In a small city in Germany there is a man on the loose who’s murdering children. When it seems that the police are unable to get the job done the heads of the criminal underworld decide to take matters into their own hands and find this particularly detestable being.
The film M is procedure more than anything else. It delivers the idea of a criminal and the stakes that one must take up in order to capture him.
Where Fritz Lang‘s film moves into the territory of being special is all the things that it manages to touch on that aren’t exactly directly related to narrative. Lang was able to so eloquently capture the idea of aftermath in this film. Whenever we had a moment, like Elsie being taken, of action we were then treated with multiple shots that leave us recognizing how affecting that one moment was to a (or multiple) character of the film. After Elsie was taken we see the empty chair at the dinner table, the stairs quiet and undisturbed and then a ball rolling away from a bush as there is no longer a child there to make all those things be what they were anymore.
Another thing that the film plays so well with is community. When the film opens we see a group of children playing some ludicrous (is this where I make a German joke?) version of Eeni-Meeni-Mini-Moe which is about a masked man coming to get them and we see the adult saying that she doesn’t care as long as she can hear them just to know they’re there. Later after another is taken we see how the community reaches a tipping point and people are antagonized and persecuted for the most innocent of actions just because someone saw you stare in the direction of a child or talk to a child. Even the basic idea that it becomes so bad that the criminal world comes in to hunt down this unknown man and in order to accomplish this task they use the community of beggars (brilliant!!) to be their eyes and ears all around the town to know when things are happening.
Where I feel the most interest for me though came in the procedure itself. When the film finally identifies our murderer (Peter Lorre) we’re given this small moment of brilliance that just feels so right. It’s hard for us to somehow conceive how much easier or harder it was to accomplish these procedures that we take for granted in police narratives of this age, but something so simple as marking the back of a man’s coat by chalking a M on your hand so that the rest of the eyes and ears are able to follow him discreetly makes everything else (which is monotonous procedure) work so much more as an act of cinema.
However, it isn’t all dreams and other awesome things as the film reaches it’s conclusion. I’ve never quite had an opinion as to the importance of movie credits or even the traditional “THE END” that appears to close out a film but somehow it’s absence was noted here. More than saying that the lack of official credits ruined the movie I feel that the film ends with an abrupt nature that hurts it. Towards the end of the film — after the Kangaroo Court — we are given a quick moment of the real court assembling and then a cut of mothers of the children dressed in black with one crying out that this won’t bring back their children and that we need to keep a closer eye on the children. This is the moment where while it’s obvious narratively without it being said it feels as if this is the moment that Lang decided to get up on a soap box and preach… but 80+ years after the fact whatever societal flaw that he was pointing out is more than lost on me — and any audience of today. This idea feels well delivered already in the film in it’s own construct of consequence but to announce it like this feels like the heaviest hammer being thrown over me and add on top of that the awkward immediate cut ending without prompt and you leave your audience in a state of uncertainty. I had to check if there was a problem with my blu ray before assessing that it was just how the movie was.
Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill but it just ended up breaking for me. It’s like the moment you’re forced out of your dark hole (let’s call that the theatre of movie experience as it were) back into the daylight and for a second you’re just readjusting yourself to the change in surroundings. You’re not sure what to think. You’re left dazed. Then slowly as you recognize what happened you start to go back to the actual content of what you were exposed to while hiding in the dark and I think I want to say I loved it on the whole.