Tuesday, December 04, 2012
M (1931 film)
Based on an article by Egon Jacobson, M is the story about a child killer who is on the hunt from the mob as he’s also on the run from the police over his crimes. Directed by Fritz Lang and screenplay by Lang and Thea von Harbour with contributions from Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jensen, and Karl Vash. The film explores the world of a killer being hunted as it revolves all sorts of paranoia from the people. Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgrens, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Theodor Loos, and Friedrich Gnass. M is a visually-entrancing yet chilling film about justice and death.
A series of mysterious disappearances and deaths of children has been running rampant as a young girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) was just abducted. The killer named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) sends a letter to a local paper giving the police clues in the search for him. Raids are happening led by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) as the police becomes desperate to find the killer as it’s causing all sorts of problems. Meanwhile, an underworld figure known as the Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgrens) is dealing with business problems due to the investigation of the child killer as he teams up with other crime bosses to start a manhunt of their own. Using beggars to help them out by watching for kids, one of them finds Beckert who is with a young girl as his whistle was identified by a blind beggar.
After stamping the letter M on Beckert’s coat, Beckert realizes he’s being targeted as beggars chase him into a large office building. The Safecracker brings many of his men to the building with the beggars in order to find Beckert as they get rid of a few watchmen in the building. Despite some trouble and one of the watchmen triggering the alarm, most of the Safecracker’s men were able to get Beckert with the exception of Franz (Friedrich Gnass) who gets caught. After some interrogation that doesn’t go well, Inspector Lohmann finally questions Franz who reluctantly reveals why he was there. Beckert meanwhile, faces a crowd of people who want to decide his fate over his actions.
The film is essentially the story of a child-killer who is being hunted by two forces that want him dead. The first are the police who essentially want to bring the killer to face the court for their own reasons despite the way they controlled the city. Then there’s the criminal underworld who are losing everything around them all because of this killer as they want to capture him so they and the people can get their own idea of justice. All of this is centered in this man who kills children and does it in a mysterious way as both the police and this criminal underworld all want to find him and have him face death for his actions. Yet, questions still occur over was it the right thing to do to this man who knows he’s guilty for his actions.
The film’s screenplay is quite complex in the way it approaches its narrative structure. Notably in the way it starts out where children are singing a song as they’re playing where one little girl is walking alone to school is then captured. This would then lead to a first act that largely consists of police raids that has people being questioned while the underworld is trying to figure out what to do. The way the script allows the police and the underworld have their respective meetings show a parallel into their motivations. The second half of the film is largely about Hans Beckert and how he conducts everything only to find himself in big trouble. The film’s third act isn’t just about his capture but also the trial he faces where what he reveals is far more troubling than it realizes as the man who has to defend him realizes that it’s far more complicated.
Fritz Lang’s direction is definitely stylish in terms of the presentation that he creates through the full-frame aspect ratio as well as the world that he creates. Lang’s direction is also filled with unique images such as the way he places a character like Beckert in a window frame or the attention to detail in how the police tries to figure out many clues though intimate shots of objects. Lang’s direction also has unique shots such as scenes from above to establish what is happening to more crowded moments in the bar scenes. Lang also places the camera from a far to capture what is happening in these meetings in order to build up momentum for what is to happen in the film’s second half.
Lang’s direction finally becomes more suspenseful in the film’s second half when it involves Beckert leading some sort of chase and terror that is happening. There’s all these men trying to find him as Lang keeps things energized while establishing what they have to do in order to get him out before the cops get him. It is then followed by a few dramatic sequences that has an air of suspense that includes the climatic public trial scene where Beckert is being judged by the criminal underworld and the people. It is definitely the highlight of the film where it reveals that despite his actions, Beckert should be tried like everyone else. It’s a moment where the real issue is lost over what’s been happening as the ending suggests something far more powerful about the way all of this could’ve been prevented. Overall, Lang creates a very stylized yet entrancing film about injustice and humanity.
Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner does amazing work with the black-and-white photography to maintain an air of style in terms of the shadows and shadings created for its interior and nighttime exteriors along with more lush shots of the daytime exterior scenes. Editor Paul Falkenberg does excellent work with the editing to create unique transitions and dissolves to help move the film at a brisk pace including some rhythmic cuts for its suspenseful moments. Production designers Emil Hasler and Karl Vollbrecht do spectacular work with the set pieces from the office building where they corner Beckert to the place where Beckert faces the people in a public trial.
The sound work by Adolf Jensen is superb for the atmosphere it creates from the raucous nature of the bar scenes to the intimacy of the meetings as well as the public court scene. While the film doesn’t feature a traditional film score, it does feature a wonderful use of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King that the Beckert character always whistle.
The film’s ensemble cast is marvelous as it features some standout small performances from Friedrich Gnass as the criminal Franz, Theodor Loos as an inspector who works with Lohmann, Inge Landgut as the young girl Elsie Beckmann, and Ellen Widmann as Elsie’s mother. Gustaf Grundgrens is terrific as the crime boss the Safecracker who leads the charge to find Beckert in order too maintain his criminal activity. Otto Wernicke is great as Inspector Lohmann who tries to instill authority into everything he does in the investigation only to do things that have people questioning his methods. Finally, there’s Peter Lorre in a remarkable performance as Hans Beckert who deals with the danger he’s facing as well as the fact that he’s aware of the crimes he’s committing. It’s a very riveting performance from Lorre where he brings a chilling intensity in the courtroom scene that allows him to be sympathetic despite the horrible atrocities he committed.
M is a marvelous yet exhilarating film from Fritz Lang. Featuring a great cast led by Peter Lorre, it’s a film that explores the world of crime as well as the injustice some face for their actions. It’s also a film that features amazing visuals that is truly out of this world as well as a film that features commentary about the way the world works without being heavy-handed. In the end, M is a phenomenal film from Fritz Lang.
© thevoid99 2012
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Great review. I remember putting this one off for years, because I didn't see how I could possibly enjoy it. Shit, how wrong could I be? A masterpiece.
Since the German Expressionism was coming for the LAMB. I thought it was the right excuse to see it since it did come on TCM.
Man, that was a great film. I hope to see more of Fritz Lang's films in the future.
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