M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Giving birth to the police procedural, Fritz Lang’s M, though talky, retains a grim fascination. It is about two city-wide hunts for the same man—one by the police, the other by the underworld, which hopes to put a stop to the police search of which their criminal business is running afoul. The hunted man is a pedophile and serial killer of little girls. When they wrongly suspect someone on the street of being the killer, people become an enraged mob and assault him, taking the law into their own hands, just as the criminals are doing. Moreover, they reflect something of the compulsive killer’s own inability to control himself. Primarily, the film identifies the two investigating groups: police and criminals. Eventually, the latter group captures and tries the killer, occasioning a stunning pan shot of the massive “jury,” and satirically pricking the modern concept of justice—trial by peers.
     M is a pitiless film except regarding the mother of one of the victims, who waits for her child to come home for dinner, and the hunted man, whose sickness draws Lang’s full measure of pity. Even children are casually monstrous. The film opens starkly, with an angled overhead shot of girls in a circle and one in the middle, who recites a gruesome variation on “eeny meeny miney moe” to determine which child is “it”: something to do with a man in black who is coming to chop up whoever is chosen.
     Humanity is often portrayed at a haunting remove: men are gesticulating shadows on a wall; the unseen killer is the tune he whistles from Grieg’s Peer Gynt whenever he is about to strike. Indeed, this is how he is identified by the balloon seller, who is blind.
     Young Peter Lorre is brilliant as the hunted man.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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