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M / (1931) ****
"M" is a cinematic masterpiece of visual drama. The stunning performances define the careers of exceptional actors such as Peter Lorre and Gustaf Grundgens. Director Fritz Lang gives depth and dimension to his production by distinctly capturing the ecstasy of the film's many characters and focusing accurately on individual situations. This is an intriguing journey into the mind of a psychotic child murderer, blending terror, complexity, and malignity in one amazing motion picture.
Screenwriters Paul Falkenburg and Adlof Jansen construct the characters of "M" with distinctive personalities and three dimensional emotions. Many lesser filmmakers give their characters no creativity outside the confines of the script. In this movie each individual character has a mind of their own; they are free to roam the landscape of a inviting atmosphere.
Fabricating such an impressive atmosphere is some of the best cinematography and lighting effects that I can remember watching. This resplendent component creates the film's terrific moody ambiance. Suspense is one thing "M" contains in full context. The movie's third act is sheer peak-high tension.
Shot in black and white, "M" stars Peter Lorre as Peter-Hans Beckert, an extremely disturbed child murderer in the process of wreaking havoc on a neighborhood. Parents everywhere are living in fear of their children being kidnapped and abruptly annihilated.
This picture contains a brilliantly crafted setup. The visual setting creates a strongly developed opening. Every scene works to either complicate the initial problem or propels the story through a firm narrative through line.
The film captures the chaos of the town in terror perfectly. "M" is more about the results of a serial killer than an actual serial killer. Never do we directly witness a murder; the violent encounters are implied. This method of film making perhaps makes the movie's impact even greater. With an creative perspective through a third person point of view, the filmmakers repeatedly give us examples of a solid structure through characters and occurrences.
"M" offers a unforgettable, challenging performance by Peter Lorre. This extraordinary actor is tormenting and disturbing without embracing in extreme violent conduct. He perspires with momentum and rapture. This productions closing scenes are so deeply penetrating they entirely captivate the viewer. Isn't this what movies are supposed to do?
The economy, austerity and directness of the films of Fritz Lang made
him one of the most profound, and precise filmmakers...
Lang, a master of the German expressionist film, shot his first talkie, a crime drama considered a landmark in the story of suspense movies... It was a shocking idea for its time, based on the real-life killer Peter Kurten, headlined as the Vampire of Düsseldorf...
'M' is about a terrorized city, and a plump little man with wide eyes (often chewing candy) who is a pathological child-killer, unable to control his urge for killing...
The film embodies several Lang themes: the duality between justice and revenge, mob hysteria, the menacing anticipation of watching a helplessly trapped individual trying fruitlessly to escape as greater forces move inexorably in, and, for probably the first time in the cinema, it adds a new dimension to suspense: pity... For the killer is clearly mentally sick... He cannot overcome the overwhelming compulsion of his murderous disease, and yet, we see him hunted down and almost lynched as a criminal, rather than treated as a sick man...
Early in the film, the killer is heard whistling the Grieg theme from 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'. This theme inexorably becomes imbued with menace... And when we see no more than a girl looking in a shop window, the melody on the sound-track told us chillingly that the murderer is there, just out of sight...
The Murderer is played by Peter Lorre in a virtuoso performance that has barely been matched in all the thrillers he has made since 'Casablanca,' 'The Maltese Falcon,' and 'The Mask of Dimitrios.' When the photographs of his victims, all little girls, are shown to him, he jumps back and twitches with horror...
With powerful visuals, Lang's motion picture is Lorre's first film... His performance as the corpulent, hunted psychopath is a masterpiece of mime and suggestion... Lorre is the archetypal outsider-outside the law and society because of his compulsive crimes, outside the balancing society of the underworld because he is not a professional criminal... He had only twelve lines of dialog...
In the most famous of all about a pathological killer - Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' - Anthony Perkins lacked not only the threat of the tortured Peter Lorre, but also the dimension of invoking our incredulous sympathy...
