No 212 - M
Director - Fritz Lang
The lights dim and the cinema is washed in the crackling hiss of really old cinema. I've never really made the most of the fact that I'm a BFI member, but at least now I can say that I have seen an old and grainy, crackling and juddering piece of 1930's cinema, actually in the cinema. I have also finally had an overlap with Mr Dallas King who is doing the same thing as me, only ridiculously briefly. Check out his (500) Films of Empire blog to see what a film challenge REALLY is (this is more of a cinematic dawdle).
M is a curious beast it is a film that happens in peaks and troughs. Genuinely interesting moments seem to be bookended with long sequences in which nothing really happens. However it is important to remember that this is still the early days of cinema. Complaints like pacing seem a bit petty about a film which was made before such things were really concerns. Especially when there are some wonderful cinematic touches. From some ingenious camera positions (I particularly enjoyed the bonkersly unflattering worm's eye view of the chief of police) to some truly marvellous scenes. Scenes which probably secured this film's position in the top 500 and which I shall speak about later.
The film's subject matter is surprisingly dark. It is part of the BFI's Psycho season, so I'm aware that it was about a a murderer, however I did not know that the victims were little girls. This introduces a pretty horrible paedophile element into the killings and disappearances. Certainly the initial shots of the killer are fabulous, we see his hand or the back of his head and hauntingly, the broken fragments of a whistled rendition of 'Hall of the Mountain King'. This becomes the warning. If you hear that being whistled, it means he'll try and kidnap a child. Knowing these connotations kind of throws the Alton Towers adverts into a horrible new light.
Naturally - child catching is the lowest of the low and so not only do we have the entire police force after this figure but also the entire criminal fraternity. This part of the film seems to expertly juggle the fascinating and the tedious. Lang manages to show some wonderful bleakly-comic examples of mob mentality. Anyone who is seen being questioned by police or talking to a child is immediately branded the child killer and massively persecuted. However, interspersed throughout all of that we're faced with the meticulous process of paperwork and questioning used by the Police.
Due to their unlawfulness, the drama kicks up a notch when the criminals get involved, in their wonderful, almost cliche, departments. So we have representatives for pickpocketing (dressed commonly but with dozens of silver pocket watches), card sharking (a bit of a spiv who constantly shuffles a deck) and murder (think black leather gestapo chic) amongst others. They are the first to find the murderer and hunt him down. However once again we fall victim to Lang's pacing as we follow the meticulous search through the house until eventually they find the murderer.
And so, all is forgiven. Because when child killing psychopath Hans Beckert is thrown into a kangaroo court consisting of the entire criminal community of Berlin, we face an iconic and captivating scene.
This is mainly down to Hans Beckert's impassioned speeches and Peter Lorre's wonderful portrayal of him. He is a collapsed figure, huddled and crying, wide eyed and emotional. He is a shaking and terrified pathetic wreck of a man. When up against the hate and contempt of the court you start to pity the man. The fact that he can't help himself and that he really tries not to introduces a new dynamic into the film that is almost more uncomfortable than just dealing with a child killer. The film also points out the hypocrisy of the whole court. Beckert is tried for murder (of children admittedly) by a judge who is on the run for 3 counts of murder himself.
For a film which has been very generous with pacing, the final moments seem rushed as the police storm the kangaroo court and Beckert gets a proper hearing. Though we never know what judgement is actually decreed. Some would argue that it doesn't matter. He may be sent to jail, he may be sent to an asylum. It is hard to know what message Lang is trying to put across, but I think at the heart of it all is the film's final line:
This won't bring back our children. We, too, should keep a closer watch on our children.