Saturday, April 30, 2016

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Karl Vash
DP: Fritz Arno Wagner
Editor: Paul Falkenberg
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 51 min.

The sound of locks turning in the dark, the screams and whistles of unseen people, the clattering wood of broken doors, laughter drowning out pleas for mercy, and voices over juxtaposed images; it's impossible to overstate the importance of diegetic sound in M. And in the scenes where it's most important, it's always destructive: it's the sound of a world turning hostile, of security breaking down.

But whose security? The character under threat by many of the sounds in M, especially in the later scenes, is Hans Beckert, a child murderer; someone whose security we would expect to be opposed to the security of everyone else. Why depict fear and uncertainty from his perspective?

Perhaps because of the four perspectives we get in this film - Beckert, the police, organized crime, and ordinary people - Beckert is the only character who has an influence on the events of the film but still feels powerless. The police are useless for most of the film, not pursuing Beckert so much as making up excuses for raids and arresting people unrelated to the crime they're investigating. The gangsters are more effective, but they don't act out of any concern for the people of Berlin. They hold leverage over the city's homeless while leaving behind their own men in dangerous situations.

Probably the most famous sequence in the film equates the police with the gangsters: it consists of cross-cutting between a meeting police officers and a meeting of powerful gangsters while both groups discuss how to stop Beckert. It implies that the effort that brings order to the city is amoral. Beckert's evil is throwing the community into turmoil, as we see in the film's opening scenes; but whatever undoes the turmoil may be another kind of evil, or at least something not good.

This has led some to interpret the different authoritative forces as stand-ins for the opportunistic political factions vying for power in Germany when M was made, and the Nazi Party's early abuses of power. I don't know if it can really be reduced to such an easily defined metaphor. Let it be enough to note that the film has little faith - that is to say, no faith whatever - in the authorities it depicts.

The camera snakes through the places where civilians gather, but takes on a cold, inhuman eye when the gangsters or police exercise their power. The only character we really get to see in private is Beckert. As evil as he is, he's still a weak human entangled in the city. M shows this to us not to make us sympathize with him, but to demonstrate how "normal" evil can look; what does that mean if the authorities are indelicate and apparently unconcerned with the well-being of everyone else?

The climactic manhunt for the killer leaves a path of destruction in its wake, and the film lingers on the aftermath. The film's treatment of this is not only pessimistic, but threatening: from the beginning sequence ending with a mother's voice calling out to empty spaces that slowly extend beyond the privacy of her home, the film draws the people of the city into a vulnerable place.

M's expressionism and what it shows us of the city keep it from being bleak. The city is alive, full of intersecting lives, and even if we don't see much of individual lives, we do see the emotions they experience in their intersections. There are human beings in M other than the useless authorities and a child murderer, and they matter; but they are not safe. Some find the final line of the film didactic, and it is, if taken literally. But it also shows the distortion of the film's world: the powerful will remain unchanged; the lines of flight available to the powerless are narrow and difficult.

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