50 years 50 films Volume II: M (1931)
Our series moving backwards through time finds a tale of the darkest impulses from the last days of Weimar Germany
The story goes that, after seeing Peter Lorre excel in Hans Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, director Fritz Lang made a pact with the young German actor. If Lorre would stay away from the cinema for the moment, Lang would eventually devise a lead role as his proper debut. He was true to his word. Lorre could have been forgiven for feeling a little uneasy at what he was presented with in 1931.
The clammy Hans Beckert is a child murderer who is ultimately asked to offer a defence of his status in life. No other film has done such an unsettling job of making a victim of a monster. This is no Beauty and the Beast. Beckert is not a wronged man taunted unfairly for his unprepossessing looks. He really does commit the most appalling of crimes (some represented explicitly, others broadly hinted at). But Beckert’s final plea to the improvised jury is hard to rebut. Tracked down by an army of criminals – the “nonce” has always occupied the bottom rung of every moral ladder – the antihero is then tried before an unsavoury improvised jury. Hans argues that, whereas they chose to live a life of crime for monetary gain, he is compelled to act as he does and is tortured by remorse afterwards. “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” he pleads. Few contemporary films would risk such queasy ambiguity.
For all that, the film still can be seen as a more digestible refinement of an avant grade style. When Robert Weine made The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a full 11 years earlier, it looked a little like a brilliant dead end. Cinema was rapidly moving beyond experiment and into the sphere of industry. These sort of expressionist nightmares were, surely, never going to sell in these nickelodeons that were all the rage. Yet the terrible city in M is built out of shadow and suggestions of shadow. Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography is much at home to reflections and refractions. Obviously, there are visual metaphors at work here. Beckert’s inner darkness bleeds out into the greater world. His inner torments play themselves out as uncomfortable apparitions in mirrors and shop windows. All that is (to speak in the language of mathematicians) trivial. What went on to matter more was — other German films did the same thing — the determination to represent lucid stories through defiantly eccentric visuals.
All this eventually transformed Hollywood. There was even a remake of M in 1951. That picture, starring David Wayne (later a TV regular), may be one the industry’s great unseen oddities. Directed with cautious menace by the great Joseph Losey, the second M would, almost certainly, be seen as an off-beam classic if it were not a remake of an earlier (admittedly superior) film. In that regard, it bares some comparison with Matt Reeves’s rather good Let Me In — though Losey’s M is at a greater distance from the Lang film than Let Me in is from Let the Right One In. Track it down if you get the chance.
For 1931 we also considered City Lights, Dracula Frankenstein, Public Enemy, Waterloo Bridge, Le Million and Tabu. Read the entire series here.