Dave Finally Watches: M (1931)

The Movies to Watch Project has begun! Netflix sent me a copy of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M and Friday night I popped some analog popcorn and sat down to watch.

M is the story of a city in fear. Someone among them is preying on innocents. Everyone is scared and vulnerable. The authorities seem unable to do anything. No one knows when and how the villain will strike next. As the police flail around helplessly, citizens take matters in their own hands.

In this case the city is Berlin and the terrorist is a murderous pedophile, but it’s really hard to view this in post-9/11 America and not feel like you’re seeing a commentary on The War on Terror. In the rush to catch the villain the police subject citizens to punishing and disruptive searches, and when the criminal underworld starts conducting their own search they’re not above using torture to gain information.

But there’s only so far that such a reading will take you, because that’s not really what M is about, and that reading kind of stands in the way. There are several key moments in M that raise it above a mere “the killer among us” type of thing. First is when the criminals decide to hunt the pedophile themselves. The searches have not only disrupted their enterprises, but this criminal has crossed a line even they honor. They don’t want to be associated with him merely because they’re all on the other side of the law. This crime of child-murder is anathema to them even as their “leader” is described in boastful terms of having killed three men who tried to capture him. When the underworld captures the criminal, they subject him to a kangaroo court, and even provide him with a defense counsel. And Beckert, the villain, gives a stirring and surprising defense.

These scenes turn M into a psychological thriller, peering into the mind of a hunted, terrified man. Beckert is well aware of where his sins fall in the human scale. When he discovers that the criminals intend to “try” him he doesn’t want to submit to their justice, the justice of the people who live and breathe evil (the person who helps identify Beckert is, naturally, blind). Beckert wants to be turned over to the police (who, by this time, are on to him as well.) The criminals see this as a ploy to cop an insanity plea, go to an asylum, and hopefully get an eventual release and escape. It’s hard to say that this is Beckert’s true intention, however. He wants mercy; the criminals only offer justice.

But more than just a look at the psychology of Beckert, it’s also a look at the psychology of the hunters. The normal social institutions we rely on — the police, the state, the media, neighbors — are ineffective when it comes to finding the killer. The police, despite a lot of time and resources, admit they don’t have much to go on. When they finally get a break it’s a chance discovery that could have easily been prevented. The media gives the killer a sounding board, publishing a letter from him promising more attacks, ramping up the fear level of the populace. The effect of the siege on the overclass(?) again returns us to the terrorism comparison; the criminal whittles away at the sense of stability until there seems to be no hope, nothing but the fear. And to drive this home, the last line of the film turns not to Beckert, not to the criminals or the police or the state but turns an accusatory finger back at the populace itself. It’s an unsettling coda.

M is slow going to a modern audience. The movie spends its first half underlining the fact that there’s a killer on the loose and the police have absolutely no leads. It’s the second half, when the underworld takes up the case, is when things start moving, and they ramp up so fast that the final fifteen minutes of the movie pack a lot into them. Whether by accident or design that quickening pace drives home the feeling of the net closing in on Beckert.

I wanted to watch M because I recently read some “Mister X” comics by Dean Motter, which are very much influenced by German Expressionism and noir. M is Expressionistic (at least by my Wikipedian understanding of the term), though more in feel than in look. The performances, while still grounded in realism, seem more expanded because of the needs of silent movies (M is Lang’s first talkie, and Metropolis was only four years previous) than because of that movement. The idea of the city searching for and zeroing in on Beckert is also handled more through plot than set design. (I grant that my again limited knowledge of these things is through comics and more modern movies that are perhaps exaggerating Expressionistic tropes.)

M was the movie on that list which I was most interested in seeing, and I’m glad it came first, as it really made me feel good about this project. I really want to see more things of this type. We’re off to a great start here.

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