#1 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
I don’t think Fritz Lang or Thea von Harbou had demonstrated the artistic depth and talent to make M before 1931. I’ve really enjoyed many of Lang’s films from the 20s, but the closest he came to something even approximately like M was the second part of Die Nibelungen, a film that explored a certain psychological reality in a serious manner while the rest of his work was a series of variations on melodramas or fantasy adventures. M is a procedural, stripped of all melodramatic emotion or sense of adventure, and it ends up so committed to its vision of Berlin and crime that the ending develops into one of the most complex finales, especially emotionally, of any crime movie. On top of that, it’s a remarkably achievement in the new cinematic frontier of sound.
A child murderer is on the loose in Berlin, and the people of the city are in terror. The first half of the film is the procedure of the police receiving thousands of tips of the murderer, none of which correspond to each other, sending them in every direction. There’s an extended phone conversation between the chief of police and a high-level minister that details all of the police efforts, including raids, interviews, and sourcing candy wrappers, as well as the trouble his men are having finding any time to rest with the contradictory information they are receiving. As one of the first films of its kind, this sort of explanation ends up making a lot of sense. Later films tend to condense this information down into shorter montages, but the effort the film makes to establish the trouble the police are having does end up working in the film’s favor.
Where it ends up leading is a raid on a pub that takes everyone in. It’s incredibly disruptive to everyone from the girls just trying to make a living to the woman running the place to the low-level criminal element that is trying to make its own living. The increased police presence is disrupting their activities so much that the de facto leader, The Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgens) announces that it is the criminals who must track down and find the child murderer.
Now, to talk about sound for a minute. I think that the transition to sound is the single most interesting period in all of cinema history. Oversimplified, the industry was silent in 1928 and sound in 1929. That was a huge technological and artistic change. Some artists had real trouble with it (John Ford‘s The Black Watch is almost embarrassing in how he directed his suddenly speaking actors) and others pushed the limits in interesting ways, even if the overall package was still compromised by real barriers in how technology worked (like Alfred Hitchcock‘s Blackmail). It usually took a few films before established silent film directors figured out what they were doing with sound. Lang had the advantage of not needing to push out a sound film in 1929. It gave him a couple of years to experiment and observe others in order to come up with his own ways of doing things, and M is a masterclass in how to do sound in the early talkie era.
I think one of the limits of the earliest sound era had been eliminated by this point. The camera moves too much in certain scenes where sound was obviously captured on set for it to have been enclosed in those early glass boxes that protected the sound equipment from the noise of the camera. However, it’s obvious that they were still in the period where sound mixing was impossible. It was one sound track and one only. However, what Lang does that’s interesting is that he’s combining sounds from different sources to images that don’t match exactly. The most obvious version of this is voice over, most particularly with that phone conversation between the police chief and minister. However, it goes well beyond that. Sound effects can’t really overlap unless they’re captured at the same time, but Lang does a lot of cutting of sounds within scenes to allow him a freedom of editing and camera movement. He even cuts in the middle of lines of dialogue which, if you’re literally only able to use one soundtrack at a time, is surprisingly sophisticated. This was 1931, two years into the sound era, and he had a host of examples from great filmmakers around the world to work off of, but it’s still really impressive. This is a complex sound design with extremely limited tools.
Anyway, it’s about at the halfway point where we finally get extended scenes with Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), the child murderer. He has been writing letters to the police and press to goad them on, confident that he’ll never be caught, all while the two-sided investigation gets closer to him without his knowledge. The comparison and contrast (made very explicit in a rather bravura editing sequence as both sides try to figure out new ways to track down Hans) between the underworld and police is interesting on its own, but the search itself creates a great sense of tension and suspense as they start zeroing in on Hans while he, coincidentally, decides to zero in on another young girl. The titular M comes from one of the beggars working for the criminal element marking Hans with chalk in the alphabetic shape so that he becomes easily identifiable to everyone else.
There’s a detailed episode where Hans sneaks into an office building just before closing, trapping himself, and giving the criminal element the opportunity to use all of their skills to get in and search. It’s a steady progression of events that leads to the inevitable conclusion of capturing Hans that also allows for the criminal and police investigations to intersect.
The height of the film is the ending. Dragged before the criminal court, Hans pleads for his life, and Lorre is so amazing that he actually ends up eliciting some sympathy, convincing that he’s as much mentally sick as he is guilty. There’s an actual debate between his defense attorney (Rudolf Blumner), of a sorts, and The Safecracker about the rights of the man on trial, their conversation bouncing back and forth with extreme energy. In the middle is Lorre, watching his carefully laid plans fall apart, and it’s a great performance. It’s little surprise that Hitchcock would want to work with him in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
M is a triumphant entry into the sound era made all the more impressive by the complex sound design and change in genre focus from Lang’s previous work. It pushes the technical limits while also finding emotional and thematic complexity in a stripped-down story that retains the best visual features of the silent era while sacrificing surprisingly little in the transition to sound. This movie is awesome.