As I mentioned last week, film has the phenomenal ability to entangle the fates of its characters with the fates of its viewers. These intimate connections can last beyond the length of the film, burrowing themselves deep in our subconscious only to sporadically reappear in our world despite our expectance. Our connections to the characters can make or break a film; when we feel genuinely connected to a character, it’s a good film. If we can’t connect to any of the characters; it’s a bad film. (I use the word ‘connected’ in the since that when we are connected to a character, if they suffer a bad fate, we emotionally suffer, when they succeed, we are emotionally uplifted… at least a little.)
However, this is not always the case.
“M” (Lang, 31) is a psychological thriller set in Germany in the 1920’s or 30’s. In this film, a child-abducting serial killer, played by Peter Lorre, is on the loose and has the entire city in a frenzy. Both the police force and criminal underworld work separately to track him down, the latter being ultimately successful. Overall, the film is powerful, suspenseful, and cinematically beautiful.
The first time I saw “M," I kept trying to pinpoint a protagonist, someone to attach to, someone to intertwine myself with. Who was going to be the hero to emerge out of this dark thriller? In a murder mystery, my first instinct for a protagonist is the detective. Yet, the detectives in this film are far from brilliant, clever, or interesting. The criminals that track down Hans Beckert (the murderer) aren’t exactly the heroic type either. In fact, the closest thing to a protagonist in this film is the unyielding criminally appointed defense lawyer of Beckert, and he isn’t introduced until the final ten minutes of the film.
With no protagonist to attach to, I consider my other option. Hans Beckert. The poor defenseless child murder. But something about that doesn’t sound right… While Beckert does make a very noble and powerful, though slightly pitiful, plea for his life at the end of “M,” I find it really difficult to truly attach myself to a child murderer.
Unattached as I may have felt after watching “M,” I still loved it. Maybe it was the wonderfully cinematic quality of the entire film. There were some beautifully twisted shots; Fritz Lang found an incredible way to draw us uncomfortably close to many of the characters while still keeping us separated. There is a fantastic shot of Beckert as he takes two shots of hard liquor before preying on another young girl. The camera is brought slowly towards the crossing wooden planks of the thin fence separating us from Beckert. We peer through the holes of the fence and right into Beckert’s conflicted head. The film is full of other cinematically tense moments. This is certainly part of the reason the movie is so great.
Aside from how well shot and put together the film is, I still think there is something that keeps me emotionally connected, especially during the second half of the film. I believe the emotional connection stems from a sense of justice. Though I’m not attached to a character, I am attached to some moral obligation. By the end of the movie, I wasn’t rooting for a particular character, I was rooting for the right thing to be done. I wanted Beckert to get his fair trial. I think it is why his defense lawyer comes off as such a hero. At the end of the film, I think what the viewer hangs on to, is what monsters the citizens of the city had become. The ‘innocent’ people of the city become an angry, dangerous mob completely opposed to the idea of giving Hans Beckert a fair trial. In fact, throughout the film, we see many instances of injustices, and not just among criminals. The police force wants to break into homes, invade the privacy of their citizens, in order to find the murderer. The citizens want a killer, more correctly, a man who is severely ill, to suffer the treatment of a dog. We see corruption among criminals, police, and citizens. Thus, when justice ultimately wins out, barely, it is a sigh of relief.
Connections happen all the time in film… not necessarily to characters. Inevitably, we find something to cheer for. In the case of “M,” we end up putting our fate in the hands of truth and fairness, and by the end, we are moderately satisfied.
“M” is wonderful film and offers much more to discuss. Unfortunately, I’m out of room.
“M” was released in 1931. 117 minutes, 1.20:1 Aspect. Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang and directed by Fritz Lang.