Cinema is always at its most popular during times of strife, when our world is out of balance, off kilter. We look to the escapism of the cinema to fuel our fantasies, our imaginings, and our diversions. But what if the world we escape to is just as problematic as our reality? Aside from romance, crime is the most popular subject for film, so why are we are we escaping to such a dark places?
Last month we laughed through the bumbling antics of Professor Marcus and his motley crew in The Ladykillers, as their meticulous plan collapsed around them. While their greed was not exactly admirable, the pathos and humanity of their situation, as it all went wrong, fostered a spark of empathy. It’s not that we wanted them to succeed in their crime so much as to avoid failing quite so dismally. This raised an interesting idea: how do we as an audience interact with a crime film? Are the criminals that take centre stage supposed to be taken as heroes? Do we want them to succeed, to evade justice? When we connect and identify with the criminals, what does that say about us? We does it mean when we find ourselves cheering for the bad egg? Good is good, bad is bad…or is it?
Do we make films that attempt to understand the criminal, or do we want to connect to them, to empathise with them? Are we exploring our own troubled humanity or our own shock and repulsion at the world we have created? Germany in the 1930’s was the perfect melting pot for a conflicted human experience such as this. After their defeat in 1918, Germany became the most exciting and disturbing place on the planet. Home to the smoky intimacy of cabaret, the experimental theatre of Bertolt Brecht, and the revolutionary simplicity of Bauhaus, it was also suffering through massive hyperinflation, poverty, crime and the emergence of dangerous right-wing politics. It would be the the dark, manic world of German cinema that would combine a dark soul with a visionary eye.
Fritz Lang was the master of German cinema. Active in the industry since 1919, he had made more than a dozen films by 1931, when M was released, cementing his position as the leading innovator in film industry defined by innovation. M was his first sound film.
M, (or M – A City Searches for a Murderer) follows the hunt for a serial child murderer on the loose in Berlin. Having already killed four children by the times the film opens, it is his latest murder, of Elsie Beckmann (which takes place in the opening scnes) that spurs the community to act, forming a vigilante group to hunt down the murderer.
Lang cast 26-year-old Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, the murderer, a master-stroke that gives the film its edge, elevating it from a simple crime narrative to a psychological thriller and meditation on retribution, innocence and penitence. Together Lang and Lorre created a film that is a piercingly astute as well as a very modern study of a man who suffers awful remorse for the crimes, his uncontrollable urges that force him to commit these atrocities but also – and just as illuminatingly – an examination of how society might respond to the revelation that it is harbouring, somewhere, a child-killer.
In an interview Lang, who co-wrote the script with then-wife Thea von Harbou, commented that the choice of Lorre came from the actor’s face, which, in his opinion, was not the face of a child murderer. Of course, the bulk of Lorre’s hypnotic performance is primarily physical until his visceral outburst in the climatic scenes of the film, when he faces the delegation of vigilantes. Though the audience is tasked throughout the film with sharing Beckert’s perspective, it is during this scene, surrounded by the breadth of the criminal underworld, that we are faced not only with our own mixture of pity and horror but with the ghastly proposition that Beckert is human.
This is what makes M not only a classic film, but an important film. The humanity of evil is front and centre, both in the film and the world that was beginning to form around the film in Germany itself. We are reminded through this film and through Lorre’ performance that evil not only lives beside us, but it looks like us.