Sunday, September 19, 2010
Instant Classic: M (1931)
If you've never seen the classic German Expressionist film M, I would urge you to catch it while it's still on Netflix Instant. I'm a huge fan of Lang's silent masterpiece Metropolis and have been intrigued by M for years now. I must admit that I'd been putting it off due to its very grisly subject matter. I've always been fascinated by stories about serial killers but I've always actively avoided stories about serial killers who target children. I'm a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU, but I usually avoid the plotlines that deal with kids.
M begins with a group of young children playing a game which revolves around a morbid nursery rhyme ("just you wait,it won't be long, the man in black will soon be here, with his cleaver's blade so true, he'll make mincemeat out of you!") I was already sufficiently freaked out because I have a thing about creepy, sing-song nursery rhymes. The mothers aren't thrilled with their children's choice of game- it turns out that the nursery rhyme is based on a real killer who has been targeting the children of the neighborhood.
While we hear about the prior murders, only one is committed over the course of the film. Instead of going for sensationalism, Lang tells the story of young Elsie Beckmann's tragic fate with great subtlety- whch only adds to the horror. He intercuts shots of Elsie's worried mother calling her home with shots of Elsie meeting and going off with a strange man who compliments her toy ball and buys her a balloon. As the mother truly begins to panic, we see a simple shot of Elsie's ball rolling away and the balloon which the stranger had bought for her floating away and getting caught in telephone wires. Elsie's murder may occur offscreen but her fate is clear to us.
The murderer doesn't leave behind much in the way of clues and the townspeople grow restless and increasingly paranoid. The police begin daily raids of local establishments- causing a local criminal ring to be forced to cease their illegal activities. Their frustration regarding this causes them to decide to take matters into their own hands and hunt down the child murderer who is causing all of this increased police presence. The fact that the film takes place in (and was shot in) 1930's Germany makes the police raids plot point particularly effective. It was hard not to think about the Nazis while watching scenes where the police demanded people hand over their papers under threat of arrest. Interestingly, footage from M was later used in Nazi propaganda films to warn of the dangers of sexual deviance.
German expressionism was of course a huge influence on the film noir genre and it's never more evident than in this dark tale of pathology and vigilantism. Lang uses many elements that later became staples of the film noir, most notably chiaroscuro lighting, high-angle shots and voice-over narration. The latter was particularly revolutionary as M was Lang's first "talkie". His use of sound in the film is nothing short of extraordinary- particularly when you consider that the technology was brand-new. Before we are shown a clear shot of the murderer's face, we know him only from a shadow of his profile and the ominous tune he whistles (which later causes him to be positively identified by the blind balloon seller.) Several of the scenes without dialogue are shot silently, most likely due to the costliness of shooting with sound. This stark contrast serves to point out Lang's effective use of sound.
M has plenty of strong points, but its strongest lies in Peter Lorre's performance. Any genre fan worth his or her salt is well-acquainted with Peter Lorre's face- and in particular his oh-so-creepy eyes. He's never creepier than he is in this film. I was truly unsettled watching a scene where Lorre looked longingly at a child and we, the audience could read his very bad thoughts. However, Lorre shockingly ends up making the character sympathetic in a scene where he's confronted by a mob of vigilantes who seek their own form of justice. He breaks down talking about how he "can't help himself". M's subject matter is very timely- we indeed still wrestle with the question of whether or not pedophiles suffer from a sickness that can be cured.
M is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it to any fan of great cinema.