…..Children are playing in an echoing basement. They are standing in a circle, facing each other, awaiting the fate of the child in the middle with the pointing finger to tell them they are out. She sings a song which jarringly resonates into the silence…
“Just you wait, it won’t be long. The man in black will soon be here. With his cleaver’s blade so true. He’ll make mincemeat out of YOU!”
This instant dislocation of our comfort, this collision of silence with high-pitched sound, which marks the first collision of Fritz Lang with the sound movie itself, sets the tone for M: the story of a psychopathic child murderer in 30’s Berlin. It’s not just the jubilant ringing of children’s voices that soar out like ghosts through the urban landscapes of this haunting place – it’s the peasant woman screaming ‘Elsie! Elsie!’ for her lost child through her empty high-rise building; the police sergeant exasperatedly explaining his thus far methods in attempting to track down this elusive kiddie murderer over the phone in very enunciated German; and above all, before we’ve even seen him, the whistled tune of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by ‘M’ – Hans Beckett – himself.
What kind of gigantic lightbulb has to go off above you head for you to realise, on your first expedition into sound films, in 1931, that you can utilise it as a narrative vehicle, hand in hand with the imagery? Every reverberating whistle lets us know, without seeing explicitly, that innocence is about to be perverted.
It’s almost as if the spectrum of our anxiety and fear in M – the fear of children being snatched on the one end, and the fear of the murderer who snatches them on the other – is reduced to one thing. Beckett (played by Peter Lorre) is portrayed as victim to his own inner demon, which compels him to do monstrous things. His tentative, bewildered, tortured manner presents him in a semi-sympathetic light, like a drug addict who can’t help but be swayed into his dark ways. He is hunted down ferociously by the police, the criminal and the begging communities, and when cornered both physically and mentally by the retelling to him of his actions, he crumbles, unable to stand the truth under the spotlight. Who has all the power in the film? In the end, it is the unbeatable authorities that prevail. The children (the victims) are only seen frolicking along unknowingly, or else being ushered away inside by their parents. And the predator (Beckett) is lost in a tornado of blundering torment. He scribbles out threatening notes to the press with a red pencil, scrawling across the page with an infant’s hand…
So it is innocence and weakness which is the real threatening enemy in M, and that which we are led to be afraid of. It is something that can’t be controlled or understood in the camp of the ordered masses. One of the greatest pleasures in the story is observing the blatant similarities between the criminal community and the police, who, whilst glutinously revelling in their own privilege, literally smoking up a hazy storm in their brooding contemplation, plot to stamp out that which effects their business and reputation. The violated community of mothers and children appears a very separate entity to that of the powers that run the city, who move as one angry swarm.
Lang’s use of shadows as not only a means of dark aesthetic continuity but as a way to imprint meaning on the film in M has unboundedly influenced filmmakers. What does this gothic imagery evoke? Spectrums, lurking predators, voices that follow you that you can’t see… above all, the ever-present voice of power that is always just behind you, stripping you of autonomy (as Beckett explains in his final revelatory breakdown as a murderer). M suggests, rather than tells us, of the kind of Berlin that Lang was living in, and it does it beautifully.
The restoration we saw for the BFI’s Peter Lorre season had removed added-on sound from multiple shots, leaving no diegetic sound at all at times and just ringing silence. The original length of 117 minutes was also approached with 111 minutes. I cannot imagine a more acute recreation of the original conditions that Lang would have wanted the film to be seen under, and all my previous worries of not enjoying a film I’d already seen so many times on the big screen, evaporated.
Visit the BFI Petter Lorre season for remaining screenings this month!