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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