The examination of Fritz Lang and his work can be traditionally presented as a collection of distraught human beings in extraordinary circumstances. In the operatic Metropolis (1927), the protagonist is coaxed into becoming a hero for the downtrodden peoples of an entire society that lay at the feet of his own dominative father. Lang’s M (1931), critically analyzes a world teeming with an epidemic identity crisis.
Even for someone accustomed to the shadowy sub-culture often present in Lang’s oeuvre, the appearance of reality in the opening minutes of the film is fatally deceptive. Children playing ball, mothers ever dedicated to their laundry duties, and a little girl bouncing her ball down the street. The entirety of seemingly innocent, everyday occurrences meet an unexpected turn for the utmost evil when the girl’s ball innocently bounces into a reward sign for the capture of an active child murderer. Then suddenly, an ominous whistling comes from behind the girl (and camera) and a dark shadow falls upon the poster. The girl is abducted by this mysterious man and later, as her mother is frantically looking for her, it is clear that she is dead and will never be heard from again.
The director’s talent in this instance and throughout the movie is to restrain form showing us the overtly violent aspects of the murderer’s nature, and he instead switches focus to the additionally horrific and ever-imitated response of the mother and the society. Both are utterly aghast at the possibility of a human being capable of something as horrible as this. As one of the women says, they are used to “crooks get [ting] sort of tender when they see little kids,” and generally adding that “everyone has a little bit of mother inside.”
The response of the society comes from an unexpected source: the criminal underworld. Similar to the Metropolis underworld, these small-time crooks strive for independence and a dignity in their work amidst the increased police presence due to the recent child murders.
Peter Lorre as the marked man Hans Beckman plays his role with spot-on representations of paranoia and the dangers of obsession. When the mass jury of criminals finally confronts Hans, he exposes their own hypocrisy saying, “are you…proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards?” If they would take the liberty to rid themselves of worthless obsessions and go get a real job, then all that would be left would be people like Hans who have no choice. “It’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it.”
This involuntary impulse to murder resembles in a way the impulse of the film’s auteur to be continually in a mode of creation, even when the Nazis were looming over his beloved homeland. After transferring from Berlin’s Nero-Film to Paris for a year, Lang settled in the U.S., where his career with MGM would continue until his later years.
Scarce are films which posses the veracity to come clean about man’s diabolical nature. However unavoidable, it is far easier for studios to make people feel good about themselves and safe within their surrounding ethos. This is a restraint Lang seemed to warily steer around upon his American debut. An avid explorer of human behavior via film, even when critical and industrial opinions of him were increasingly malignant, Fritz Lang contributed to the world of cinema an extraordinary pallet of daring complexity and expression for future filmmakers.