Who would have thought a seventy five year old German movie would have something to teach us about living in the post 9/11 age?
I’m referring to “M,” the 1931 film directed by Fritz Lang. “M” is a classic thriller about the manhunt for a serial child murderer, played by a young Peter Lorre in his first film role. I first saw this film years ago, and like most undergraduate film geeks, I dug it for its dark German expressionist style, the memorable creepiness of Lorre’s performance, the Brechtian portrayal of the beggars, prostitutes and criminals of the Berlin underworld.
I recently saw “M” again in a restored version released by the great Criterion Collection DVD series. Interestingly enough, this time around the movie resonated for me in a very different way. The unforgettable images were still there, of course, but I was struck even more by the film’s larger socio-political vision – a powerful plea for the rule of law in a fearful and changing world.
Indeed, though “M” is a movie about a serial murderer, it spends almost all of its running time exploring the impact these crimes had on the German population – the paranoia and creeping mob mentality of the citizenry. Lang cuts back and forth between the efforts of the police and the local underworld to catch the murderer. The climax of the film takes place when Lorre is finally caught by the criminals and hauled off to face a kangaroo court in an abandoned warehouse – and it is here that the film makes a dramatic 180 degree turn.
The film’s final scene makes it clear what “M” is really about. Facing his accusers, Lorre breaks down, howling over and over: “I can’t help myself!” It’s one of those amazing movie moments, in which all of the viewers’ expectations become completely subverted. In this instant, “M” stops being a thriller/procedural about the hunt for a serial child murderer and becomes something else entirely – something much more important.
We now see Lorre’s character for what he truly is: not a terrifying monster, but a sad, pathetic individual who is powerless to control his sickening compulsions. His accusers, on the other hand, know exactly what they are doing. (“You have no right to keep me here!” Lorre yells at his captors – and of course, he is absolutely right). As he cowers in fear and self loathing (a truly incredible performance) the underworld mob increasingly cries out for vengence. They advance, but the police arrive the moment before they lynch him. A hand touches Lorre’s shoulder, and we hear a policeman’s voice from off-screen: “In the name of the law…”
I can’t help but think what an incredible act of courage it took for Lang to release a movie such as this in Germany in 1931. Lang claimed that his original title for “M” was “The Murderers Among Us” – which some critics understand as a subtle double entendre for the rising tide of intolerance in German society. (A wanted poster in the film asks the question, “Who is the Murderer?” Who indeed?)
Could you even imagine such a movie being released in our own country today? I’m still waiting for the first real film to explore the fear and suspicion of our current age. In the meantime, truly brave movies like “M” will have to do.