1931. Directed by Fritz Lang.
One of the first crime procedurals, an oddly compassionate serial killer tale, and an unbridled accusation for the allowance of the Nazi's rise to power, Fritz Lang's masterpiece, M is one of the greatest films ever made.
A killer is stalking young children on the streets of Berlin. The police employ a variety of new law enforcement tactics in an effort to stop the monster with little success. Political pressure forces the police to intensify their efforts which puts them at odds with the local criminal element. Driven into a corner, the crooks then begin their own investigation which leads to a citywide manhunt and culminates in one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema.
Lang's first film with sound and the one he believed to be his best, M used a simple narrative structure to present some very relevant and possibly dangerous ideas, given Germany's political climate at the time of the film's inception. Lang and his wife, the great Thea von Harbou wrote the script which was described as a warning to neglectful mothers. Despite this candid message, M is a trove of seditious ideas. Lang's Berlin is a dark place of hatred and suspicion, perfectly displayed by Fritz Arno Wagner's unparalleled ability to capture paranoia and dismay with the camera. Everything in M is drenched in shadows, complimented by the art direction of Emil Hasler and Karl Vollbrecht which creates the sense that Berlin is closing in on itself. The eponymous kangaroo court for the killer is a great example, as a crowd far too large for the room waits in silent judgement, juxtaposed by the thunderous and broken villain's plea for clemency.
Lang went to great pains to ensure M was as realistic as possible. He spent a week in a mental asylum and even interviewed the infamous real life serial killer Peter Kurten. Lang employed actual criminals for many of the scenes and two dozen of the cast were arrested during the production. The entire sequence from which M derives it's title is an essential technique for films in the criminal and confidence game genres that has been imitated and built upon for decades since.
While none of the violence happens on screen, Lang's use of potent imagery is so well placed, the viewer's mind has no problem conjuring the grim details of the murders. A lonely bouncing ball, a dead child's empty place setting, and a mother's screams echoing down a staircase are used to the elicit the perfect amount of revulsion, bringing the viewer deeper into the mindset of a city on the verge of explosion.
Peter Lorre as Hans Rikert delivers a once in a lifetime performance. The way Lorre distills the concepts of evil into their lesser parts (madness, abuse, and narcissism) is pure genius that takes Lang's vision far from its original destination. Rikert is a wounded predator. Dangerous and inhuman, but it's Lorre's complete control that reveals the human within. This dovetails with the revelations of the devious elements of the momentum-gaining Nazi party and is a bald accusation that monsters did indeed walk the streets of 1930's Germany.
Available now for streaming or on a gorgeous Criterion Collection blu ray, M is a classic that is essential for film lovers. Endlessly imitated and deconstructed, Lang's finest work is a murky puddle that sits atop an ocean of complex social issues and world threatening ideas. The fact that M is also one of the greatest entries into the serial killer genre is a testament not only to Lang's skill, but to the sheer intricacies of the story being told, with the final product being a stone cold masterpiece that only improves with each viewing, allowing the audience to peel away the layers of Lang's black-hearted nightmare.