There are so many ideas packed into Fritz Lang’s noir thriller ‘M’, his first to utilize sound, but there is one pervasive theme that stuck to my ribs like a black tar suffocating my soul: the power of fear. When thinking about this film, it is impossible to ignore the reality of 1930’s Berlin and the fact this film was shot less than 3 years before Hitler completed his rise to power. It opens with children singing a playful song about the child murderer who is on the loose, and we soon learn the depth of fear that has spread throughout the city as police have failed to catch the killer. What follows is many scenes of police raids, interrogations, and wild finger pointing pitting neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. It expertly shows how fear and the propagation of fear can cause everyday citizens to willingly cede more and more freedom and power to the authorities in the hope of alleviating that fear. It is particularly disturbing to watch knowing the looming specter of Hitler and fascism was already beginning its rise at the same time audiences were watching this film in cinemas around Berlin. Sadly, it also echoes the finger pointing, fear mongering, and mob mentality that has been on the rise in America and around the world as more and more leaders with fascist ideas have come into power. What is it about humans that cause us to act out the same tragedies over and over again? They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but sometimes I wonder, are we simply doomed to repeat it no matter what? Is it merely part of the cycle of life, and it’s only the methods and means by which it plays out that evolve, but not the reality itself?
‘M’ also exposes the hypocrisy and duplicity that pervades all institutions in a large scale civil society the likes of which exist in major cities around the world. This monster that everyone can project all of their fears and their problems onto allows not only the police to come together in pursuit of justice, but also the entire criminal underground of the city. There is one long scene where Lang intercuts meetings between the heads of both the police and the city’s criminal organizations as they desperately attempt to hatch plans to catch the killer. They are on opposite sides of the law, but their behaviors and motivations are exactly the same, to protect their own organizations from public scrutiny and disparagement. Similarly, the tactics of each group disregards the rights and freedoms of the everyday citizens in favor of catching the killer at all costs. However, it is one of the leaders of the criminal underground that lays bare just how hypocritical both groups are being in their actions. He decries how this monster of man is hurting their business and giving all criminals a bad name, basically likening what they do as a necessary and normal part of society that is threatened by this killer who is acting outside of the norms of society. This is an idea you can hear repeated again and again in different forms to this day, the idea that financial crimes are not really crimes because they usually don’t include physical harm, and when they do it is only a side effect and not with intent, so it is not as bad. We have learned to let the rich and the powerful off the hook because of this very idea, even if their crimes ruin the lives and livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of people, while we demonize individuals with serious mental health issues or major socio-economic disadvantages who commit violent, and sometimes even non-violent, crimes against individuals.
Finally, going back to theme of justice that was also explored in The Passion of Joan of Arc, both the police and the criminals claim to be in pursuit of justice on behalf of the people, but we have already seen through their actions that they have no clear consensus on what justice is. In fact, it is the criminals who put M on trial in a makeshift underground court, complete with lawyers, judges, and jurors of their own choosing. To see a bunch of criminals mimicking the same unjust systems that the state has imposed upon them is so absurd and ironic as to make the appeals of M for mercy and understanding even more surreal. He feels so out of the norms and society and so misunderstood that it is clear to him not even they can understand his obsessive compulsions. It is truly shocking to the system, because it is clear that Lang’s message is one against capital punishment, and he chosen the most horrifying of subjects intentionally to make his case. As a viewer, we are so disgusted by his appeals for understanding because of the vile nature of his crimes that we still want to fall into the same mob mentality of everyone else and see him torn apart for his crimes. So again we must ask, what is justice? Who decides? How can something that seems like it should be absolute be so murky? Do we feel good letting these people we’ve seen be so hypocritical and disdainful of the ‘commoner’ decide on justice? Do we feel satisfied seeing him handed to the same police who tolerate these normal criminal elements of the city and who happily subvert the people’s freedom in pursuit of their brand of justice? Can we tolerate M living in a mental institution receiving care for his mental illness and possibly being set free again one day? There are no satisfying answers, only the dark realities of human nature and the human mind.
In addition to these ideas, ‘M’ visually sets the blueprint for two whole sub-genres of cinema that will later become wildly popular: the hunt for a serial killer movie and the heist movie. The film shows off evidentiary and psychological investigative techniques that feel way ahead of their time as both the police and the criminal underground use every tool at their disposal to capture the killer. It also takes great thought and care in its 2nd half as the criminals break into and office building in search of the killer, showing their skills of intimidation, thievery, and surveillance. We see images of fingerprints, blueprints, police reports, locks and alarms at the same time as we hear discussions of motive, psychological profiles, burglary and escape plans. The time and care taken with all of these details is very meticulous for a film that is really focused on much bigger ideas about society, and you can see how these visual techniques have been repeated endlessly in these two sub-genres of cinema all the way up to today. Also the use of shadows and empty spaces to build suspense and create tension is done masterfully and is a staple of all film noir to come. How one film can help set precedents for so much of film history almost beggars belief. ‘M’ may lose a bit of focus and momentum towards the end, especially compared to today’s standards, but it is undoubtedly a masterwork of film that has a lot to teach us about human nature and modern society that is as relevant today as it was then.