Like all good film noirs from this generation, M shows the power and moral struggle between underground criminals and above-the-law policemen. Who should dispense justice to the child murderer? Is it the law, run by corrupt men of the privileged class? Or should it be by a jury of his fellow criminals, who have a more quotidian understanding of the law and of the state? Lang leaves this question open; the viewer is thus made complicit in this moral quandary. The three key archetypes of the film – M the murderer, the mob, and the cops – each pull at our sympathies, and it is clear that while we may side with one of them morally, there is no just way to dispense justice.
M was Fritz Lang’s first non-silent film, but his silent film roots are unmistakable: a montage of shots (an empty bowl, a clock, a child’s ball, and a balloon trapped in telephone lines) suggestive of a murder; a most insidious use of a song from Peer Gynt, and most of all, the close shots of Peter Lorre’s expressive, bulging, and guilty eyes. For those of us used to quick cutaways in the typical police procedural, this film feels darker, Kafka-esque in worldview.
M. Dir. Fritz Lang.Nero-Film AG, 1931. In German.