I’d argue that “Metropolis” is the most famous of Fritz Lang’s films. After all, even if you’ve never seen it, chances are you recognize the image of the Maria robot, or at the very least, you’ve seen some of the 10,000 movies that have borrowed ideas in production design from the influential SF movie. But “M” is a far superior work of cinema overall, a mood piece propelled by a fearless performance from one of cinema’s most recognizable character actors. And when you consider that this was one of the first things Peter Lorre ever did, it’s even more astonishing. It’s fearless work, made even more emotionally complicated because Lang dares to express some sort of empathy for the character, an entirely-loathsome child murderer. This is no dusty homework assignment, something you should watch so you can understand film history. This is an angry primal scream of a film, still vital and electric, as modern in its attitudes towards crime and media as anything released this year.
Five minutes in, we’re treated to the first of many indelible images in the film, and we get a hint of Lang’s overall visual plan. A little girl bouncing a ball stops in front of a poster, and the camera moves past her to focus on the poster so we can read it. The little girl stays off-camera, but the ball keeps appearing in frame as she bounces it off the poster while we read it. There’s a 10,000-mark reward for anyone who can help track down a child murderer. And as a man’s shadow slides across the poster, looking down at the little girl while he introduces himself, it’s hard not to get immediately anxious. Lang’s staging tells us clearly that this is the killer, and the little girl? His next victim.
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Lang starts tightening the screws immediately, intercutting the little girl’s mother waiting for her at home with scenes of the little girl walking with her new friend, whose face we don’t see yet. They stop and he buys her a balloon from a blind vendor, whistling Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” as they walk together. And as the mother’s anxiety escalates, Lang shows us empty spaces where the little girl used to be, finally ending the sequence with a single shot of the now-abandoned balloon caught in some telephone wires, letting us know exactly how dark and sad a ride this is going to be.
When did we become so accepting of monsters in our midst?
I have trouble navigating any news source these days because I have a problem reading stories about parents who abuse or neglect or torture and kill their own children. I’m amazed by the seemingly-endless well of inhuman cruelty that exists out there. To the culture at large, it seems like it’s just background noise, one more atrocity in an endless tapestry of them. “M” was made at a moment where things had started to slide towards the world we know today, but when people still had enough perspective to be outraged by it. Lang seems positively prescient in terms of showing how law enforcement and the media would handle some of the more famous monsters of the second half the 20th century, figures like the Zodiac Killer or Charles Manson. And the jet-black ending of Lang’s film suggests that he knew that the eventual racket surrounding incidents like this would overwhelm the more urgent need to make our children safe.
By the time that little girl from the opening has fallen to the uncontrolled desires of Hans Beckert (Lorre), the death count stands at eight missing kids, and there’s a desperate city-wide panic setting in. We see a mob mentality push people to attack anyone they think is even remotely tied to the murders. One baseless accusation is enough to send a crowd into a frenzy, practically tearing an innocent man apart. Grief and fury left unchecked lead to this sort of mass psychosis, and through the first hour, we barely see Lorre at all. We see the ripple effect from what he’s done, but we see one glimpse of his face about fifteen minutes in, and then nothing else for another half-hour or so. Instead, we see how the police spin their wheels, anxious for any sort of clue or break, and how they act out in the meantime. Nightly raids on any spot where criminals might congregate give the impression that something is being done, even though the cops know that they’re wasting their time and energy. And the criminal underworld has had enough, their every plan being routed as a side effect of the fear that’s got the city in its grip. These days, anyone who watches any cop shows on TV knows that frustration and cynicism is part of the fabric of police work, but in 1931, there was still a belief that the police were supposed to close cases, make sense of the world, protect the public.
Finally, the criminals of the city make a decision: they’re going to hunt the killer down themselves. They’ll use an army of beggars, invisible to everyone else, as their eyes and ears all over the city. And once they find and stop the killer, they can return to business as usual. I love the way Lang intercuts the debates among the city’s criminals with meetings by the cops, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between the two. They’re both after the same goal, but to totally different ends, and by cross-cutting the efforts of groups on both sides of the law, he underscores just how universal our taboo of child killing is. No matter how hardened a criminal is, the idea of killing a kid seems to be off-limits. The first hour of the film plays like a modern-day procedural, and I’d wager that this is the origin of many of the conventions of the genre, just as I think much of the groundwork of serial killer films was also laid here.
Once Lorre shows up, this soft-faced creep wastes no time in making the audience uncomfortable. The first scene where we really see him in action, he stalks a little girl, and there’s a moment where he spots her, marks her as prey, practically fainting from the effect she has on him. It’s part desire, part revulsion. He knows what he is, knows what he is likely to do, and the part of him that is human knows just how wrong it is. But he stalks her anyway, and only the arrival of a mother frustrates his plans. The net starts to close around him as the police search his room, but Lorre’s unaware of any of that. He chooses another target, and this one seems to be more successful. What he doesn’t know is just how closely he’s being watched… or what’s being planned for him once the criminals get their hands on him.
The way he’s discovered, the sequences as they hunt him through the streets of Berlin, the amazing set piece once they’ve cornered him in an office building… it’s all masterful, and Lang piles one great sequence after another into the movie, but nothing really prepares the viewer for the final stretch of the film, once Lorre’s been brought to ground, and the criminal underworld gathers to hold a court where Lorre will be judged. What an amazing idea, all of these murderers and thieves and swindlers all gathered to pass judgment on the one monster they all can unite against, and Lorre, who spends much of the movie silent, comes to bug-eyed sweaty life as he has to justify his own continued existence to the angry mob, knowing full well that nothing he will say can ever justify the evil he’s done.
There are any number of films in the last 70 years that are designed to look into the darkest heart of man, but Fritz Lang and his co-writer Thea von Harbou created something here that asks what it is that would bring any or all of us to the line where we’re ready to kill, ready to demand that eye for an eye. They don’t excuse anything Lorre’s done, but they do offer up a portrait of a man crippled by his own desires, undone by his basic wiring. I hadn’t seen “M” in about a decade before rewatching it for this, but I guarantee it won’t be another ten years before I see it again. This really is one of the great movies about the cancer of crime ever made.
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