Fritz Lang’s penultimate German film “M” is many things: proof that the director knew how (and when not to) utilize sound better than nearly anyone else in early sound cinema, a powerful indictment of the rise of fascism in Germany, an introduction to one of cinema’s greatest character actors in Peter Lorre. Above all else, though, it is a viscerally and psychologically devastating thriller, one that constantly challenges the viewer about who they should be afraid of and who they should be afraid for.
That’s quite a feat, given that Lorre’s Hans Beckert is shown stalking and (offscreen) killing a young girl in the opening minutes, and it’s established immediately that his crimes have been going on for some time. But soon the city’s criminals, upset over the new scrutiny the police have on all crime because of the murders, start their own manhunt, one that’s quick to attack on the slightest suspicion. When Lorre’s character is eventually caught by the criminals, they subject him to a kangaroo court where he argues on his own behalf that his crimes are of compulsion, as opposed to their misdeeds.
Lorre’s wide eyes and desperate pleas make him as pitiable as his actions are monstrous, while the brutishness of the thugs and their easily-led along followers make them more immediately frightening (it’s a bit astonishing that Joseph Goebbels didn’t get the film’s anti-Nazi sentiment, applauding what he felt was a pro-death penalty film). But one could look past the film’s social commentary and still get the same deeply conflicted feelings about Beckert and company from Lang’s filmmaking. Beckert might have been introduced in an unsettling high angle whistling the eerie “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” but by the end, he’s below the cold faces of the mob around him, a victimizer turned into a victim when the search for justice and order turns cruel.
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Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
What I think I love most in “M,” emanating directly from the brilliance of its form, is its faith and confidence in the possibility of such an enterprise–speculating in the process on the havoc that one individual can wreak on an organism such as a city, then on the emotional havoc that organism can wreak on the individual. It assumes a kind of naive faith in the world we live in as something that can be seen, heard, and ultimately grasped, at least up to a point. Beyond that point is merely terror–a metaphysical terror connected to the vastness of the unknown, perceived as the daunting enormity of overhead and underground spaces–something that “M” also acknowledges and exploits to the utmost. Read more.
Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents
One of the greats of cinema history.
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Chris Cabin, Slant Magazine
Similar to the opening image, an endlessly analyzed push of the domino that leads to the unseen murder of little Elsie Beckmann, the casting of Lorre was an act of having one’s strudel and eating it too. In an interview by the great William Friedkin, Lang, who co-wrote the script with then-wife Thea von Harbou, commented that the choice of Lorre came from the actor’s face, which, according to him, was not the face of a child murderer. Of course, the bulk of Lorre’s hypnotic performance is primarily physical until his climactic outburst in that cognac distillery. Though the audience is tasked throughout the film to share Beckert’s outlook, it is in this scene, surrounded by the breadth of the criminal underworld, that we are faced not only with our own mixture of pity and horror but with the ghastly proposition that Beckert is human. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
The film doesn’t ask for sympathy for the killer Franz Becker, but it asks for understanding: As he says in his own defense, he cannot escape or control the evil compulsions that overtake him. Elsewhere in the film, an innocent old man, suspected of being the killer, is attacked by a mob that forms on the spot. Each of the mob members was presumably capable of telling right from wrong and controlling his actions (as Becker was not), and yet as a mob they moved with the same compulsion to kill. There is a message there somewhere. Not “somewhere,” really, but right up front, where it’s a wonder it escaped the attention of the Nazi censors. Read more.
David Jenkins, Little White Lies
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times