Sunday, June 19, 2011


 When I look back over the last decade I realise how extremely fortunate I have been at the amount of classic cinema I have seen on the big screen. In 2000 I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and again several years ago. Many regard it as his masterpiece, but even after two viewings, and then watching M several nights ago, I think M is the superior film.

 Metropolis was ahead of its time visually with techniques the rest of the world wasn't even close to replicating. It is hard to imagine in our own times that once German cinema was the best and leading light in the field. Today it is Hollywood, but somehow with its dominance it doesn't come close to that of the Germans in the 1920's and early 1930's. In the Alfred Hitchcock books I have read and reviewed recently, and in particular the biography I am reading now, it is very clear where Hitchcock got his ideas from. He even acknowledges the German influence on himself. The camera shot looking down a stair well  for instance isn't Hitchcock's invention but Lang's. We see it in M when Elsie's mother at the start of the film looks down the stairwell several times when her daughter isn't home after school. Hitchcock states that stairwells are 'photogenic' and uses the technique in several of his films, but he was unashamedly copying Lang

 Fritz Lang filmed M in 1931 and it was his first 'talking' film. It is interesting because if you listen closely there are several scenes where there is no sound what-so-ever. I mean none! No background score, no voices,  no vehicle noise, nothing. It is quite strange and I kept finding myself turning up the volume in trying to find some noise. And yet in other scenes, when there was no narrative between actors, Lang had background noises such as voices, whistles, and horns. A soundtrack to a film of course was still its infancy, and it is enlightening to watch just to remind ourselves that what we see on our screens now wasn't always so.

 When you look closely it is a primative film which mirrors the youthfulness of the medium, especially the equipment. To look at the final product of M and then at at the primitive conditions in which it was made under is to appreciate it even more. Fritz Lang was a perfectionist and even with the equipment he had he understood film and cinema like no-one else at the time. Metropolis is a good example of this. But M, whilst not as technique/visually/ heavy, still is a real showcase of Lang's techniques and thinking.

 The stairwell scene is the first example. He hung a camera over the well and pointed it straight down to get the shot. It may sound backward by our standards but it was cutting edge stuff in the early 1930's. The other thing which is immediately obvious, and which Alfred Hitchcock latched onto and used in his own films, was the use of the high overlooking shot. Lang built platforms and other structures on which he hoisted up his cameras to get a shot looking downwards. In M there are huge amounts of this as we see people moving around the streets. The other shot that really sood out, and was unusual for the time, was one of a policeman sitting at his desk with the camera underneath in the footwell looking up over his knees to his face. Very cutting edge stuff for 1931, and still quite brilliant.

 M is a pure masterpiece of film technique. I just loved watching it and seeing Lang's thinking on film making. The high shot was his speciality and the disc I had has a few photos on it showing the elaborate sets Lang had produced, and the platforms he had built over them for his cameras. It is primitive stuff but no-one can ever convince me modern film makers are in any way better than those of the past. Fritz Lang for me was a pioneer and one of the very first genuinely great filmmakers, of whose influence Alfred Hitchcock no-less acknowledges on his own career. How many have been influenced by Hitch into our era?? Lang's influence has a very long reach when you really think about it!

 One thing really made me laugh and that is the amount of smoking. In almost every scene everyone is either smoking a cigarette or cigar. It is incredible and in some shots the smoke is so thick you can cut it with the proverbial knife!! Watch M and you'll be amazed! All those actors must have died of lung cancer!! Other things are also interesting. The use of primitive CGI for instance. In one scene Lang has a high shot and on each side of the frame he has superimposed two buildings. You can always tell this is films of the era because the imposed shot is shaky and jumps compared to the background it is put on. Notice this too in the court room shot where two big elaborate lights are on each side of the judges. You can see them shudder slightly against the background. Lang's use of this technique is very good when compared to its use in other films where it is extremely crude, and the shuddering of the imposed shot is more than obvious. But for its day Lang's use of the technique, and his quality of it, is remarkable.

 What also stood out was the editing as it was very sharp unlike many films of the era where there is a clear cut in the film. Sometimes editing was so poor  the scene was cut just before it actually finished. Again Lang's eye to detail stands out and M is a very well made film overall. With such good editing it hasn't the jerkiness many early black and white films were known for. M is a quality film all round and  Lang has to be acknowledged for this.

 I don't need to go into a synopsis suffice to say M was one of  the very first films to deal with a serial killer. Certainly in a way that wasn't for entertainment purposes alone. It is surprising that such a subject like this was allowed to be played in the 1930's. Lang has also shown great eye for detail in the plot as he has in its visually making. I was immensely impressed with how he has shown what mass hysteria starts. We see this as the child murders increase and people start pointing the finger at each other willy nilly. In several scenes two men are falsley accused in the street and subsequently mobbed and assaulted. True to life stuff and I felt revoltion at it all as it was a true reflection of the mass ( or mob ), and society.

