There are some films which are so powerful that they leave you shattered, staring exhaustedly at the titles and then the DVD welcome screen. This is one of those films and would easily make it onto my Desert Island Films list.
M is the story of the hunt for a child killer in inter-war Berlin. The film opens with a sequence in which children are playing and singing a song about a child murderer much to the mothers’ concern. Sure enough, a young girl is taken by Hans Beckert [played by Peter Lorre] and we see the mother’s growing fear and panic as the other children in the area arrive home from school.
The police are under pressure to find the killer and launch a huge manhunt. The local criminals feel the heat from the hunt as their business is disrupted and they also launch a manhunt, eventually catching Beckert and holding a court case.
Fritz Lang, by then famous for Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and Frau im Monde, made M in 1931, during the rise of the Nazi party and Nazi paranoia was noticeable as one studio head prevented filming from starting as he thought the film, tentatively titled “Mörder unter uns” [Murderer Among Us], was about the Nazi party.
This was Lang’s first film made with sound and already you sense that he is using sound creatively, rather than to just provide the sound of dialogue or action. The sound here is a key element in the structure and dynamic tension of the story. There is no music other than the motif of the murderer whistling Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King as he approaches his potential victims and this must be one of the earliest uses of this tool to give notice to the audience of the threat. Sound is often used to indicate an action or occurrence before it reaches the screen and, with a nod to the coming importance of sound to cinema, it is a blind man who identifies the murderer from the sound of the whistle rather than from a visual description.
Although this film is now more than eighty years old its subject matter is still relevant but its treatment is more mature and sophisticated than much of the tabloidesque discussion offered today. The crimes are obviously horrific but the murders are not shown and suggested by, for example, a child’s bouncing ball and lost balloon. There is also some sympathy created for the murderer who is shown as someone who is ill and cannot help themselves. How can a society hold a person responsible for something that they cannot control and therefore punish and possibly kill them?
The film is available to watch here for free at Archive.org