List Of Shame: M (1931)

The second entry in my List Of Shame is a film about Nazism without any Nazis!

Script By: Thea Von Harbou & Fritz Lang
Directed By: Fritz Lang

As a psychological thriller I found myself equally taken and distant from M. There are moments, such as when little Elsie makes her trek through the streets of Berlin, that were absolutely riveting in their tension. Another great example is when Hans, Peter Lorre, is trying to hide out in a warehouse near the end of the picture. That is a psychologically charged sequence that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. However, there are sequences that undercut the tension to be found in M. Whenever the police procedural aspect of M gets too in depth I felt the movie slightly losing its steam. The flashbacks that take place through the narration of Inspector Lohmann looking over a case report almost stop the movie dead in its tracks. I don’t know why Fritz Lang, the director, chose to include those scenes in the way that he did, but they are the only problems I ended up having with M.

On the other side of the spectrum M isn’t a psychological thriller or a police procedural, it’s an allegorical tale of what was looming on the German horizon. In this respect M is a much better movie than, for example Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. M is about a story, the story needs to exist to provide structure for the allegory that Mr. Lang is interested in conveying. The Great Dictator is all about Mr. Chaplin using a threadbare story to relay an on the nose political message that ends in one of cinema’s most disgusting examples of self-indulgence. Mr. Lang leaves all notion of self-indulgence at the door in M, this is not a film about him but a film about the scary things he was seeing at the time. The rise of Nazism is wonderfully foreshadowed by Mr., Lang, he is scared and his film is the work of a man who is afraid of what he is seeing outside his window. I know the above comparison to The Great Dictator may seem odd, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both films are trying to warn of the ills of approaching, or already existent, Nazism. The Great Dictator uses satire to gets its point across while M uses allegory to do the same. The difference is that M is a fully formed movie, while The Great Dictator is an idea that never takes flight because the entire film exists merely for the final self-indulgent speech.

The deeper one digs into M the more readily apparent it becomes that the crimes of Hans Beckert matter little, the larger crime is the treatment Hans receives by the citizens of Berlin. His acts were repellent and vile, but what is done to him is just as bad, maybe even worse. If this is what Mr. Lang was seeing outside his window in early 1930s Germany then it’s no wonder that he left as soon as he had the chance. The part of me that is the father of a five year old girl still hated Hans for what he had done, but the final courtroom scene made me understand why he was writhing about so violently. As odd as it may seem, Hans represented the everyday German citizen who went against the party line. He was faced with the charisma of the Nazi party and its leader, the safecracker, and was given no chance to repent for his sins. Taking me from a place of hate to a place of understanding may be the most powerful bit of film making that Mr. Lang brought to the table in all of M.

Sorry if The Great Dictator diversion from was not a journey any of my readers wanted to go on, but it’s a point I needed to make to channel the power I find in M. That power is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the procedural lapses I spoke of earlier quickly fade from my memory as I think about the movie. I appreciate the craft that Mr. Lang showed, there’s no doubt about that. Truth be told, I was in awe at the way he framed certain scenes and used lighting throughout. Still, the allegory in M was king in my eyes. I’m not leaving M thinking about how great it looked, how terrific Peter Lorre was as the murderer, or anything else really. I leave M thinking about the allegorical power of the film, and how that power will be staying with me for some time to come.




4 responses to “List Of Shame: M (1931)

  1. Nice review, Bill. I watched M in a college film class back in the late ’90s, so I think it’s definitely time for me to revisit it. Another intriguing part is the way Fritz Lang shows the similarities between the inner workings of the cops and the criminals as they both track Hans. Lang doesn’t side with a particular group and shows how both are trying to protect their territory that is being threatened by Hans’ activities.

  2. Good point Dan, I too noticed that in the film, Lang had a great handle on all sides of the issue I think.

  3. I’m with you on the courtroom scene. You’re so ready to hate him at that point, but then the film turns and you have to reevalute how you feel about this man.

    I think that’s part of what makes the film so powerful and gripping and one of my all time favorite thrillers.

  4. The work of Peter Lorre has a lot to do with how well that scene works, specifically what he does with his facial expressions.

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