M (1931)

Synopsis: When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022100/?ref_=nv_sr_8

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: The plot was explained to me like this — “A child murderer is on the loose and the police cannot capture him. It gets so bad that even criminals begin to hunt him.” How do you not want to see that? Seriously?


Brent’s Review:

DISCLAIMER: I cannot offer an adequate reflection of “M” without spoilers. I will begin with my final takeaway: “M” is poignant in its social commentary and awe-inspiring as a cinematic achievement. It is a masterpiece; see this film.

I apologize for all subsequent spoilers.

A young girl – maybe eight or nine – walks home from school alone, bouncing a ball and humming. She bounces the ball off a poster placed on a lamppost. “Who,” it reads, “is the murderer?” A murderer is preying on young girls. Her song is interrupted by a shadowy figure who remarks, “That is a nice ball you have.”

Heart. Stopped.

The first ten minutes of “M” could be transplanted into any contemporary crime thriller and be equally excellent, so superb are they in conjuring feelings of dread and horror.

Another victim, paranoia erupts. The police attempt to catch the murderer by raiding typical criminal gathering spots. They aren’t optimistic, however: they admit that a child murderer is likely a psychopath and may act like a sane person for every moment of their life except when killing.

Business slows for “common criminals” – thieves, drug peddlers, and so on. The heads of the city’s syndicates gather to form a plot to catch the child murderer. They enlist the organization of beggars (which, I’ve read, actually existed in 1931) to catch him. The beggars chase him into an abandoned warehouse.

We arrive at the third act. A typical crime thriller – even a hard-boiled crime thriller – might seek for a spectacular finish, even a convoluted one at that. However, “M” isn’t a film about the audacity of a child murderer; it’s a film about mob mentality.

Peter Lorre’s portrayal of child murderer Hans Beckert is captivating. He is both insidious and pathetic; he is terrifying and pitiful. The director – Fritz Lang – only shows him at the beginning of his hunt, but meticulously portrays his entire time being hunted. Lorre’s – ahem, unique –face is accentuated repeatedly, often with shadows illuminating only his enormous eyes and forehead. We see a frightened man, not a monster.

What follows is a lengthy “trial” sequence, in which Beckert is confronted by the city’s criminals and the parents of the murdered children. Lang permits him to speak. Beckert squeals, “I can’t help what I do!” The film ends with a crying woman speaking directly to the camera – to us! She pleads, “This won’t bring back our children. One needs to keep closer watch over our children. All of you!”

Fritz Lang staunchly opposed the Nazi Party. It’s not hard to connect the dots here. Seemingly right-minded people (say, regular Germans) fall into the paranoia plaguing their society (serial child murder). Fearful, they turn to anyone who can give direction. Enter the criminals (Nazis), who push to scapegoat the child murderer. Does the mob accept their culpability or do they scapegoat?

In the end, it won’t make things how they were before.

“M” was banned by the Nazi party years later; I’m stunned it was even released.

Leah’s Review:

After watching Fritz Lang’s 1931 crime-drama “M”, I was impressed. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so brilliant. It’s a great film to watch if you’re studying film and cinema and how the movies of the past have shaped modern film-making. It also features a masterfully-told story and some stellar performances.

For this review, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite aspects of the film:

  • The opening scene in “M” is on par with any modern suspense film: A little girl plays with her ball. A man’s shadow appears. He speaks to the girl and they leave together. He buys her a balloon- whistling a familiar tune. Cut to the girl’s mother. She is making lunch for her daughter who should be coming home soon. The minutes tick by. No sign of the girl. The mother calls down the stairs. No answer. Cut to a shot of the girl’s ball rolling away and a balloon tangled in electrical lines…
  • Something interesting about “M” is that there are several scenes which are silent- no music, no sound at all. I later found out that this was because the filmmaker’s couldn’t afford to add sound (in the 1930’s, sound in movies was fairly new) to the entirety of the film. Lang went with it- adding suspense to scenes by cutting out the sound in some of the most intense scenes.

  • Another brilliant directing decision was showing the murderer’s face early on. Lang could have easily chosen to keep the killer’s appearance hidden to add more suspense- but instead, we see Hans Beckert’s face within the first half hour of the film. But here’s the thing- we don’t actually know if the man on the screen is the murderer. We just assume he is because of the context. So now we’re on our guard. Among the crowds on the street, we constantly search for Peter Lorre’s unmistakable face- but he alludes us. When we finally do see him again, he is attempting to lure another small child- whistling that same eerie tune.

  • For most of “M”, we don’t have much reason to sympathize with the murderer. But near the climax, the story takes an interesting turn. Hans is finally apprehended by a criminal mob and put on a kind of “trial”. It’s here that he reveals that he has no control for his compulsion to kill. There’s something evil inside him that he can’t escape from. A lawyer defending Hans refutes the mob’s demands to have him killed for his crimes. “A sick man should be handed over, not to the executioner, but to the doctor.”

    By the end, we no longer see a heartless criminal- but a troubled man who struggles with what he is. “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” Making a statement on the complexities of justice and mental health is pretty bold- even by today’s standards, let alone a movie from the 1930’s.


Up next: In addition to it being the third and final Asian film on our list, we’ve heard a lot of good things about “In The Mood for Love”. Frequently listed as one of the greatest films of the 2000s, this is one of the movies we’re most excited to see this year.

Peace out, Kids.

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