'Psycho' reeked with blood and horror, whereas the suspense of 'M' is subtle... A child's balloon without an owner, a rolling ball, are enough to tell us that another murder had been committed... The audience, trapped in its seats, torn by ambivalent feelings towards the killer, watched him trapped as the net is pulled tight...
The opening scene of this movie is the first clue to its near perfection A
mother preparing dinner for her child, waiting anxiously for her to return
from school. Her hope, and then distress as she hears people pass outside
her door. While down in the streets of Berlin, her daughter is receiving a
balloon from a strange man in a long black coat. We know what's going to
happen, but it's still horrific to watch.
Fritz Lang, you cinematic god! A simple story of the underworld, the police, and a single man holding an entire city hostage, and done with such precision and pre-noir darkness that is oozes creepy suspense from beginning to end.
But this movie is not so simple as the police inspectors trying to catch a devious murderer it's about the mob, employing its network of beggars and petty thieves also trying to bring the killer to their own brand of justice. Apparently, the police crackdown caused by the murders is bad for business so the mob begins to track him down as well.
It's not only a great crime story, and perhaps the first physiological thriller (the murderer is schizophrenic) but there's comments to be made here about the nature of justice, and who should best dispense it.
In all, not only a trail-blazing classic, but THE trail-blazing classic.
The first time I saw M, by Fritz Lang, I almost didn't know what to
make of it. I was overwhelmed by the power of the performances, the
staging of the scenes, the locations, and the power that the simple
story had with such complex circumstances. Then I saw it again, and a
third time, and I know that this is one of the best films ever to come
out of Germany- it's a powerful statement about protecting our children
(if you're looking at it as a "message" movie), but in reality it is
just a piece of cinema heaven. Thrillers today only wish they could
draw a viewer into the mystery elements, and have such
unconventionality of the times. Boiling down to this, M is about a
child Killer - the legendary character actor Peter Lorre in his first
major role - who snatches children when their parents don't watch, and
continues on until an investigation goes underway. But as the police
investigate overly thoroughly into the real criminal underworld, they
know something is up, that this is someone far more gone than they
could ever be, so they join in the hunt. This all leads to one of the
supreme dramatic climaxes in any thriller.
On the first viewing I just went straight for the story, which is able to suck one in enough to make you feel dizzy. But on the multiple viewings it becomes even more interesting as one can study the intricacy, and indeed full-on artistry, of Lang's camera. He puts it in unusual places at times, and adds for good measure shades of dark and gray in many of the night scene (this is, by the way, a precursor to 'film-noir', which Lang later became an important director in the 40's and 50's). On top of this, there is a very modern sense of style in the editing- I remember a couple of scenes that surprised me editing wise. One is where the cops (I think it was the cops) have an argument about the investigation- two of them get into a shouting match, and we get medium close-ups of them going back and forth. This is done quickly, with a kind of intensity that isn't even captured in today's thrillers. There is also the hunt for Lorre in the digging of the house, where Lang cuts around constantly, heightening the tension between the predators (the criminals) and the prey (Lorre), until it's almost too much to take.
The disturbing aspects of the story, of child abduction and murder, have become benchmarks of a number of today's thrillers, where the cop is usually the subject and the killer left more in the shadows, in cat & mouse style. This doesn't happen here, and because of it by the time we get to the final scene, with Lorre being interrogated and giving his "I can't help it" speech, it becomes something poetic, tragic, frightening. Lang doesn't leave his "message" so simplistically, he makes sure we know Lorre's side too, however twisted it has become, and the antagonist is shown as human as opposed to these present-day thriller where the killers are barely given one dimension let alone two. There were reports that during filming Lang put Lorre through torture, ultimately causing the two to never work together again. But nevertheless, out of this comes a towering performance of a small, wild-eyed criminal in the midst of an extremely well-told and unpredictable mystery story. In short, if you don't know what you're in for when you hear that whistle, those several infamous notes, you may not at all.
