The Generationally Transcendental Power of Fritz Lang's 'M'

An exploration of how Fritz Lang was able to place a striking message of authority versus community in his 1931 piece 'M'. 

Often, we see films like “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” cited as ‘must-watches’. Whilst these classic films do offer a well thought out insight into the formation of the cinema we indulge in now, their inciting traits and concepts have been mastered in the more contemporary age. “M” (Fritz Lang, 1931, Germany), however, is an example of a classic that has transcended the need for development, as the narrative it presents is masterful in both its presentation and its prominence in all generations. 

“M” is the story of the conflict between authority and community in the capture and treatment of a child murderer. When a child disappears seemingly out of sight, the incompetence of the authority causes the town’s citizens to find their own methods in seeking out the killer. Once found, it is up to authority to stop communal justice from being delivered. Whilst having notable characters - most notoriously in Peter Laurie’s solitary, outcasted murderer - the focus on the sense of two opposing forces fighting for the same goal overwhelms the film in beautifully collective scenes, from the starkly silent individual interrogations of a full pub to a climatic reversal, brimming with constant shots almost from the murderer’s perspective, perfectly depicting the sense of impossible

This is influenced by the use of location in ‘M’: from the winding labyrinth of each carefully constructed street, to the immensely underground scale of the aforementioned pub and basement-court - even to each level of the station in which the murderer is found - these settings, and all those used, are used to their zenith of benefit, encapsulating an audience through scale and atmosphere. 

Through these techniques, Lang is able to deliver a plot that holds a jarring significance to the modern world. Unlike “Metropolis”, however, the significance lies not in how the future has been predicted, but moreso how our present lies almost unchanging from our past. This lies not only in a resistance to the grasp of attempted authority (with the mandated curfew being oh-so close of our current situation), but also in the case of the  determinism of evil, a constant question that will find itself brought up every year. It’s no wonder Lorre’s character is often interpreted more as a pedophile than a murder: the question of whether pedophilia as a disorder is only solved through capital punishment or is able to be treated through therapy is one with controversial points on both sides, further spreading the question from one of its origins here. While it may throw some audience members off, due to its lack of certain answers, we still find ourselves in the same position of uncertainty: the lack of an answer is, in essence, the true answer to the struggle of the film. 

Filmmakers still find themselves enamoured by this piece. Even in Ben Wheatley’s recent adaptation “Rebecca”, the iconic M-over-the-shoulder found itself replicated, in pure homage: a clip so desired, it found itself into the trailer. M’s profound impact on the future of cinema has not been one of those striving to improve its original message, but one of appreciation for how a film at the starting technological foundations of the medium is able to project a social message to last across generations. 

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Jacob Rose

Jacob Rose

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