Monday, July 23, 2007

M (1931)


When I look back, I think M is one of the very first foreign films I ever saw, and thank god for it. I know I became much more willing to seek out foreign films after I saw this for the first time in a film class my freshman year of college. If there's anything I really took from that class, it was this film.

Through that class, we watched a number of films that are well regarded, but hold very little appeal to me specifically: Citizen Kane (I think anytime any collective calls something the best film of all time, you've got your guns out a bit, but frankly, I found it dull), Written On The Wind, Johnny Guitar, and a few others I barely remember. Generally, me and my little group of folks from that class positioned ourselves against the wall and napped.

But right off the bat, M just felt different. I wanted to know where it was going to go. While I owe it to myself to see more Fritz Lang films, this was his first film in sound, and I can't imagine how groundbreaking this one must've been at that time. Just the beginning with Peter Lorre's character whistling the song from Peer Gynt, it sets an ominous tone for what is to follow.

A figure, only seen from behind, buys a balloon from a blind man, and hands it to a little girl. A few minutes later, when her mother is frantically searching for her, we see that same balloon floating into the power lines. The man, Hans Beckert (Lorre), is one cinema's first serial killers, and we learn that he has killed little Elsie Beckmann.

However, this film is not quite like the usual serial killer - there is no mystery about his identity. We know right off the bat who the killer is. But what makes M so fascinating is not the killings themselves, but what transpires in their wake.

The police are desperate to capture Beckert before he kills again. However, the increased police presence disrupts the criminal underground's activities, meaning that they cannot function until Beckert is caught. And with that, Beckert is pursued by both the good and the evil, making him a bizarre antihero of sorts. Lang makes the film a bit more interesting in that by showing us the two groups pursuing Beckert, we see that there isn't all that much difference between the two.

It's interesting to learn too that the film was seen as anti-Nazi, and looking back, I can see how it could be looked at in that way. The film was actually banned in Germany from 1933-1945, and since Peter Lorre was Jewish, they used footage of his final speech in the film in Nazi propaganda films to show that Jews were inherently evil. I suppose we can just chalk that up to one more difference of opinion that I have with the Third Reich.

While I often hear of so many films that get credited for kickstarting or influencing one genre or another, it seems M is usually left out of those discussions, for reasons unbeknownst to me. While people are usually tempted to cling to the new release wall when at the video store or stockpiling their Netflix queues, don't forget about the films that started it all.

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