M (Fritz Lang, 1931)


Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann). Screenplay by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang. Directed by Fritz Lang. Rating: PG. Running time: 110 minutes.

Let’s get one thing clear: M is no Metropolis. I can usually withstand the slow pace of most ‘old’ films and pretend I wasn’t the product of a generation that’s been dumbed down and had their attention-spans massacred by commercials and half-an-hour soaps. But, it hurts me to admit, for a good hour and a half, M is bloody dull, and here’s why. The problem is that its opening scenes imply a thriller when one never really arrives. The way the first child we see kidnapped is reading a sign about the wanted man who takes her at that very moment, and his shadow is all we see of him, implies so much mystery and future horror, only for the film to descend not into a character study of a criminal, nor really of a chase to find him, but moreso just of the politics of criminal-hunting and arguments over how to go about it. The police become highly intrusive in the every day lives of the community’s members, so much so that the leaders of the underworld decide to defend business by setting up their own rival investigative police force which will find the guy and sort him out much more efficiently. This was at a time when fingerprint technology was in its infancy, and CCTV and DNA were nonexistent. Finding criminals was bloody hard.

This all leads to a film which can safely be said to fall into three parts: firstly the very dull arguments; secondly the extended ‘chase,’ which can’t really be thrilling because there’s no music and it drags on for half an hour. Then, finally, a segment arrives which is the only thing that’s stopped me from writing an entirely negative review for a film that’s just a little bit revered in cinematic circles. Towards the end, when the murderer is captured by the underworld ‘cops,’ M suddenly becomes a whirlwind tour of the history of political thought, raising question after question about the purpose of the state, law-enforcement, moral responsibility for action and appropriate punishment for crime. Honestly. It was the British philosopher John Locke that had hypothesised that even in a state of nature, the lack of an official police force would lead to civilians grouping together and enforcing what they see as the ‘natural law.’ Admittedly this is a little different, but if Locke were alive today and had to make a film about his thought, it would probably look something like M.

The mob (the masses) call for the murderer’s hanging. He pleads, with hysterical panic and puppy dog eyes, insanity in the shape of a compulsion to kill. Now a few stand up and call for a proper court of law to assess the man and bring him to state-sanctioned justice. The argument continues. It’s great stuff. This is clearly the philosophy and politics student coming out in me, but I really do think anyone can see that the dialogue towards the end of M is wonderfully well done. ‘Kill the rabid dog!’ they cry; ‘you have no right to treat me this way!’ he replies. It’s just a shame that M only becomes enjoyable in its final thirty minutes.

3 Responses to “M (Fritz Lang, 1931)”

  1. 1 Joshua Dixon

    “can’t really be thrilling because there’s no music.”

    – what about most of No Country For Old Men?

  2. 2 jacobwilliamson

    Good point. I think in general No Country For Old Men doesn’t have chase scenes which might be why it works better. The only one I can think of is the one ensuing after the hotel where Chigurgh stands in front of the door and his shadow envelopes the slit of light. But that indeed works, which means it’s not just the music that’s the problem here. It definitely doesn’t feel right though, for whatever reason. You should check it out, see if you agree.

  3. 3 Joshua Dixon

    I most certainly will check it out whenever I can. That scene in No Country For Old Men was a real highlight for me. Also, sound had only been around for 3 years when this was made and much of the music would have to be played live next to the set, so don’t be too hard on the soundtrack!

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