d. Fritz Lang / 1931 / Germany / 105 min
Viewed on: Sky Arts 2 (UK)

Still from Fritz Lang's M

There is an unmistakable brilliance about German director Fritz Lang’s capability of mood, his innate ability to create a cinematic atmosphere that, far from being a result of working within German expressionism, seems to be the very thing that made that movement – of which he was a vital part – so great in the first place. M is, of course, Lang’s first talkie, and it’s here that Lang’s capability of mood feels most apparent.

Sound was still a relatively new element of commercial feature filmmaking at this point, and admittedly Lang still hadn’t overcome his reliance on certain silent era devices. Large plot expositions are outlined on the posters covering grubby Berlin walls and in the letters and newspapers that appear on screen, usually unnarrated.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is only once the occasional bouts of expositionary dialogue have subsided, and the sparer action begins to unfold (in almost complete silence), that we get a real sense of the desperation gripping the city, an eerie calm which is only broken by the sound of Peter Lorre – or, more accurately, Lang himself – who fills this first soundtrack with the incessantly creepy whistling of Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.

M is, of course, ostensibly a film about a deranged child killer, but it is also something of an indictment on the erosion of police and court power in the face of ever increasing notions of civil liberty. Peter Lorre’s child killer cannot, it seems, be stopped by police power alone, and it is left largely to mob rule. Of course, this mob is also serving its own ends, sparked into action when the killers existence begins to threaten their own livelihoods in nonviolent, petty crime. In their attempts to restore ‘order’, the mob invokes an interesting moral and ethical dilemma in which we, the audience, are required to question whether one crime should be considered worse than another.

Furthermore, M doesn’t so much judge Lorre’s character, as explore his condition as an aspect of complex social malfunction, before equating it fairly specifically with mental illness during a final impassioned plea, expertly delivered by Lorre at the film’s conclusion. In fact, packed with ambiguity throughout, the most incontrovertible element of M is probably Lorre’s supreme magnificence in portraying this most despicable of characters.

Similarly wonderful are the gloriously long takes that see the camera floating around a scene in a technique often utilised in German cinema of this period, and subsequently used to great effect by everyone from Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to Gus van Sant. And then there is Lang’s use of empty shots, which only serve to heighten the eerieness of open spaces (particularly after they have been vacated by crowds of people). In M, ’empty’ spaces are unequivocally portrayed as a site of real menace in an agoraphobic vision in which mood reigns supreme.

And yet, despite all this narrative heaviness, I can’t help wondering: what exactly is Fritz Lang’s obsession with the thirteenth letter of the alphabet? Answers on a postcard, please.

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