Fritz Lang’s first talkie – that’s how Netflix presented the movie to me. It’s amazing to see how quickly movies changed from the days of no sound and their pathos, to the current way of shooting movies. Seems like the jump from silent to sound was much more dramatic than that from black and white to color.
M is billed as one of the first thrillers ever shot. A young, quite effemminate man turns out to be a child killer out on the loose. The police are at a loss as to how to apprehend him, so they start raiding the underworld in search of a criminal. The bosses of the underworld start fearing for their business and chase the killer, as well. They know that once the child killings stop, the police will stop interfering.
At some point the two dragnets (police and underworld) converge around the same man. The underworld is faster and catches the man in a very dramatic hunt. The young man is put in front of a court of thieves and murderers and declared guilty and condemned to death. Just at the time when the populace starts closing in on him, the police raid the improvised justice hall and real justice is served.
I don’t know much about Fritz Lang’s political motives, but he seems to have picked up on a lot of the dominant themes of liberal thinking in ‘M’. In particular, the child killer is defended in a classical humanity defense, and the final scene (which is the one that most directly borrows from the silent movie tradition) presents the bereaved mothers as inconsolable, and not satisfied with any measure of justice, since it won’t bring back the children.
If liberalism was the director’s cause, then the movies makes obvious the dominant thinking of German society in the early Thirties. Ineptitude of government agencies (despite their good will), collusion with criminal elements (despite disgust) come to the fore as the main moral causes for the killings. The young mass murdered has a chance only because mothers don’t watch after their children, because the police don’t know any more who is a criminal and who isn’t.
As a symbolic act, in the race between the police and the underworld, the police loses because they are nice. That a raid will get the good guys to the bad guys is a deus ex machina made possible only by collaboration of a criminal.
As a whole, the movie rots of moral failings of a society that fails to protect the weakest. It is particularly revealing that, in all the almost two hours, it’s only the mothers that will speak up in defense of their children. Not one father speaks.