We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.
“It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run…”
M was not at all what I expected it would be, and that is completely a good thing. We often feel that there’s no need to watch movies like this except in film class, that so much of them have been filtered into pop culture that we’ve all but already experienced all they have to offer through osmosis. But it’s not true. The pictures we form of these movies can be wildly inaccurate. Such was the case between myself and Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller.
I’d gotten it into my head that M was about the kangaroo court held by a group of criminals for a child murderer. I thought that most of the plot of the film concerned this trial, with the criminals throwing probing questions at the killer, and the killer trying to defend himself. But that trial only comes up at the very end of the movie. Most of the running time is spent with the hunt for the murderer. And it’s the way that the story goes about it that surprises me the most.
The audience knows from almost the beginning that Peter Lorre is the man terrorizing Berlin. First the police ramp up their efforts to find him, and as the denizens of the street begin to feel the vices screw tighter, they organize their own hunt so that they can elminate him and things can get back to normal. It’s almost Wire-esque the way that the film compares and contrasts how the two groups go about their investigations. It’s an ironic bit of “not so different after all” that’s on-the-nose but delicious.
But it’s the way the film slowly unrolls Lorre’s character, Hans Beckert, which is truly remarkable. At the start, he’s a truly sinister character, introduced as a sinister shadow. Before we ever see his face, we hear only him whistling the bars of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” or speaking to his young soon-to-be-victim. He’s an elusive boogeyman. When we finally see Lorre’s creepy, bug-eyed visage, he’s looking at himself in a mirror, contorting his blankness into strange parodies of human emotion.
But as two separate packs of hunters close in, things change. Beckert goes from predator to prey, and his performance becomes suitably animalistic, almost ratlike. When the gang of criminals finally corners him in an attic storehouse, he freezes in the beam of a flashlight the same way a deer would. And then he’s dragged before a crowd of people jeering for his blood and enacts a heartbreaking turnaround.
Beckert pleads for his life, delivering an agonizing monologue about how he can’t stop himself from killing, no matter how much he hates it or how much he resists. He lambastes the mob of judges, jury, and executioners, pointing out that most of them voluntarily turned to crime. Lorre descends into an astounding performance. He’s painfully, achingly pitiful, a Universal Monster without any fangs or deformities.
This climax recontextualizes the rest of the movie in a way that still feels uncomfortable today. Who wants to be in the position of sympathizing with a man who kills children, of rooting against the people who want to enact vigilante justice on him? It certainly goes against the sensibilities of our current culture, which vilifies the mentally ill and repeatedly urges us to cheer on lynch mobs and shake our heads at any lack of bloodthirstiness in the criminal justice system.
Even the ending, which fades to black before a legitimate jury hands down a sentence to Becker, denies the “bad guy dead = everything’s fine” mentality. We are left with the grieving mothers of the victims, who mournfully observe that nothing will bring their children back. It’s a million miles from the normal tone of a thriller.
Fritz Lang’s mastery of visuals came into full flourish with this film. After Metropolis established his flair for the epic, this much smaller film utilizes cleverer tricks, in conjunction with the then-novel use of sound, to draw in the viewers. Shadows, reflections, and offscreen dialogue are all brought together for incredible effect.
M is wrenching and unexpected in ways people don’t expect from older movies. Which is why it’s the perfect film to show to anyone with an open enough mind. It’s still visually dazzling, gripping, and ultimately devastating. Find it now.