the toys again, and the balloons of animal-figures. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of humor. The safe-at-home watchman having a feast as the Inspector accuses the suspect of being an accomplice in the watchman’s ‘murder’; and, shortly thereafter, the Inspector dropping his cigar as the suspect lets on the real reason for breaking into the office building. Many of the seamy characters aren’t so much creepy as obnoxious, nervy, and just plain eccentric. All of this flipping between seriousness and silliness remarkably doesn’t create a tone problem.

Because of the overall strangeness of reality shown here, it’s fitting that there’s so many odd details; which, nonetheless, don’t obscure the big picture. For example, we don’t have to see M committing his disgusting crimes to feel their impact. Not only does this spare us what could only be lurid scenes, but it also saves space for more exposition. Having said that, the movie does drag at times. The time spent hunting for M in the office building is a bit much; likewise the kangaroo court scene. I did like the inquisitorial, thoroughly menacing feel of the ‘court’ proceedings. I don’t think that Lang was implying that M deserved leniency by giving him his eloquent ‘defense’ speech.

It’s the primacy of the rule of law that seems to be the message. In fact, although the police intervention came just barely in time, M does end up in the hands of legitimate authority. Watching the audience brood over M’s actions in the basement, we can see some hints of recognition when M speaks of his sense of alienation. That these same folks still want to lynch him doesn’t obviate the fact that most of them live outside of society’s rules as well. M’s fate kind of reminds me of the arguments in many early sci-fi movies between those few who want to ‘understand’ the alien/monster, and the majority, who just want to kill it. Usually, the sensitive guys wind up as the next victims.

Definitely M is a monster. It’s worth discussing what his fate should be; but the main problem is resolved here–he’s out of the way. Maybe the point is that, even in an unsteady world, there’s still normal civilization bobbing up out of the chaos. 9/10.

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