10 years ago I saw Fritz Lang’s M in an intro class on film history. I recall jotting down some notes about Nazism and early sound. Over the intervening decade I took its greatness for granted. Now, upon revisiting it, the film feels startling and fresh. Its structure remains radical, emphasizing forensic methodology for the first half and a tightening manhunt in the second. (Ostensible star Peter Lorre is onscreen for maybe a quarter of the film.) It’s more about the throng than the individual, with a George Grosz-like attention to urban disarray. How, ask both cops and criminals, do you monitor a populace? Despite its lurid narrative, M bears strong resemblance to Walter Ruttmann’s montage doc Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. It depicts the metropolis from top to bottom, indoors and out.
For a story of child murder, M also displays a sick sense of humor. The famed sequence of shots cutting from Elsie Beckmann’s newly bereaved mother to a stairwell, attic, dinner table, ball, and balloon isn’t exactly a joke, but it is droll, and its drollness is nauseating. Later in the film, Lorre’s Hans Beckert stalks a little girl past a row of shops, ducking into a doorway when her mom shows up. The two of them walking past while he faces away is a punchline familiar from dozens of slasher movies: the near-victim oblivious to her brush with death. More overt gags predominate during a police raid on an underground bar. One fugitive tries to sneak up a secret exit; when he sees a patrolman’s boots blocking it, he sneaks back, hanging up his hat with an air of resignation.
Lorre himself looks boyish with his bowtie and his egglike head. He’s cartoony rather than intimidating, a stranger in an overcoat, until the climactic burlesque of a trial renders him hysterical. This outsider (Außenseiter, says the Mabuse-like kingpin) is the right villain for a film of such supreme moral irony. Most of M digresses from the killings to the citywide panic they incite, revealing a spectacle of violence, hypocrisy, and fear. Yet it’s subtle, each segment snapping into the next, all part of the broader investigation. The film was a trailblazing procedural, and it lays its subject bare. What is police procedure? It’s how people with power get things done.