Reviews

Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

Fritz Lang

Germany, 1931

Credits

Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 02 January 2005

Source The Criterion Collection DVD

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The anonymous menace in Fritz Lang’s M enters the film in a silhouette. He is twice the height of his future victim, a young girl we identify by her toy ball and balloon that the murderer buys her. This scene concludes without any display of toil or harm, but with a ladder of static compositions that find the bouncing ball without its owner, an untended balloon caught in telephone wires, and the vacant corridors of the child’s home, underscored by a mother’s fraught requests for her absent daughter.

The nature of this crime is completely harrowing, and it is remarkable how Lang emphasizes not the visceral components of the crime but images of its establishment and result: an innocent young girl, and afterward the amenities and setting of her existence without her present. This and the killer’s other crimes instill paranoia in a closely-knit urban community, and the paranoia is sufficiently shared by the viewer. The community’s denizens blame anyone with little discrimination, and at one point capture an elder who gives a child the time from his pocket watch. This response is not entirely irrational, because at this point, early in the film, the killer’s identity is unknown.

In a desperate epidemic policemen fill the street, soliciting the late-night patrons at bars and releasing them one-by-one after observing their passports and frisking their pockets. Lang constructs the investigation cohesively—M is an absolute masterpiece of framing and composition. The viewer is keyed in on the investigation via architectural blueprints, schematic outlines, fingerprints, and in one obsessive instance an overhead tracking shot that exhibits a table of weapons the police confiscate. Not one frame in the film displays an act of harm on a child, but we are made familiar with the many potential victims, the ample evidence, and the available dark, damp locations. The ambience is one of stark and widespread menace.

M is considered to be the paramount serial killer profile, and it is not until midway through the film that the killer is identified (he is emblazoned with a scarlet letter in the film’s signature image). The tone changes entirely, and the viewer is manipulated to sympathize with the very source of the film’s harm. The initial murder is rendered without an identifiable executor, and once we meet him our suspicions are violated by his polite demeanor, kempt dress, and two enormous, frightful eyes.

The child killer, Hans, is trapped and persecuted illegally, not by a police force but by the relatives and parties that are affected by his crimes. He is imprisoned in a basement, and as he turns toward the middle of the expansive room the view pans across its endless perimeter, inhabited by dozens of people eager to witness his death. “Kill him!” they chant. His voice escalating in sincere requests for understanding, Hans engenders the viewer’s genuine sympathy.

M was banned in Germany as Jewish propaganda shortly after its release. The justification is predominantly racist, but the action is noteworthy as it endorses the very dynamic of the film: it sympathizes with a malicious killer and decidedly overlooks his crimes. The film contains no violence but is exceedingly suggestive, and allows the viewer to evaluate the primary character without specific knowledge of his practices. As such, M is the most dynamic profile of a serial killer in film.

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