M is a monumental film and seriously should be watched by all. For a
film like this to be made in 1931 is just shocking. Even if the film
was released today it would still be nothing like we have seen before.
In our modern age of film making there has been a considerable rise in
the production of films about serial killers, their complexities and
particularly about pathological ones. Yet, M is the first movie that
comes to my mind when I think of the themes that have been in Psycho,
Silence of the Lambs, Seven and not to mention countless more.
The film is lead by Peter Lorre in a transcending performance who plays the serial killer and rapist in which the film is centered around. In this performance Lorre is successful in something that at the very least is rare to see in any kind of film, compassion for a child killer and rapist. Lorre makes the viewer see, that he is not a criminal by choice but by a sickness of compulsion. Too often then not is our perception of a psychotic killer having that look that puts fear into his or hers victims' eyes. Lorre doesn't do that but rather displays a frightened man, a scared man. One in which his desperation leads to his hazardous behavior. His portrayal of a killer is not of a fearless one but of one consumed by fear. Something that even today we as a people cannot understand, let alone in 1931.
The direction and writing of Fritz Lang is beyond comprehensible as he taps into the mind of a serial killer and his complexities. He does so in such that we get an empathetic and compassionate illustration of all sides of the story. This in which by then end of the film all points of view are more then well delivered to the audience. Fritz Lang here, has simply created here a timeless masterpiece. One that excels in its technical aspects and enlightens the audience on a topic that other films still have not yet to match M in.
I highly recommend this film for many obvious reasons and conclusions. This film was created by one of the all time great directors in Fritz Lang, Lang's command for the screen is mesmerizing and a joy to witness and so on and so forth. Yet much of this is mostly superficial and a waste of time to continuously state. M, as I mentioned before takes a strong and original stance on an issue that we as a society yet have not fully resolved. This film may not give you THE answer on this issue but it may sway that moral compass of yours that lies inside of all of us.
Fritz Lang's highly influential career as a film director began in post
World War I Germany, where he was a leading figure in the German
Expressionist film movement, and ended in the United States in 1953
with the production of The Big Heat, a film noir classic. Perhaps his
greatest film, M (Germany, 1931) forms an historical bridge between
expressionism and film noir. Like the former it uses strange and
disturbing compositions of light and dark in order to symbolize the
inner workings of the human mind; like the latter it more realistically
sets its story in a modern urban setting and blends in sociological
issues along with the psychological and moral ones.
Even though M was Lang's (and Germany's) first sound film, many historians cite it as the initial masterpiece of cinema to appear following the introduction of sound into films in the late 1920's. While most early "talkies" return films to their static, visually monotonous, stage- imitative beginnings and thus limit rather than expand the artistic possibilities of the medium, M avoids the failing by skillfully balancing asynchronous, off-screen sounds with the more limiting use of synchronous dialogue. The film's editing, particularly its elaborate use of parallel cutting, also contributes kinetic energy and fluidity to the storytelling. Of course, many of the film's sound effects are also imaginative and memorable, none more so than the compulsive whistling of the film's central character, the stalker and serial killer of little girls Hans Beckert (magnificently played by Peter Lorre).
Sound is also an important contributor to M's rich and influential use of off screen space. One famous example is the scene that introduces Beckert as a shadow against his own Wanted poster, creepily intoning to his next victim, Elsie Beckmann, "You have a very pretty ball." Not only is Beckert's shadow a bow toward Lang's expressionist artistic roots, but it ironically places the murderer in the implied space in front of the image - that is, among us, the human community of viewers of which he is an innocuous-appearing, albeit monstrous, member. Another example of Lang's use of off-screen space is the montage of shots whose common denominator is Elsie's absence from them: an empty chair at the Beckmann dinner table, the vertiginous stairwell down which Elsie's mother searches compulsively and futilely for signs of her daughter's arrival, the attic play area that awaits Elsie's return from school. Most memorable of all - and most often alluded to visually in other films - is the series of shots that indirectly record Beckert's assault and murder of the innocent child, representing these off screen events metonymically via the entry of Elsie's ball from bushes along on the right edge of the frame and the release of her balloon from telephone wires and off the left edge of the frame. Never in the history of cinema has something so terrible been communicated through such powerfully understated images.
