There are many things I like about J James and his site. Not only does he give extremely perceptive reviews of the latest films out, but he also includes films from previous eras. He isn’t intimidated by a film’s reputation and you can trust him to give his honest and intelligent opinion on aspects you wouldn’t even think about. I’m delighted he has decided to participate in the series.
Directed By: Fritz Lang; Written By: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou
Year of Release: 1931
Country of Release: Weimar Republic
A child murderer, whose crimes are carefully planned and deliberately executed, terrorizes Berlin for more than half a year. After the killer claims another victim, police are under intense pressure to finally catch him, but their increased efforts get them no closer to an arrest, and the city’s passions are stoked.
Made as film was transitioning from silence to talkies, M, the first serial killer movie, bears the mark of its noiseless predecessors. It has a silent movie’s exaggerated performances, chapter transitions and contemplative pacing. Even more obviously, the audio sometimes cuts out, leaving us to view disturbing images without accompanying sound. Whether or not it is deliberate audio design, it helps establish a discomforting and uneasy tone, one that permeates the entire picture.
Writer/Director Fritz Lang makes us feel Berlin’s panic and grief at the mysterious deaths of beloved children, deaths no one seems able to prevent or undo. From the opening, where children sing a disturbing nursery rhyme, through the next few minutes when a child, Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), stops to read a poster detailing the central mystery, through nearly all of M’s first half, Lang’s emotional acuity is impressive. His early choices contribute to making the audience so psychologically uncomfortable that we long for vengeance, just like the killer’s victims.
That is when M becomes worthy of its status as a Classic. Just as our anger is most stoked, just when we most want someone to capture the killer, Lang slowly deconstructs the city’s reaction, as well as our own. By depicting mob mentality and badly placed police attention, Lang unflinchingly shows the mistakes otherwise good people can make during times of extreme stress. In fact, the director eventually makes us sympathize with the murderer and question the victims, a one hundred eighty degree transition that could be some of the best psychological filmmaking ever.
Franz Lang deserves much of the credit, but not all of it. The rest goes to actor Peter Lorre, who plays the killer, Hans Beckert, with such careful scene-chewing exaggeration that we understand the man’s psychosis, fear and mental instability. It is a powerhouse performance that captures Lang’s intent and hammers home the picture’s themes.
Themes just as relevant today as they were in 1931. What is the difference between justice and vengeance? How should we treat or punish criminals with mental illnesses? What are the best ways to ensure children are safe but also free to form their own identities? And more. Modern society hasn’t answered these questions any more effectively than depression-era society had, which means M remains a powerful artistic achievement, even eighty-plus years after its creation.
In other words, M is superlative.
But it is not quite perfect. In focusing so much on societal reaction to Beckert’s crimes, the film introduces countless characters, many of which blend together. Moreover, given that Beckert has eluded investigation for the better part of a year, the people looking for him might identify him a touch too easily.
That said, the flaws are incredibly minor. This is a dynamic film, and one I cannot recommend more strenuously.
Final verdict: A
My thanks to the very cool J James for his wonderful review. I saw this film a while ago at college and was blown away by how good it was. I’m desperate to see it again having read this. If you’re interested in contributing, feel free to get in touch.
Thank you, Alex, for letting me participate. And for getting it posted just hours after I sent to you.
You, sir, are awesome.
You’re too kind. Thanks for getting involved 🙂
Alex, you hit the nail on the head – I really enjoy his reviews as well because they’re so perceptive, this one included! M is such a great film and this is an excellent review.
Thank you, Anna.
And this film really is timelessly tremendous, isn’t it?
Have you finished The Fault in our Stars? The Reading Girl is ahead of me and wrote hers ages ago http://audreyhepburnbooks.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/the-fault-in-our-stars-by-john-green-review/
I have finished it. It is very, very good. And also not happy. 😉
I’ve seen the trailer. Curious how the film will turn out.
It has Shailene Woodley in it.
I think that all but guarantees success. 😉
Nice review, Josh! I’d never even heard of this before! Sounds like a good one. 🙂
It is fantastic, Cara, and another one on which I think we’d agree. You should see it. And see it soon. Like today. 🙂
Haha I will ASAP! 😉
It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen.
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Excellent review. I watched this for the first time last week and think it really is a masterpiece. It has aged remarkably well, too.
It has. Along with Do The Right Thing, it’s the most thought-provoking film I can remember seeing. What other foreign films do you rate?
Hmm… of the top of my head… The Vengeance Trilogy is right up there, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Rec Trilogy, Goodbye Lenin was good fun, The Hunt, In the House was genius, Them, Tell No One, Amelie, In the Mood for Love, Run Lola Run, Les Diaboliques, In Darknes…
I want you to contribute in my foreign favourites series! If I ask super nicely…?
I’d love to, thanks for asking. Do you pick the film, or do I?
You choose 🙂 Just make sure you don’t pick one of the ones already highlighted in the list. That probably includes Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis too. I put up Jagten today.
This should help but any further points don’t hesitate to get in touch if there’s anything else you need https://alexraphael.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/guest-series-foreign-favourites/
Cool, I’ll ponder and get back to you soon.
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