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August 28, 2011

M (1931)

Filed under: Film Comment — Daniel Min @ 11:45 pm

          M is for Mörder. The letter M that was written on the beggar’s hand which was later stamped on the murderer’s back, the letter M that attracted the underworld to take justice into their own hands. An interpretation of the ambiguous meaning between the letter M that was stamped behind Peter Lorre’s back and the one written on the beggar’s hand as if Fritz Lang wants us to examine society, that ordinary citizens of the Weimer Republic were not so much different than the actual child murderer.

The opening scene show children playing along in the backside of the alleyway singing cruel nursery rhymes as they’re getting yelled at by the elderly upstairs due to the subject matter. It juxtaposes the scene where the innocent can sing something horrible yet be unaware of the imminent danger in the post Great War era. Audience may grasp that something repugnant is bound to happen, the plot was considered horrendous during the latter production of the silent film era therefore anything dreadful involving with children must have been loathsome. The victim is a little girl by the name of Elsie who was unfortunate enough to come across the murderer (Peter Lorre). Yet we don’t know who exactly the character is because there was no glimpse of his face except for the sound of his voice until later on in the film, a feature that made a phenomenal impact on cinematic experience for Fritz Lang’s first talkie. [1] As Elsie goes missing there were series of haunting scenes of unoccupied item that can leave the viewers an impression that exemplify Fritz Lang’s extraordinary skills in the aesthetic of film.

          The manhunt had begun and Berliners have heightened their awareness including the criminals. It had gone so far that city officials were accusing each other while dispatching more policemen throughout the city. The policemen’s action can be quite tedious at time using futile techniques apprehending the murderer as if the authorities are the rightful heir to the dominant group of society whereas the civilians were nothing more than servants. Was Fritz Lang’s implication toward Germany which succumbed to the Third Reich, made it intolerable for him to produce his pictures during its era? Was he angry at Germany for permitting itself to become the victim of the advent of Nazi politics? [2] I sense that by looking at some particular scenes like the murderer getting caught by the beggar, all because of his whistling and being fervently chased down by group of thugs along with the police anticipating for some bloodthirsty justice, presents an interesting view on the moral query of human nature. Especially towards near the end of the film, when he ended up in a cellar and was surrounded by group of criminals, policemen, lawyers, mothers etc with stares of disapproval, another wonderful take from Lang’s innovative camerawork.

        The murderer testified as being the victim of mental illness and could not help himself from committing such atrocious act. A psychopathically insane child killer  no society could understand nor recognize was immune to capital punishment because of his illness. Depressingly enough, this debate is still present even in this day and age. Peter Lorre had done such a fine work delivering the murderer’s behavior as if he himself was the victim of some sort of persecution. (The result of his image for this movie was unsparingly used for anti-Semitic propaganda during the peak of World War II). [3]

         In a nocturnal city like Berlin, a city that looked so provocatively haunting, reminded me of another movie that took place in the same setting, Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire” (1987). Unlike Wender’s work, the city is not divided and there are no angels looking overhead however both of the film shares the same melancholy black and white view of the city that subtlety remind the viewer how Berlin had gone through so much turmoil. It was a pleasure seeing “M”, this is my first time watching a movie directed by Lang and I consider him the pinnacle of such talented film director to come from Austria (Haneke being the other).






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