Just recently I saw a mention of Fritz Lang's 1931 film M, on social media. Having been transfixed and enthralled by the same director's epic Metropolis, I resolved to watch M.
The story is set in Berlin, and centres on the hunt for a serial killer who is abducting and murdering children. At some point members of the city's criminal underworld decide to launch their own hunt for the killer, although the purity of their motives is open to question. Peter Lorre stars as the main suspect, Beckert.
From its beginning, this film displays a great inventiveness, grittiness and attention to detail, with much intriguing imagery and symbolism. The opening scene, in which some children are singing a "chant" about the murder of children, is rather chilling and powerfully but subtly presented. There can't have been too many films tackling such dark and challenging subject matter in the early 1930s.
Peter Lorre is never less than compelling in the role of Beckert, and his "monologue" towards the end of the movie is both gripping and harrowing.
M has some interesting sub-texts, among which are society's attitudes towards children, the rule of law and the decencies of civilization. I interpreted one of the film's messages as being that some people are ambivalent about even such terrible crimes, and more worried about how their own private interests might be affected, whilst others exhibit an unpleasant ferocity and hysteria, shedding their powers of reason.
It is fascinating to note that even in 1931 it is posited that criminal cases have become media events, although back then of course the main medium was the newspaper. The paranoia and distrust engendered by the murders is cleverly portrayed, accentuated by the generally dark tone and the sets.
One thing which occurred to me whilst watching this picture was a slight parallel with Erich Kastner's Emil and The Detectives. In that novel a group of youngsters try to solve a crime themselves. Here, the criminal elements do a similar thing, assisted by various locals, including beggars. Whether the similarity is significant I genuinely have no idea, but the two stories do appear to have been written around the same time.
I found M to be a highly absorbing film, cleverly conceived and asking some unsettling questions about modern society and human nature. Apparently Lang regarded this as his favourite among his own films, and that in itself is high praise indeed.