Beyond its technical brilliance, the keys to M's lasting impact are its psychologically convincing portrait of Hans Beckert's twisted compulsion and the still relevant ambivalence of his capture and "trial." Unlike contemporary cinematic examples of the serial killer, Beckert is not presented simply as a grotesque psychopath. Nor is the issue of how society should deal with him at all clear-cut. To be sure, the gut-reaction of most film audiences is to root on the underworld mobsters and petty thieves who, beating the established authorities to their mutual quarry, capture Beckert and bring him to a mock- formal trial whose conclusion is foregone. Like many in America today, Beckert's accusers are disinclined to listen to insanity pleas and would just as soon be rid of the "monster" in the surest way possible: a summary death penalty with as little fretting about legal rights as possible.
Considering the heinousness of Beckert's crimes and the imperfections of a legal/medical system that could well turn him loose to kill again, this emotional response is hard to resist. Yet M is by no means an endorsement of vigilantism - quite the contrary. Through the unlikely rhetorical persuasions of Beckert's unkempt "court appointed" defense attorney and Beckert's own impassioned monologue, Lang strongly implies that impatience with democratic judicial procedure and a paranoid eagerness to scapegoat others (guilty or not) in the name of order are symptomatic of the social hysteria breeding Nazism in 1930s Germany. That the ruthless killer who heads the underworld looks, dresses, and gestures like a Gestapo officer is no accident. Moreover, the letter "M" chalked on Beckert's back by one of his pursuers not only stands for "murderer" but also alludes to God's marking of Cain. While the popular misconception holds that the mark of Cain symbolizes his evil, it in fact represents God's warning to Cain's flawed fellow creatures not to mete out wrathful vengeance, but to leave justice in God's hands. Translated into secular terms (and literally entering the shot from the top of the frame), God's hands in M belong to the legitimate authorities that intervene at the last moment to arrest and try Hans Beckert "in the name of the Law."
Being a huge fan of German Expressionist art, I'm naturally drawn to the
films of Fritz Lang. I recently was able to see the restored version of
"Metropolis" on the big screen, and was delighted to see "M" on the Sundance
channel - especially since it was the uncut version. M follows the trail of
a child killer (Peter Lorre), sought both by the police and the members of
the underworld whose businesses are being effected by the investigation.
This film is ground-breaking for many reasons: It is Fritz Lang's first talking picture, it is one of the first in the serial killer genre and it was overtly anti-Nazi. This film was banned in Germany shortly after it premiered, and Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre, both Jews, soon fled the country. It has superb acting (most notably, Peter Lorre's trial scene in the catacombs) and very stark yet at times gritty cinematography. The story is indeed suspenseful and at times, very creepy (what whistling child killer isn't?). The entire movie, however is extremely thought-provoking and challenging, much like the German Expressionist movement itself.
This is not a movie for everyone; some may find it boring, some may find it too abstract. It also has one of the most bizarre shots I've ever seen in film - essentially it's a 30 second shot of the police inspector talking on the phone, but you're under his desk and looking up his pants leg. It actually kind of baffled me and made me chuckle for a second, but it was avant garde if anything.
To those who appreciate early cinema that truly makes you think, both about the film and the subtext with which it was written and filmed, it is a must-see.
This is one of those movies that will stay with you for the rest of your
life. The characters are ugly and disturbing, there is nothing "cute" in
There are constant parallelisms drawn between the police and the underworld and the common way in which they operate.
We also get to journey into the mind of the madman. If you enjoyed "Silence of the Lambs", you should see this also.
Of course you must be patient enough to deal with subtitles, and the fact that this is a very old movie - one of the first "talkies". But most viewers will get something out of the dialogue even without knowing the German language.
