M by Fritz Lang
If it weren’t for this film, we’d never have movies like Silence of the Lambs, movies that investigate topics like the serial killer and what drives them. Directed by Fritz Lang, most famous for his sci-fi classic Metropolis, M tells the story of the efforts by both the German police and the underworld to catch a child murderer. The police are harangued on every side by angry citizens and politicians seeking results. Mass paranoia grips the city, and every one starts accusing each other. The underworld steps in, because business is getting bad. The police are raiding the city bars and flophouses, upsetting business. Lang’s use of editing is quite clever, drawing the obvious parallels between the efforts of both sides in not-so-obvious ways.
The use of violence is always kept offscreen, instead relying on the viewer’s imagination. Instead of showing us a dead body, we see the balloon held by the child floating away or the empty place setting where they should be sitting. It may not be as visceral, but it certainly adds to the atmosphere.
I believe this may have been one of the first films to see its villain as a human, albeit a mentally disturbed human, rather than as just a cold-blooded killer. Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the killer is quite well-done, as a man who can’t remember or control what he does, but is always horrified by what he is.
The final scene is especially poignant, and sticks with me the most. A group of now-childless mothers lament the fact that they should’ve kept a closer eye on their children, that if they’d done that, their tragedy could have been avoided. It’s interesting in light of what’s going on in society today, in an age when everyone wants to blame someone else for the tragedies that take place in our youth. It has to be the movies, or the gun manufacturers, or the music industry, but never ourselves who are to blame. Lang seems to be arguing against that idea, instead seeming to say that those who suffer the most may also be the ones ultimately most responsible.
In some ways, the film may be dated, but the messages and ideas that M conveys will never grow old as long as darkness exists in man’s heart.