M

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #30: Fritz Lang’s M.

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Fritz Lang al­ways blows my mind. The pre­cise craft­man­ship in all of his films, the ex­actly cor­rect fram­ing for a shot, the in­spired, slight, un­der­stated cam­era move­ments, the chiaroscuro and beauty of the black and white would be worth watch­ing in a film with­out any­thing re­sem­bling a plot. But Lang is not merely good at one or two as­pects of film­mak­ing. He is good at mak­ing films, com­plete worlds unto them­selves. M is a world of sus­pi­cion, where neigh­bors are en­cour­aged in para­noia and tale-bear­ing, where the in­nocu­ous be­comes sin­is­ter, and a bud­ding fas­cist gov­ern­ment con­trols the pub­lic through its ef­forts to find and stop a face­less en­emy. It was made in 1931, an­tic­i­pat­ing the Third Reich by a few years. That’s just the macro level. On the mi­cro level, the psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of a child-killer is im­me­di­ately ab­hor­rent and un­der­stand­able, and the steps into Hans Beckert’s [played won­der­fully by Peter Lorre] mind are so well-writ­ten, por­trayed, apt and sur­pris­ingly po­tent that the film, which is largely run-of-the-mill po­lice pro­ce­du­ral for the most part, cul­mi­nates in an un­ex­pected ex­plo­sion of emo­tion that a viewer is left with some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing a thou­sand-yard stare.

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If we have to pick one word for this film to be about, it is likely re­pres­sion. The rea­son Beckert acts as he does, even though he knows he is mad and should not, is be­cause he has no op­tion in his so­ci­ety but to re­press his rep­re­hen­si­ble de­sires. Even a ver­bal ex­pres­sion of his de­sire to have sex with lit­tle girls and then mur­der them is so out­side the norm that it would likely cost him his life or at least a few teeth. Stuck as he was, forced to in­ter­nal­ize and co­coon him­self from the every­day of every­one else, it is un­sur­pris­ing that he would es­sen­tially dis­ap­pear, so in­nocu­ous that no clues ap­pear apart from his habit of whistling Peer Gynt as he seeks new prey. Similarly, his writ­ing of a let­ter to the po­lice, and then the pa­pers at­tests to his de­sire, no mat­ter how now mal­formed, to have com­mu­ni­ca­tion with so­ci­ety at large. This is all pos­si­ble to learn with­out ac­tu­ally see­ing his face, or hear­ing him speak. Sound was a rel­a­tively new fea­ture in film at this time, and its am­bi­ent use by Lang, its ap­pro­pri­ate and height­en­ing omis­sions, and its la­conic di­a­logue make the fi­nal so­lil­o­quy by Beckert all the more ef­fec­tive.

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The fact that even the crim­i­nals, so­ci­etal edge-cases them­selves, want to de­stroy Beckert with no qualms is telling to his ex­treme de­viance. Yet, when he ex­plains the mo­ti­va­tions and guilt that drive and tor­ment him, heads nod even among the kan­ga­roo court. These are peo­ple who know what it is to sin, though for the most part they can con­trol it. The coda is so terse that it was ei­ther meant to be that way or some of the miss­ing footage be­longs at the end of the film, but no mat­ter the rea­son, it at­tests si­mul­ta­ne­ously to the para­dox­i­cal eth­i­cal and rea­son­ing sat­is­fac­tion of the rule of law and the pas­sion­ate, emo­tional dis­sat­is­fac­tion of jus­tice not be­ing served. The tale of se­rial killer be­comes anal­o­gous to the life of every per­son, only taken to an ex­treme; and the char­ac­ter sketch of a dou­bly fear-dri­ven so­ci­ety adds an­other facet to Lang’s idea that vice and vi­cious­ness are all too eas­ily en­cour­aged with any per­son.

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