This movie is definitely one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. It's about this childlike, pity evoking man (brilliantly played by Peter Lorre), who also happens to be a psychotic child killer. The city in which he lives is, of course, panicked by the mysterious child-killings, and both the criminals and the police starts to haunt the man down. I won't reveal more then this, but I will say this: Just because it's an old movie, don't let your guard down. This movie is one of those rare movies, which are so good that you'll never forget them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In an eerie propagandist fashion, the phrase "in the name of the Law"
is repeated over the last two scenes of Fritz Lang's "M" as a child
killer is brought to justice. If "L" represents the State and the Law,
then "M" is meant to represent the Individual (who in this case is a
Murderer). Lang boldly asked us way back in 1931, whose rights come
first: the State or the Individual? A master of his craft, Lang leaves
the question open-ended and let's the audience decide.
"M" is shockingly contemporary in its psychological complexities. It explores the psychology of individualism vs. group think while showcasing how a state of fear can be inflicted upon a populace when a government fails to protect society from a single individual terrorizing the people. The story is fairly straightforward: An elusive citizen begins killing innocent children in a large nameless German city. The media fuels a paranoid frenzy that incites the public. The clueless police begin to raid "the underworld" after the populace is turned into a raving mob because of the failure to capture the killer. "The underworld" comes to a screeching halt as their business is ruined by the police and starts their own manhunt for the killer.
Unlike a modern period piece that attempts to evoke a certain place and time, "M" WAS a certain place and time. Lang, in an almost prophetic sense, captured the state of mind of the German people in 1931 as the Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse and the Nazi Regime was preparing to take over. When individuals live in a state of fear, as they do in "M", society collapses and the Individual is crushed. Only the State, it seems, can bring order.
"M" is a also a masterpiece for its technical aspects. The way in which Lang uses his camera to move through windows, capture shadows, reflections, empty spaces, and shift points-of-view is staggering even by today's standards. He also played with the new technology of recorded sound with extensive voice-over narration and dialogue used to overlap and transition between scenes. Didn't critics recently praise "Michael Clayton" for utilizing just such a technique as if it was something revolutionary? One can also see a protean style the would eventually birth the Film Noir movement with the creation of tension and suspense in the use of shadows and camera angles.
Yet "M" is not perfect. It has some major flaws. There are no real "characters" in the film to speak of in the modern sense. The film is virtually all built around mood and plot. The only time Lang invites us to emotionally connect is in the opening and closing scenes with a mother of one of the victims, and in the classic scene of Peter Lorre giving his writhing and primal "I can't help it!" speech in front of the kangaroo court of criminals. The mother's grief and Lorre's madness are presented so sparsely and in such a raw form that it becomes too painful to want to connect with them. Another flaw that is often overstated about films from this time period is the slow pace of the early police procedural scenes. These inherent flaws combined with the inherent brilliance of Lang's vision make "M" one of the most challenging films a modern viewer could ever sit through.
What impressed me most about "M" was the subtlety of the symbolism Lang created with his haunting images. As harrowing as the story is, none of the gruesomeness is shown on screen. It's all transmitted to the viewer through the power of suggestion. Is it any wonder Hitler wanted Fritz Lang for his propaganda machine, which thankfully led to Lang fleeing to America? I'll never forget the wide shots of the kangaroo court (and the looks on those people's faces as the killer is brought down the steps for trial) or the vast expanse of that empty warehouse. The scene of the ball rolling in the grass with no one to catch it, the balloon caught in the telephone wires, and the empty domestic spaces the mother has to inhabit after her child has been murdered are the types of scenes that tape into Jungian archetypes and shared fears. The look on Lorre's face as he confesses, the hand of the Law coming down to save Lorre from being lynched, and the ghastly plea from the mother in the final scene will stick with me for the rest of my life.
"M" is a communal nightmare; one that from which we have yet to awake.
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