There’s a tangible antipathy coasting throughout Fritz Lang’s M (1931), back in UK cinemas this week through the BFI. The mood is unbearable. Its set-pieces’ violent contours are unforgiving; laying their judgement on close-ups of scorned faces. The actors all seem to live in a state of fear. Their voices are either hushed, as if communicating secrets, or distressed, as is relieving themselves of their torment. Sound is used as both a spacial proliferation of tension and a sonorous release of noise (quite possibly one of the first of its kind to utilise such an indispensable technique). It’s a movie of constant unease and discomfort. It’s also no coincidence that Lang was aware of what was happening.
Lang’s first talkie and first proper introduction into the sound era seamlessly coincided with the brooding politics regime set to deface Berlin. In 1933, the film was officially distributed in the United States – the same year the Nazi party seized power in Germany. Despite M’s overriding keynotes and impressions, its central narrative is wholly simple. A child murderer, played by the impenetrably talented Peter Lorre, silently ravages a German town. Beside themselves with desperation to capture the culprit, the local authorities unite with the criminal underworld on a witch hunt. Lorre lurks almost innocently through dim-lit passages and sleazy whereabouts, whistling Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s now renowned In the Hall of the Mountain King (actually whistled by Lang for the recording).
As the rise of Nazism gnawed at the patience of the artists and intellectuals of the world, M was banned. Initially, Lang was applauded for his utopian rhetoric found in his previous masterpieces. This, on the Nazis’ part was a total misinterpretation of Lang’s intentions. Upon release, Lorre’s Jewish origins forcibly uprooted him to safety in Paris. Lang, having been offered the prestigious position of Minister of Movies, joined Lorre, where they were later met with open arms by Hollywood. M remains a haunting relic of societal change. Berlin’s implied decadence is all but replaced by a palpable air of dirt and discomfort. And, what remains distinct even by today’s standard of serial killer movies, is Lorre’s performance. He stares confused and weak directly at his audience. He asks for forgiveness and defends his actions that he deems to be “evils of torment”. It’s the type of allegorical splendour we’ve very rarely been able to implicate in cinema since. For Lorre and Lang, however, the evils were all too present and all too powerful.