There are very few movies which have contributed to the creation of a genre, M is one of these. We see in this movie a nascent Noir setting, we see a dark psychological thriller. Lang’s M (1931) is one of those rare movies which has influenced those coming after it. We see tones of the shadows, the underworld and the police, the fear of society in John Fords, Oscar winning “The Informer” staring Victor McLaglen from 1935.
Once we begin to watch this movie we see the stylisation, indeed do we see shades of F.W. Marnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. The limitation of camera’s and sets in the earlier years certainly helped with the stylisation, we in effect see theatrics on camera, this is not a bad thing. The movie is about contrasts, as we will discuss a little later. From the very start with the children’s games, the shadow on the Police notice etc. this is a movie which is visual, it is the camera more than the script that tells the story. Of course we have to remember, people such as Lang worked their apprenticeships in silent cinema and it shows, positively. Alfred Hitchcock once said you should be able to follow a movie without its dialogue, this is certainly the case here.
Camera play and tome give us power and fear, the camera conveys the mood of the scene, the home ideal, the police offices or even the criminal gangs. We see our villain Hans Beckert is first a shadow, when we see him as a person he is at his weakest, the power is in the shadow, not the light. The camera angles also play into the effects of the cinematography, whether it is the high sweeping shot of the children playing or the shot of Lohmann at his desk in the smoky room with the map to his back (he is a man of power). Just as I mentioned the almost theatrical approach by Marnau in the 20’s I can’t help but wonder if Lang’s use of the shadow and darkness influenced Brava or Argento in their delivery of the Itallian Giallo horror genre. The street scenes such as young Elise Beckmann (Inga Landgut) plays contrast with the scenes of her mother preparing dinner at home. Her playing ball and reading the police notice show the underlying danger, against this her mother goes about her business preparing dinner in the bright, clean and homely apartment. All is not perfect even before she notices her daughter missing, the horror of the murders pays a visit by way of the tension it is causing. The calmness of home is shattered when it becomes clear what has happened, again the contrasts.
Lorre’s Beckert is troubled, he seems to be fighting the evil inside him, a fight he has lost. This film is about the struggle between light and dark, whether it be the dark places within us, the dark shadows of our environment or even the darker aspects of the society we live in. We see the chaleenge of society to police itself and protect itself. As we mentioned M is a first of its kind movie, we see what is to become a psychological thriller, again mirrored in The Informer.
The movie is almost an intrusion into the lives of others. We see the mother innocently preparing dinner in her home safe bright warm and friendly in contrast to the dark shadows and tension of the streets. Frau Beckmann(ellenm Widmann) has an almost silent role except to scream her anguish in the search for her child and indeed the mourning for her. The camera helps the story.
There is fear and despair on the streets. Any man who does not fit in as expected is immediately a suspect, condemmed as the murderer. The Minister orders an immediate arrest. The police deploy the most up to date “scientific” methods to find him. Their efforts begin to have an impact on the ordinary criminals of the city, indeed given this and their own moral outrage, they too begin to look for Beckert. As we see this we also notice the importance of the time, whether it is the need for immediate results or the thieves with their stolen watches, time is ticking, people are dying. As the police work to track him using a mix of “modern” science and old-fashioned policing we see the parallel search by the criminal underworld get under way searching out the evil in their city, an evil far below even their standards, this is an unacceptable evil. The search is organised in grids around the city.
True to form, Lang has Beckert recognised, not by sight but by sound, it is a blind beggar that recognises him from a tune whistled. Another Beggar marks him with an “M” so he can be followed, It is the criminals not the police that eventually find and capture him. He is followed in to an office block as it closes, the criminals take it over as if it were a bank about to be robbed. He is eventually caught. Such is the stylisation of the camerawork that we can see and notice the angular presentation of these scenes inside the symmetrical, ordered office building. He is, as we said, captured and taken to a place where he can be tried by his peers. The police are one step behind but trick “Papa” Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) into revealing where Beckert is to be brought.
When we see Beckert brough to the crowed cellar, he is brought before a tribunal of the city’s criminal class. They are intent in justice at least seeming to be done and even give him a defence lawyer. We see in this scene Beckert’s attempt to plead for his life, he sees himself as much a victim of his illness as the others. There is the semblance of justice, but we all know his life is forfeit. Before he can be finally judged and sentenced by his “peers”, the police, acting on the information they got out of Lohmann, raid the cellar and capture Beckert.
Again the contrast continues; when next we see Beckert he is being brought before a court of Justice. The dark, shadowy rough and curved setting of the cellar is set against the bright, ordered, “square” scene of the court house. Once again the silent-movie pedigree comes through, we never hear the judges speak, the action is purely in the camera-work. The mother’s mourning is all we see, despite him, Beckert, being guilty and for execution her child will not be brought back.
As mentioned, there is a sense of neorealism about this picture, Lang is at pains to show the film through the eyes of ordinary people, not through a “star”. Looking at the film through today’s eyes, we can perhaps understand Beckert’s possible illness, not agree or use it as an excuse for his actions, but we can identify it, the question is, how would his character have been perceived by the audience of the time; his attempts to plea for clemency fall on deaf ears, he must be removed from civil society (whatever that is).
We are perhaps tempted to see this movie through the eyes of history and look for the indicators of the Nazi shadow about to engulf Germany and Europe. We need to remember both Lang and Lorre, fled Nazi Germany. We see society as Lang saw it, made up of powerful and week, good and bad, innocent and guilty, sometimes a mixture of all. We see a struggle between good and bad, both internally and externally within society, both with in groups and between groups or classes. Perhaps this is the type of division which cause the vacuum in Germany at that time, I don’t know. We see what is essentially a filmed stage drama, which has lost none of its appeal and horror over the years.