There are some films that only exist as part of their moment – films that are instantly forgotten once they evaporate from cinemas, having made few conscious additions or innovations to their craft. Others, however, have an irrevocably forward gaze – films that seem so patently ahead of their time that they continue to shock, surprise and mystify audiences decades on. Such is the reputation of Fritz Lang's M, currently showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a season on actor Peter Lorre. Its stylistic accomplishments and depiction of relentless despair continue to have a forcible power, eighty-three years after it was first released.
Lang's first sound feature follows the attempts by police to track down and arrest a serial child-murderer, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), who is terrorising a German city. As the official investigation stagnates, Lang gives us a terrifying vision of a society dominated by angry vigilantism, in which the slightest suspicious behaviour draws a rabid crowd. Even a coalition of criminal bosses, their interests harmed through the constant presence of the police, join in the chase. Yet the cat-and-mouse aesthetic comes to be overlaid with searching questions. Is Beckert actually responsible for his actions? Is he genuinely insane, not fit to stand trial? The ambiguous closing scenes alone are powerful indications of the psychological complexity of the film.
M came out at the tail-end of an artistic movement known as German Expressionism; a movement that frequently utilised highly exaggerated set design, a focus on dreams and unreality, and characters in great extremes of mental state. Though the setting of Lang's film is the prosaic modern city, Lang selectively uses expressionist elements to underline the twisted nature of his premise. In particular, he makes a fascinatingly experimental use of sound. On a black screen at the beginning, one of the first things we hear is a chilling nursery rhyme about the 'nasty man in black' who kills children; later, silent scenes of police investigation are suddenly interrupted by shrill car horns and road traffic. There is also no musical score. To modern ears the soundtrack is particularly jagged, unnatural; it mirrors perfectly the discordance of the chaotic urban environment. Sound in M therefore becomes not a jovial novelty, as in so much cinema of its time, but a fully-fledged character in its own right.
Drawing everything together is Peter Lorre's performance. Introduced only in shadow as he addresses a young girl, we first see Hans Beckert's face, post-murder, as he gazes intently into a mirror; his freakish physical expressions are suggestive of Edward Hyde. Beckert is for a long time a truly elusive onscreen figure, a quality only reinforced by the constant wafts of cigarette smoke that shroud the frame. But he is soon identified and pursued. Eventually cornered by a rag-tag of city society, he violently tries to justify his atrocities, revealing his fragile inner self; Lorre lurches from desperate, high-pitched speech to grotesque, contorted mime, coming dangerously and disconcertingly close to gaining our sympathy. The actor would later gain a reputation for unsettling, heavily accented performances in American films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, but his impact in Germany was equally large. It was said that his mere presence on the streets of Berlin was enough to cause mothers with children to run, petrified, away from him.
Lang can't quite keep up the heightened tone all the way through, and the pace slows around the halfway mark. There's also no doubt that Metropolis, one of his previous films, is more visually dazzling. Yet the influence of M on later cinema is undeniable; nine years after it first surfaced, Hollywood would release Stranger on the Third Floor, widely regarded as the first example of American film noir. The noir genre, one of the most robust and artistically conscious of any, frequently featured a gritty police procedural, chiaroscuro lighting and an emphasis on psychology and criminality – all can be traced back to M. It's no coincidence Lorre starred in Stranger on the Third Floor. At a time in which people are enthralled by crime fiction on television and in literature, the image of the slinking, demonic Hans Beckert, retreating into the shadows of the modern metropolis having committed unspeakable atrocities, remains utterly compelling.
M screens at the BFI Southbank until October the 7th, and is also being screened at selected cinemas nationwide.