Fritz Lang is one of the great names of cinema. He's one of my inspirations, too. When I watched a screening of Metropolis at 14, it was something magical. Generally, we look back at early cinema not in terms of art but in how backwards it is, and how much cheese there is. Yet Metropolis was able to convey a futuristic landscape better in some ways than what you would see in the Tomorrowland trailer. Of course, it's been nearly four years since I saw that. But I've always wanted to delve into Lang's other works, and M is his other most talked about films - amongst a vast canon of both German and Hollywood films. If you're interested in his work, I definitely recommend the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. Last December on the Berlin trip my History teacher gave me and a friend permission to divert off from the rest of the school party and see a few other things - including the Kinemathek and the Soviet War Memorial. The Kinemathek is a beauty to behold, from a wall of cinema screen mirrors, archive recreations, set recreations (including on of M, if I recall correctly), and even a half scale Maria from Metropolis!
For weeks, my mum thought M was obviously a sequel to Metropolis. As if sequels with obscure names were a thing during the 1930s.
When you compare the two, M is a far different beast. No longer a future fused with Biblical themes, it's contemporary Germany. Mass hysteria abounds about child abduction. The conflict between the concept of 'evil' and mental health issues. Sound familiar? The opening images of the solemn working mass of Metropolis seemed a comment on mid-20s Germany, but M is a more obvious one. Much has been said about how it reflects a Germany on the verge of Nazism, anticipating the rise of the party. However, these readings are ones I wish to avoid. There is brutality, notably with a ruthless police searching a bar for papers from every last man. These could easily be traded for the Sturm-Abteilung or the Gestapo. However, whilst the Nazis seemed want to eradicate the Weimar era from existence, we should not forget this film was produced during the Weimar era. There can be shades of sides of the political spectrum, but the Sonderweg thesis should not be freely applied to every piece of art from the 1920s and 30s. A better perspective to approach this film is in terms of morality and also its images.
The early sound era was an interesting period, both in terms of experimentation and adaptation. Today, 5.1 surround sound is a normality. And even when apart from a cinema or home cinema setting, stereo is the standard. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) blended the traditional silent movie with sound sequences, creating both contrast but also creating the effect where sound really does feel like an alien thing. Even Lang's silent Metropolis suggests a sound world of pure machinery, something that has been explored in edited versions of the film. But for much of M, the sound is dulled. There is no musical soundtrack, which only helps to ground it in contemporary Germany more. Because sound is a powerful device, and you don't need music over every frame to reinforce that. The power is in the image. The soundtrack is the screams of a mother ("Elsie!"); the trademark whistling of a killer; the mass populous demanding justice.
It's pure noir, before Hitchcock popularised it. The film is perfectly suited to monochrome, framing people in silhouette within a grey, dull world. Most notable amongst Lang's experimentation is the employment of a kinetic camera. It's used sparingly, and most of the shots remain perfectly fine completely still. The most jaw dropping moment is at 43 minutes in, where we see the camera moves from various tables of patrons through to a man tendering leberwurst, follows him adjusting prices on the whiteboard, and then moves upwards and through a window (it's easy to notice the pane being removed to allow the camera through, but anyway), past a police desk and into the crowds. It hints at a one shot narrative, something rarely attempted but can be perfect. It's tedious, and takes about a minute for the camera to complete its journey. It's wobbly, and almost certainly was only filmed once. Done today, and it would be a perfectly smooth motion, completed in 20 seconds at most. But perhaps that says something about the mediocrity of life? It is slow moving and it is boring. It's just a series of small boring instances, like waiting at the counter, growing slowly more bored as every second passes.
Whilst watching this film, I ended up questioning why golden age films are so interesting. They're far from perfect. The standout moments are few and far between, and halfway through I was shocked to find myself disinterested. Today, it wouldn't be a 2 hour film, it would be a 1 hour police procedural. The heist sequence is so slow moving, it could be a 5 minute sequence of intercut shots with some jazzy music over it. But this isn't Ocean's Eleven. It's slow, and to expect a 360 degree film - by which I mean a film where the world is built through the use of multiple angles - isn't what you're going to get. Part of what makes the films interesting is that it is prototypical. It may not be the most brilliant application of these ideas, but it is the genesis. What was to come was born out of this.
Lang even raises the unresolvable cliffhanger, before EastEnders and a flurry of sequels made that impossible. We see a real life courtroom, but no elaboration is needed.
If you want to watch the full film, it's available on YouTube (I believe in the public domain), but if you want the full experience, I recommend buying the Blu-Ray - Criterion Collection in the US and Masters of Cinema in the UK.