M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.
Later in life, Lang would say that he made M because he was “sick and tired about the big films, like METROPOLIS”—his silent sci-fi fusion of Wagner and Marx. He wanted his first talkie to be a “personal film, a film that deals with one human being.” But, with deference to Lorre’s springlike performance—as raw and sudden as a pinched nerve—one can be grateful that Lang failed to achieve that end. Despite its sentimental humanism, METROPOLIS was stolen by Brigitte Helm as an orgiastic android and by the workers that lumber in formation toward their subterranean toil—until Helm incites them to riot. They’re less human than their mechanical demagogue. Lang precedes Chaplin in visualizing the simile “like cogs in a machine”; he borrows the masses from POTEMKIN in a way that Eisenstein may not have approved of. Adapting his style for sound, Lang may feature individuals in M, but his subject remains the mob.
In the beginning of the film, the murderer—who preys on children—is as faceless as everyone else in Berlin. Little Elsie Beckmann’s fate is implied in a montage of images in which she herself does not appear. A mother’s cry is imposed over Elsie’s empty place setting at a modest table, over the ball she had been seen bouncing earlier now rolling on its own, coming to rest in the grass. The shadow of such atrocities hangs like soot in the air, turning burghers into accusers at a witch trial—even if Lang’s first shot establishes that the condition precedes the circumstance. A girl’s bland voice warns that “the man in black will soon be here” as we fade in on a God’s-eye view of children playing in a tenement yard. Paranoia cuts through every milieu. Porcine elites, huffing turd-like cigars in holders that suggest surnames studded with “von,” indict each other at their supper club and nearly come to blows. A bespectacled man on the street is mobbed after a girl asks for the time: Though he’s referred to as “four eyes,” he’s nameless, like the rest. The police, up to their badges in false accusations, bow to political pressures and crack down on the usual suspects: the thieves and hookers and bookies. Rankling, in turn, under the mounting scrutiny, and seeing their bottom lines drop through the floor, the criminals coalesce around stopping the outsider. “We must draw the line between ourselves and this man,” says their leader, called The Safecracker, who wears a leather trench coat and speaks in a tommy-gun dialect. “No child must take a single step without us noticing.” He is played by Gustaf Gründgens, who was alleged to be gay and a Nazi collaborator.
A mixture of historical knowledge and ignorance makes the myriad ironies difficult to evaluate. It’s hard to tell, for instance, whether the police’s techniques are invasive, sophisticated by the standards of the day, or both. Underworld crime is strikingly well-organized; it is essentially monolithic in the face of its common enemy. Though law enforcement is hot on the Beckert’s trail, it’s the criminals who catch him first, using their network of beggars as eyes on the street—another irony, punctuated by the fact that he is “spotted” by a blind man who recognizes him by his whistled rendition of “Peer Gynt.” Likewise, when the kidnapped killer begs to be turned over to the authorities, his captors roar in laughter. Was the contemporary audience meant to be in on the criminals’ joke? How is one to interpret a shot of Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) framed from the belly up? Hitler wouldn’t come to power for another two years, but he’s as present in that complacent gut, swollen with authority, as he is in the eyes of all those starving, garrulous, anonymous faces who stand in judgment of this “other.” (Lorre’s likeness as Beckert was later used in anti-Semitic propaganda by the Nazis.) And then there’s perhaps the most opaque twist of all: The hoods who capture the murderer provide him with their notion of a fair trial. As they’re all on the same side of the law as he is—ostensibly the “wrong” side—they are, in the eyes of the law, a jury of his peers. However egalitarian in purpose, the kangaroo case is dismissed before its verdict can be rendered—not whether Beckert is guilty, but whether a man who is compelled to kill should be condemned to die. The police raid the court just as the impatient jury is rushing in for the execution.
Another thing lost on the modern viewer is that gray area between the technical limitations faced by Lang and the technical breakthroughs he innovated as a result. Who or what should be credited with the eerily vacant street sets, the paucity of ambient sound, or the obscured distinction between night and day? Eighty-four years on, however, the small uncertainties of intention are as immaterial to M’s legacy as the common ancestor of the police procedural, psychological thriller, and film noir as they are to Lang’s prescient vision and manifold sense of mercy tainted. With shoulders slumped, and mouth aimed like Cupid’s bow at his trademark monocle, the elderly director once confessed to the young Jean-Luc Godard, “I think you’re a romantic, and I’m one too.” But he chilled this with a note of caution—“I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be a romantic in these times.” Considering that this movie has all the sex appeal of visiting one’s grandparents at the morgue, it may be counterintuitive to mention romance in the same breath. But I think what Herr Direktor meant was rooted in his status as a refugee from fascism, and, more deeply still, in his Catholic upbringing and onetime socialist orientation. He went on to say, “I believe in the public … I work for the public. I think film is an art for the mass audience.” M is an expression of Weltschmerz—the inflection point between his sympathy for people and his fear of them en masse—and it comes from a setting that justified his suspicions. But, tethered as it is to that specific context, the film’s consciousness endures. That the groupthink of social media can take down such dubious private citizens as the hunter who shot Cecil the Lion or the former hedge-fund manager who raised the price of an AIDS medication from $13.50 per pill to more than $700 is not an unalloyed good. Tweeting stones from glass houses is as anonymous, and presumptuous, as convening a kangaroo court in Weimar Germany.