Tuesday, October 30, 2012

M (1931)

Berlin is being stalked by a child killer and it won’t be long before he strikes again. This shadowy figure is absent from much of the film but is ever present in the minds of the populace. When another child disappears, paranoia and anger boil over as the authorities and criminal elements come together to stop the killings. Amazing cinematography and one of Peter Lorre’s best performances make this one of the prime noir films in the genre.

While the film is a fictional story, it feels more like a documentary than anything else. We don’t follow one character and there is no protagonist. The camera is ambiguous, neither damning nor adoring Lorre’s character. Instead, we are like a detached observer that watches the story from over the shoulder of everyone. We aren’t omniscient and instead follow around police, private citizens, beggars and criminals and hover over their machinations. This lack of information cranks up the tension not only for the viewer but for the characters as well. It allows for everyone we see to remain a possible suspect and feeds the frenzy that is the mob in their insatiable hunt for the child killer. Strangers accost each other in the street and make unfounded accusations. Any man speaking to a child is viewed with suspicion. Police search every shrub, examine every scrap of paper and essentially make life difficult for those committing crimes small and large. The pressure envelopes the city and the searchers close ranks around Lorre’s character, driving him into ever-smaller spaces until they think they have him trapped.

Peter Lorre is absolutely amazing in this, one of his first movies. He was only 26 at the time and if you have any doubt about his abilities, wait until near the end when begins his monologue. He is absolutely riveting! Watch for the use of mirrors in the movie and how Lorre interacts with them. He speaks about being pursued and the mirror serves to double his image. ”It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it's impossible. I can't escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run... endless streets. I want to escape, to get away!” He doesn’t actually spend much time on screen but his presence is palpable in every moment. He is a pathetic figure who actually engenders sympathy, not what how one would normally expect to feel for an antagonist.

I also appreciated the other characters we meet like Inspektor Karl Lohmann. Usually I would expect the head of police to be a bumbling fool but Lohmann plays a very intelligent man with a sixth sense about criminals. Evidence of this is laid bare in the speakeasy when he’s checking documents and catches the forger and the thief. I also really liked the meeting of the crime bosses. Their props helped to inform on their criminal pursuits without having to put words to their line of work. One man playing cards is clearly a card shark and one man who keeps pulling watches from his pocket is obviously a master thief.
There is a great scene which switches between the police meeting and the crime bosses meeting. Traditionally these groups are on the opposite end of the morality scale but here they hold separate meetings about the same issue. It is invariably for different reasons but we see how this one man has brought them together. I rather like the crime bosses approach better though as we got to see the wonderful beggar network and their underground grocery store where they resell half eaten sandwiches and half smoked cigars. There’s a great little scene with the cigar man laying out his spoils by size and type. He almost succumbs to lighting a rather large stogie but on second thought decides to keep it for resale.

You might notice the lack of music or really any sound at all in this film. It could easily be explained away by the fact that this was Lang’s first movie with sound but when you consider that he could easily have chosen to stay with the tech used for silent movies and didn't, this argument falls apart. Instead this feels like a deliberate and measured decision. On one hand it gives the movie this hollow centre where music could have been used to heighten tension, elicit an emotional response and/or inform the viewer about a scene or a character. The lack of music does make scenes more poignant however, as they force the reader to really watch what’s going on instead of letting the music set the tone. For example, the scene at the end where the town confronts Lorre’s character is visually stunning and music isn’t necessary. In fact it would detract from the gravity of the situation. Really the only important music in the film is when Lorre’s character whistles. It’s his identifier as he spends much of his time facing away from the camera and comes in the form of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. It also creates an ominous atmosphere as you’ll notice that he only whistles it at certain times.

The film does have a clinical or procedural feel to it in how Lang presents a set to the viewer. In some ways though it felt like a Master Class on cinematography. As well, Lang sets up this cloying claustrophobia of suspense well known to Hitchcock fans. The movie develops a narrowing focus that begins with the city at large and then shrinks down into the dark corners of Berlin. The closer we get to Lorre the slower the action.
I loved almost everything about this movie but the ending was dissatisfying in that Lang seems to be trying to make the movie into one with a message instead of letting it stand on its own. The scene with the mothers detracts from everything Lang had constructed up until that point. I would have preferred the movie end on the scene just previous. In any case though I would highly recommend this film

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