 I also liked how Lang then shows how the police and authorities react to the murders. They quickly realise asking for the publics help is more a hinderance than a help due to the constant false accusations and mass hysteria. For me M shows that nothing changes as people of 80 years ago react the same way as we would today. M isn't about a particularly pleasant subject dealing as it does with child murder, which brings out strong emotions in us all. I think Lang has produced a very prescient view on humanity when it comes to this. The police and their efforts to apprehend Beckert are very well played as Lang shows their scientific approach to their work. The frustartions they feel are palpable as the presure mounts on them from the public and local authorities. This isn't a film just from the murderer's point of view but also from that of those charged with stopping him. There is no sentimentality displayed and the grittiness is superb from all the players.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert.
 The best scene for me is when the murderer, Hans Beckert ( played brilliantly by Peter Lorre ), is put on trial by the local criminal element. It reminds me so much of Humbert Humbert, the pervert of Lolita. Both he and the murderer know they have perverted tastes that aren't considered normal. They both go through life both loving their 'tastes', and yet knowing they are heavily burdened by them since they have to satisfy the 'hunger' to find relief. When Beckert breaks down screaming 'I can't help it, I can't help it', Lorre is quite brilliant as the viewer feels both revulsion and sympathy with his character. It was at this point I was amazed that a film with this subject matter was made in 1931.

 There have been many serial killer movies made over the years and yet I consider M by far the best of them. When  Beckert breaks down and confesses his perversions and self loathing, more than any other film, M comes the closet to what a serial killer is really about. Simply a sick twisted person who can't help their pervesrions and has to kill to feel better. We see the same thing in the muderer in Alice Sebold's novel, The lovely Bones. I liked M because the murders aren't shown. OK it is 1931 and it wouldn't have been accepted but when the shot of the ball running away is seen it leaves no doubt at to what has happened. It is refreshing as for me it shows that the unseen can be far more powerful thatna gruesome slow-mo shot of a person being sliced and diced. ( Think of the shower scene in Psycho as an example ).

 M is just much more than The Silence of the Lambs for instance. That relied on thrills and graphic violence and gore whereas M is more subtle in its approach. For me the murderer of M is the more chilling because he is seen for what he is , just a simple flesh and blood man, whereas Hannibal Lecter is made into an anti-hero. Where  we should be repulsed by him we instead watch and glory in his perversions as entertainment. For me M is the best of any serial killer film made because it isn't entertaining and deals with an appalling subject with extreme objectivity. I've never been fond of movies that glorify the likes of Beckert, Lecter, Jigsaw, etc, and turns them into anti-heros.

 M is a superb film, and even though 80 years old is still the best look at serial killers. Peter Lorre is quite brilliant especially when he breaks down and confesses his perversion. It is a great scene. But as film, and a piece of cinematic history , then M steps up into another league. Any film aficianado will love M for the brilliantly made film it is. It is as flawless as could be made in 1931 and much of what Lang achieved in it resonates in modern cinema. It is one of those rare films where you watch a great script and acting backed with superb film-making. There is nothing here I can criticise or fault, and after some of the mainstream awfulness I've watched recently it was a pure pleasure to watch a truely great piece of cinema.

 M is in a word compulsory viewing. For me it is one of the greatest film ever made. It may be dated visually, but it was a brilliantly made film in 1931 which any true film aficianado will appreciate for what Fritz Lang achieved. The performance of Peter Lorre is brilliant and quite unforgetable. Also Lang has given us a look at society in general and provides a warning at the end of the of the film in that we all have a responsibility to keep our children safe. M is the serial killer film to beat all serial killer films because it deals with the subject in a clear cut way and doesn't make Hans Beckert out to anything else but a sick man who needs help.

 Brilliant, quite brilliant. A damn good example to all as to what makes a truely great film great.

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  1. This keeps sitting and waiting on my queue. Might need to finally pull the trigger after reading your review.

  2. It is a great film. What is so amazing is the crudity of the equipment Lang had at his disposal and how he managed to make an enduringly superb piece of cinema. One of the true greats.

  3. wow incredibly detailed review. i especially enjoyed the reference to the non-stop smoking. the two scenes with the police and the gangsters smoking around conference tables slowly filling the room with clouds of smoke is so visually impressive that you almost choke from watching it.

    we just saw this for our noir-a-thon. i'll post a link over here when i write the review piece.

  4. Blahblah!! That smoking is incredible ins't it!! I think that is something that really struck me as like you say it does get to the point of choking!
    M is an incredible film and such an influential one. I sat in awe of it and couldn't see anything that wasn't masterful about it.