“The man in black will soon be here”
Can a film that was made in 1931 be seen in 2008 and feel not only relevant, but also like it could have been made yesterday? I’m not sure if I would have really believed it until finally watching Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. One could say that cinema has been copying it throughout the decades, helping to give an illusion of innovation and contemporary feel, and that would not be wrong. With impeccable cinematography—save one very odd and disturbing shot of Inspector Lohmann—fantastic editing and montage work, a mesmerizing performance from Peter Lorre, and a careful use of sound, there is very little to fault. Not only technically sound, the underlying politics of the events at hand, the question of whether a justice system is flawed when murderers can be let go due to insanity, really intrigue. It’s not just about a manhunt for a child killer, it is a race between the law and the criminal underworld to find him and carry out whichever brand of punishment gets enforced first.
A true auteur, Lang creates one of the most memorable opening sequences I’ve ever seen. A perfect set-up to the events that have been occurring while also introducing the monster lurking behind the scenes with his welcoming whistle; it is orchestrated to perfection. Subtly giving the audience the details, Lang makes us a part of this world, invested in the manhunt, trying to figure out a way for him to be captured, instilling a bloodlust in us, making the final verdict a tough decision to swallow—does he deserve a fair trial or should the kangaroo court do their thing? The little girls play jump rope while singing a song about the “man in black” despite the chiding of one’s mother for them to stop. These killings have become a part of their lives, young and old, leaving an indelible mark on the community. And then comes the whistling, so cheerful and warm, what child could resist this man’s offering of candy and balloons? All we see at first is a silhouette covering over his wanted poster on a street post, adding to the mystery and fear, despite what appears to be just a nice man on a stroll. There is truly nothing more heartbreaking then watching young Elsie’s mother go room to room of her apartment, calling her daughter’s name after she is late from school. Lang’s static shots of the emptiness: the bare dinner plate, the unpopulated clothing room, and the sterile geometry of the stairwell with a hope that she may soon ascend become tough to stomach. And it all ends with a close-up shot outdoors—focusing on nothing—a bush in frame to the right. Soon, though, Elsie’s ball slowly rolls from the foliage into frame, a haunting image standing in for the tragedy we all know just occurred.
It’s not all artistry and craft setting the tone, but also wonderful storytelling. While the public is in an uproar for the safety of their streets, paranoid and lashing out on any unsuspecting man who appears to be talking to a child, the crime world becomes concerned because they are losing business and money. With raids on bars and seedy joints, identification papers are asked for and the police seem to be doing their jobs, if not actually looking for the killer. As they say, though, this man is probably a kind, gentle creature, someone you know as a friend, who just snaps when the time is right. It won’t be an easy case, because the man they are seeking only exists when he is doing the deed. Thus, the criminals begin their own hunt, to find the cause of their troubles, while also ridding the world of a killer, a man that the state doesn’t have the right to deem “reformed” only to let back out to kill again. The question becomes whether a man who isn’t held responsible for his actions can truly be given the blame. You need to come to grips with your own moral compass on that topic, because while you want him dead, you also feel sympathetic for his lack of control on his urges. Can the blame really be placed on the community—the parents who weren’t diligent enough to watch their own children while they were snatched from them? Maybe there isn’t anyone at absolute fault. Once you bring psychology into the equation, the problem only gets more confusing and tough to decipher, blurring that line between black and white, until the demarcation disappears completely.
It’s a credit to Lorre’s skill as an actor for allowing the audience to feel some remorse for him, despite the atrocities he has been committing. This is a time in cinema where sound was still being learned and its use in film becoming honed through trial and error. As a result, Lorre is a mix of silent film styling with sound added in. His expressions are big, but it all works along with his troubled soul, cowering in the face of a mob wanting blood, unable to remember the crimes he committed. He is a lost soul that needs help, but also needs to be stopped. With such an expressive face, Lang enhances his performance by only bringing sound in when necessary. He is unafraid to have moments of complete silence, marked by strong scratches and tapping of the killer, focusing all our attention exactly where it needs to be. There are no wham-bam explosions or loud music distracting us from the visuals, hoping we don’t look too closely at the story. No, M is the epitome of how a script can be directed in a way that allows the audience to follow along and understand each step of the way. Lang has a story to tell of corruption, violence, love, and loss. He tells it in a way that leads the viewers along a specific path, yet still keeps ambiguity as far as our feelings on what is happening. The groundwork is laid, but it is up to us to decide where we fall on the subject of responsibility. If a mother who fails to look at her child for one moment can be blamed for the child’s disappearance, then doesn’t the man who took her deserve it too, whether he was in his right mind or not? A fair trial is one thing, but retribution is another. It’s a slippery slope that crops up in court decisions even today and yet it was handled deftly way back in 1931 Germany, even getting by the Berlin censor board … showing that the topic won’t be solved anytime soon.
M 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½