It’s impossible to imagine fully the impact M must have had on its first viewers in 1931. But the record reveals that contemporaneous critics were scandalized by this fictionalization of the actual case of a Düsseldorf child murderer; one American reviewer suggested that the thriller’s technique “never be repeated, since it is too harrowing an experience to sit though.” In this age of serial-killer chic, however, few will find M harrowing. All but the most sheltered moviegoers have been repeatedly exposed to such then-unprecedented Lang gambits as making the audience scrutinize a potential victim through the killer’s eyes. And yet the film still looksor rather soundsinnovative.
Generally credited as both the first serial-killer movie and the first police procedural, M is the second best-known of Lang’s German films, after Metropolis. It’s been hard to watch in recent years, with the images obscured by decay and some scenes missing altogether. Now restored by the Munich Film Archive, the movie looks (and sounds) better than it probably has in decades, featuring new subtitles and a renovated soundtrack.
M begins by recounting, in a montage that now seems primly elliptical, the murder of a young girl: Her death is expressed only by absences, and her killer is seen only as a shadow. This is not the first of the man’s crimes, and hysteria soon grips the city. (In a scene that is both universal and expressive of ’30s Germany, an innocent man is attacked by a suspicious mob.) The police have no leads, so they begin to squeeze the underworld, cracking down on gambling and prostitution dens they’ve previously tolerated.
Unable to conduct their customary businesses, this netherworld’s leaders decide to find the murderer themselves. Enlisting the city’s beggars and peddlers, they soon identify the killer (now seen to be a young, fleshy Peter Lorre), and chase him into an office building. After an extensive search, the terrified man is brought before an ad hoc tribunal. There he makes the explosive case that his is not a crime but a compulsion. He is transformed from victimizer to victim.
Perhaps Lang was merely expressing a cynicism that was widespread in the Weimar Republic, but M now looks Brechtian. (Lang was later to collaborate with Brecht on Hangmen Also Die, an anti-Nazi film made in Hollywood in 1943.) The film explicitly equates lawman and lawbreaker, intercutting between visually matched conclaves of the top cops and the mob bosses, both swathed in cigarette and cigar smoke. Introducing the beggars, the film playfully links them to financiers; one inventories half-smoked cigar butts, while another posts the day’s prices for leftover scraps of bread and cheese. Amid these cross-class parallels, only the killer is isolated, held in equal contempt by housewives and hookers. (Lang, of course, could hardly have anticipated that films like The Silence of the Lambs would make psycho killers seem droll and debonair.)
The film’s original title, The Murderer Among Us, was changed after Nazis threatened Lang, apparently thinking it referred to them. It didn’t, but surely the ominous aura reflects Lang’s trepidations about Nazi rule. (His next film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, was banned for putting Nazi slogans in the mouth of its title character, a psychotic criminal mastermind.) Ironically, M was written by Lang’s wife and frequent scripter, Thea Von Harbou, who stayed in Germany after Lang fled in 1933, first to Paris and then to Hollywood. She continued to work under the Nazis, joining the party and writing screenplays that glorified the Third Reich. (She and Lang were divorced in 1934.)
M was Lang’s first sound film, and it demonstrates that he was quick to grasp the possibilities of the enhanced medium. Rather than simply submit to the novelty of sound with lots of chatter, the director uses audio sparingly, economically, and significantly. To stress the importance of sound, Lang even makes the character who first recognizes the killer a blind peddler and the clue that makes the identification possible an aural one.
The director frequently disconnects sound and image, sometimes in ways that will seem routine to contemporary filmgoersas when he illustrates a policeman’s oral report to his superiors with pictures of what he’s describingbut elsewhere in a manner that remains experimental. At times, sound precedes image, thus linking scenes and speeding exposition. During some crucial moments, however, sound simply yields to silence, leaving the viewer alone to contemplate a horrible developmentand to understand that cinematic sound is as much an artifice as montage or other visual techniques.
The arrival of the restored M continues a fascinating dialogue that began on local screens with Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. That playful meditation on filmmaking and art versus commerce, in which Jean-Pierre Leaud impersonated a Truffaut/Godard type, was followed by the restored Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film about filmmaking. The latter features Fritz Lang playing himself, as a director who escaped the Nazis only to be oppressed by Hollywood vulgarians. (By the time Godard’s film was made, Lang had abandoned trying to work in the American movie biz.) When Brigitte Bardot’s character tells Lang that she liked his 1952 western, Rancho Notorious, he replies that he prefers M.
Though Godard once called M Lang’s “least good” film, he used its radical approach to sound in Contempt, and indeed is one of the few prominent filmmakers who still manipulates sound with Langian boldness. (One of the most striking things about Contempt is how much it, alone of Godard’s ’60s work, resembles his ’90s films.) The disconnected sounds and unexpected silences are as startling in Contempt as they are in M, proof that the expressive qualities of audio have largely been neglected in this era of Dolby, digital, Sensurround effects.
Contempt also tells the story of how Goebbels offered Lang a position as head of Nazi film production, to which he responded by leaving the country the same day. Patrick McGilligan’s new biography, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, argues that Lang inflated his heroic resolve in recounting this anecdote; the director may even have considered Goebbels’ offer, although he surely must have known (being part Jewish) that his future in Germany was not bright. Whatever Lang’s personal failings, however, M remains a powerful testament, its formal experiments as extraordinary as its sense of dread is overwhelming.CP