M (1931) – The Fire, the Voices, the Torment!

★★★★ ½

Digesting old works in the long history of cinema feels a loss if you still didn’t appreciate what cinema is in the first place. I know, I sound like a hipster with such a sentence. But, the world feels lost if they showing their regret. A pinch of regret descended upon many people, especially moviegoers, seeing modern films. Talking about old cinema, we always talk about Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and other filmmakers. If you go further back, you will find German expressionism. In more detail, you talk about Fritz Lang, one of the most influential directors of all time.

Speaking of Fritz Lang, all I know is “Metropolis” which is one of the influential science fiction as well. We often see this influence, especially in anime. Directors and cartoonists such as Katsuhiro Otomo and Osamu Tezuka are one of the few names I mention. “Metropolis” is one of the most powerful films both from the unique way of speaking about the feud of the elite and middle society to a presentation of the future. Of course, silent films during this time are rarely in the lyrics. It’s including the original “Metropolis”. Many people forgot the original exists. In fact, “Metropolis” became one of Fritz Lang’s most powerful films.

With “M” which is one of the rich films I have ever seen especially it’s a 30s movie, I’m aware of what things we need to remember when talking about film as an art form. “M” is mindblowing because of the effectiveness of how Lang conveys. Seeing people in the film is like seeing a dystopian city without anything interesting. However, it was this effect that made “M” the most advanced film of its time. Like Charlie Chaplin, who stays in silent films, Lang doesn’t stutter in the face of a new technology called celluloid tape. Even like that, Lang was the first time to utilize the brand-new feature of the cinema.

“M” puts forward the voice as an element of building nuances of terror. There is a whistle without the support of explicit content and an exaggerated score. The whistle is in a suburb of Berlin, reminding the psychopath to use such signs to kidnap the children. It’s just a sound and images, too much contrast if juxtaposed with other meanings. We were only treated to a poster about a missing child. A shot alternately, a woman is waiting for her daughter to arrive home after school. A girl is playing with her ball. Suddenly, a shadow of the psychopath was seen behind the poster of the missing child. We know how it looks. But, more horror again when we never see where the girl is again. Is she dead or executed? We never know, but that’s part of the terror.

“M” can mean anything but we always conclude if “M” means murder. However, there are many interpretations regarding the one sentence. We know who “M” is. Peter Lorre as the psychopath looks, appears and lives like an ordinary person. However, his other character we never know is a psycho. A journalist writes a newspaper with a request to be sought and arrested him as soon as possible. On the other hand, the film doesn’t try to dramatize the terror of the kidnapping crime.

Lang emphasized the suspense through the continued impact of the killer’s actions in Berlin. Both the authorities, the police, and also the mafia, they are competing to find the killer. It includes them blaming each other, pointing each other, and enforcing one another. A theme of human dehumanization indeed looks especially when you have reached the end of the movie. Other parties were affected by the killer’s actions. The society isn’t satisfied with seeing the performance of the authorities, especially since they cannot prevent the arrival of new victims. All efforts are made as much as possible even the mayor presses the police chief. Then, the top brass put all his resources into chasing one person. Tragedies in the city continue to occur, occur, and occur again.

For a film in the 30s, it’s astonishing to see that cinema can exploit mental illness especially at the end of the movie. On closer inspection, there is no explicit content in this film. It’s a horror movie but not for everyone. Of course, if you are a film student, you are forced to watch this film until you fall asleep; as well as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”. With “M”, it’s more like an exploration of what is missing in society, what the problem is, and how to fix it. We see various kinds of nightclubs, champagne, smoking people, and bars.

Speaking of smoking, I think this is one of the movies that almost every frame is filled with smoke. Almost every character smokes in this film even if the camera only focuses on the silhouettes and shadows of the characters. In one room containing about 10 people and all of them were smoking. The beauty of the frame lies in using the smoke naturally because you don’t see it anymore in modern films, emphasizing cigarette smoke as the most natural element in this film. It’s effective through the arrangement of images, sounds, gestures, to portraits of people who don’t care.

Fritz Lang always uses speech. On the other hand, he also often shows irony especially an act between the police and the mafia. He displays these images nomadically, highlighting a group of people discussing and debating. They accuse each other, spread wrongdoing and disgrace, and also discuss a plan to arrest the culprit. There isn’t much going on in this movie until it reaches the second act regardless of a little bit repetitive. You just watched the chase scene to get to the top. Wide-angle trying to capture the atmosphere of society feels rage and anger. Minor aspects highlight various expressions of the faces of each character. It’s hard, cold, close, and there’s not the slightest sympathy within. This is also the most widely used at the end of the movie.

The third act of “M” is more of a portrait of judgment day especially when the psychopath is captured and used as material anger for the victim’s parents. It’s more like a tract of moral philosophy, about fighting good and evil in an absurdly individual but, it’s hard to sympathize. Do we have to sympathize with the victim? Do we have to sympathize with the psychopath because he has an identity disorder? All in all, this movie overturns a stereotype, clearly, simultaneously interprets the theme of the urban configuration of class struggle. Like “Metropolis”, “M” uses the theory of Marxism in showing the ambiguity of peace and slavery.

“M” is a form of terror not in the form of a cliche but a delusive awareness of anger in every individual. Bandwagon might be the right word to describe an embodiment of a mob. Paranoid and irrational desires suddenly appear. They can only catch and immediately judge even the person was wrong. In contrast, they also always uphold justice without knowing what the true meaning of such an event was. Of course, you might think that Becker is a pure character compared to every character in this film. Even Becker is one of the most memorable characters in this film as well. All the pathology of psychology and time, invisible terror slipped behind a visual awareness.

“I can’t escape, I have to obey it, I have to run, run endless streets. I want to escape, to getaway! And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of their children they never leave me. They are always there always, always, always!” – Becker. With this line, it’s probably the most haunting line I’ve heard in a movie and not in any film. Supported by Peter Lorre’s terrifying performance, his speech opens our eyes wide about what is wrong with us.

Watching “M” reminds me of what makes films very, very powerful in all kinds of aspects. The tone of disintegration is always attached after watching this movie even though it’s one of the hardest experiences as well. What exactly is the film? Is it trying to open your eyes wide or just a film as an entertainment form? It’s probably in-between. With this movie, Lang takes us to one of the pinnacles of cinema achievement and introduces a new movement in the film world both in terms of filmmaking including art.

Salman Al Farisi

An Indonesian who loves to watch and read everything. A literary student who likes to write about reviews and essays on Crackdown Review. But, I just wannabe critics who love arthouse than anything.

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