M opens with the voices of children merrily reciting a rhyme about a killer who chops up his victims with a cleaver. Innocence joins hands with horror, disturbingly linking the kids with Hans Beckert, the compulsive child-murderer whose pudgy cheeks, tiny hands, and fear-swollen eyes provoke both revulsion and pity. The monster on the loose cracks society open to reveal its rotten innards: the public becomes a mob whipped into grotesque hysteria; the criminal underworld proves even more callously efficient than the law. “Who is the murderer?” signs pointedly ask. Fritz Lang promoted the factual origins of the film, inspired by newspaper reports of real events and by the pitiless clarity of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. Two years before the Nazis came to power in Germany – prompting both Lang and star Peter Lorre to leave the country – the film gazes with detached sympathy at disabled beggars, the mentally ill, and housewives worn down by drudgery.
Two-thirds of Lang’s first sound film was shot silent, and the post-dubbed score innovates with sound bridges, off-screen noises, voiceover, and tension-thickening dead silence. The first 10 minutes of M are constructed with a precision at once musical and surgical: oblique high-angle shots are ominously counterpointed by mundane sounds, building to a haunting montage of shots – a spiraling staircase, laundry hanging in an empty attic, a vacant place at the table, and a child’s balloon caught in telephone wires – as a mother vainly calls her missing daughter. Lorre was best known at the time for his stage work with Bertolt Brecht, but after his breakthrough in M the shadow of the child-killer would always pursue him, just as Beckert describes being chased by himself, running down empty streets surrounded by the ghosts of mothers and children. Beckert’s scalding climactic speech never loses its raw power; there is no escaping the accusation of his tormented shriek: “Who knows what it’s like inside me?”
Imogen Sara Smith
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang. F.: Fritz Arno Wagner. M.: Paul Falkenberg. Scgf.: Emil Hasler. Int.: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (mamma Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Gustaf Gründgens (lo scassinatore), Friedrich Gnaß (il ladro), Fritz Odemar (il giocatore), Paul Kemp (il borseggiatore), Theo Lingen (il truffatore), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (capo della polizia), Franz Stein (il ministro). Prod.: Seymour Nebenzahl per Nero-Film AG. 35mm. D.: 110’. Bn.
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