Many people do not like black-and-white films; and even fewer like black-and-white foreign films. However, Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) should change anyone’s mind. It is important to remember that much of what critics call “classic Hollywood” (and therefore “classic American”) cinema came from a time when artists of all kinds — filmmakers included — had fled Germany and other politically turbulent countries under the threat of the Third Reich. That being said, foreign movies before World War II have much in common with movies in America a few years later, so you might not find these foreign films so foreign.
In “M,” Peter Lorre plays a child murderer named Hans Beckert. It’s a very interesting film. Even though Lorre has the biggest role, he isn’t really the main character. In fact, the film has no main character because it has almost no point of view. It’s as though society is the main character.
The film opens with a spine-chilling children’s game where one child stands in the middle of the circle and points to each child for one word of a song at a time. The song she sings is about the serial killer, and if she’s pointing at you by the end of the song, you’re out — the killer got you. This not only horrifies the parents in the film, but it also freaks out the audience. Not many things are scarier than children singing about death.
The next sequence is a montage of suggestive shots. A girl is playing ball against a pole covered with wanted-person posters. Then, a shadow of a man slides over the sign. Among other things, the mother calling for her daughter, the empty yard outside, and the girl’s ball rolling out of a bush combine to drive the plot forward without directly showing what happens. A considerable amount of the movie is like this, with fragments of the story merging to create a bigger picture.
Though the police are coming down hard on the crime underworld, they only manage to arrest pickpockets and raid hangouts instead of catching the murderer. Lang cuts back and forth between top members of the underworld and the head detectives at the police station, with both groups trying, for their own reasons, to stop the attacks. In the end, it’s the collective underworld that captures him.
The film builds up so well to these final moments: the chase, the capture, and the judgment these petty thieves pass on Beckert. At the very end, Lang’s exceptional directing and Lorre’s passionate acting foster sympathy for Beckert, even after witnessing the atrocities executed by the killer. Indeed, that’s the main feature that German expressionists brought over to Hollywood: the examination and embrace of the dark side of humanity. Overall, “M” can be watched time and time again and still maintain its thrill and captivation.